We Happy Few is an action-adventure/survival and horror game that has a frankly extraordinary history.
Starting out an idea, the developers (Compulsion Games) started developing this game and funding it via crowdfunding sources, such as kickstarter, where they successfully funded the game to the point where they could (and did) offer certain patrons early access on PC.
It’s the game that was never supposed to have been, but whilst playing this, one recurring thought is “I’m glad this game got made”. I sank 17 hours into the game at Power Up Coffee, in Paisley, Scotland, and a further 10 hours at home to complete the game properly.
We Happy Few follows the lives of three separate and distinct characters as they try to survive around the fictional English town of Wellington Wells. It takes place during an alternate history of the UK, where the UK lost World War 2, and the Germans invade, shortly before leaving with all the children under the age of 13.
However, this is a ruse as the German “tanks” turn out to have been made of Paper-Mache. To stop the embarrassment and anguish, the British Government works hard at wiping out the memory of this event, and creates a pill called “Joy”. I’ll discuss Joy in detail later on. So, who are the characters?
Arthur is a “Redactor”, which means that his job is to redact potentially harmful pieces of news that could affect the status quo for people living in Wellington Wells that use the pill called Joy.
There’s a real “Soylent Green” feel to this, and Arthur is one of the biggest nods to this. He’s not exactly the leader of the revolution, but he’s also a real nod to Winston Smith from 1984.
At the start of the game, it’s revealed that Arthur has stopped taking his Joy, which annoys Victoria Byng, and when he refuses to take his Joy again, he’s sacked, and chased out of the town of Wellington Wells.
He’s called a “downer” (not a slur on disabled people given the context), and tries to find his brother, who mysteriously vanished during World War 2. Aided by certain characters, Arthur discovers the truth about “The Very Bad Thing”, and parts of the lore in the video game. His skill is stealth, and brings a real survival element to the game.
Sally is one of the more interesting characters to play, as she is neither a brawler or stealth character. She starts off in the game as a scientist, who gets herself kicked out of the chemistry lab she works in.
She’s created a new flavour of Joy, as the previous three versions of this drug have lost their effects on certain residents of Wellington Wells, creating “wastrels”. At the start of her gameplay, she’s kicked out by a secondary antagonist, Anton Verloc, and is forced to make more of this experimental new batch by scrounging around the town.
Whilst this happens, there is also something else you have to consider: Sally is the mother of the first child to be born in Wellington Wells since “The Very Bad Thing”. Between herself and Arthur, they have to simultaneously work out how to escape the area and head to the mainland of the UK, whilst keeping the baby alive. It’s a frustrating mechanic, but it adds some real emotional scope to the game, whilst keeping the game evenly paced.
Voiced by Allen James Cooke, of Killjoys fame, Ollie Starkey is one of the few (pun intended) characters that doesn’t really feel like a nod to any particular dystopian novels or bits of pop culture (except for perhaps Begbie from Trainspotting).
He’s a former British Army Soldier, who lives on the outskirts of Wellington Wells, called the Garden District. His playable type feels more like a brawler to play, and here is where the inner anarchist inside everyone gets a chance to play.
He’s strong, insane, and great fun to hear his asides. His introduction, however, is one of the saddest experiences I’ve had whilst playing. Both Ollie and Sally are introduced whilst you play as Arthur, but Ollie is sat in his hideout, whilst talking to two mannequins.
It turns out that Ollie believes and hallucinates that one of the mannequins is his daughter, Margaret. Watching this hulking brute of a man break down like this is absolutely astonishing, and it’s a moment filled with a dark, sarcastic pathos.
His arc is brilliant to play, and the easiest part of the game, but is also the story filled with the most sadness. Arthur’s is disturbing, Sally’s is hopeful, but Ollie’s is as bleak as the garden districts for which he resides.
The Paint Job (Have you taken your joy this morning?)
Normally, I don’t give an entire segment to how a game looks, but for We Happy Few, I have to make the exception. We Happy Few is an exceptionally beautiful game, with visually stunning moments throughout. From the visually bleak tunnels and abandoned buildings in the Garden Districts to the Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory-esque look of Wellington Wells when you take your Joy.
The really amazing thing is what happens when you take your Joy when your Joy Levels start to falter. The game goes from bleak and horror styled to 1960’s hippie looking, with bright hues, brilliant colours and a sun-washed feel.
The mechanic is so beautiful, that you almost wish you could play the game permanently on Joy, but alas, that’s the point. The residents and denizens of Wellington Wells are addicted to Joy to the point where they’ll pay for their good times by forgetting the truth, and just taking another pill: It’s almost reminiscent of the conversations surrounding an impending current event.
Whilst we talk about how brilliant Joy is, there is something else we have to consider: what happens when you don’t take Joy. The game tells you that the residents will try to make you take your joy, but in reality, they will try to kill you, in some of the most English ways imaginable.
During my playthrough, I have been killed in the following ways: Been battered to death with a cricket bat, been drowned in the pond by psychotic police officers, whipped to death by a seductress with a riding whip whilst in a brothel (of sorts, and I was in there for storyline purposes) and most memorably mauled to death by little old ladies.
When you die in the game, there’s a newspaper clipping with the character you’re playing’s face on it, telling Wellies that you’ve gone to rest on holiday. This is one of the most fun aspects of the game. The game uses extremely inventive euphemisms for each time you die.
For example, when I first died as Arthur Hastings (and yes, that’s a Poirot reference), I got battered to death by a Policeman who used his baton. For this, the game said I’d suffered a head injury by falling over. Brilliant.
The gameplay has four different modes: Easy, Medium, Hard or Custom. For your first play-through, I strongly recommend that you play on the “easy” mode, or use the custom difficulty setting, as the game’s difficulty curve is similar to that of Dark Souls when you play on the hard setting.
That’s no exaggeration either. The game is superbly frustrating to play at hard difficulty, and the normal setting is hard enough for most players of RPGs, but the hard setting veers into nigh-on impossible territory.
To give you a comparison point, it makes Doom look like a trip to the park by comparison. So, playing this game using custom difficulty presents you with several options, as seen by this picture. For the ultimate in difficulty, set base difficulty to hard, set all the other points to hard and activate the “Permadeath” mode.
When you die on other settings, you’re respawned at the last checkpoint with all of the items in your inventory. When you apply the most difficult of settings (which I have dubbed “nightmare” mode) with the permadeath options, it’s game over, and you have to start off all the way at the beginning. It’s frustrating, but very rewarding when you finish the game.
The only other thing you’ll have to struggle with is the lag created by bugs left in the game itself. I played through this game on a 4K Television, using an Xbox One X and an Elite controller, but there are certain points where the game crashes briefly, and this becomes more frustrating as you play through.
My advice is that once you’re free to move again, pause the game and take two minutes to calm down, as frustration and rising anger can create mistakes. This is where most critics panned the game, but I won’t for two reasons.
Firstly, this is the game that should never had been in the first place, and secondly, this is a game that was really pressed to a deadline, following rising anger at crowdfunded gaming due to the complete fiction that was advertised in the run up to releasing No Man’s Sky.
Completing this game on easy mode will take you about fourteen hours or so, but that’s only if you’re playing through for the story. If, however, you’re like Filip at What Happens In Gaming and you like to 100% every game you have for achievement or trophy farming, this game will take you significantly longer as there are SO many side-quests, for which most of them are optional.
They range from the banal, such as fetch-quests, to the batshit crazy (like killing a policeman and dressing up in his clothes, Hitman-style). As well as side-quests, you have to be VERY watchful of Joy levels as well as health levels and eventually, the health of the baby that Sally has to look after.
The Million-Dollar Question?
Is this game one with a happy ending? In true “British” (English) fashion, it does have a sort of happy ending in a few ways.
The oppressive, history-denying regime is overthrown, Sally and Ollie escape, but after all the turmoil Arthur is thrown through during the course of the game, you’re posed with a really difficult choice which goes to the credit of the developers.
Arthur can either escape, knowing what he knows (I’m NOT spoiling that twist), or join in with the Wellies, taking joy and becoming part of them once again. On paper, this seems like an easy choice right? Wrong. As with so much of the game, this is a very difficult choice to make when playing, and will say just as much for you.
It poses the question: is knowledge really worth knowing, when it creates what it does, or is it just simply easier to take your Joy and forget it, in order to give Arthur a happy ending that you really want him to have? His choice is in your hands.
I’m really quite mercenary with my ratings, and appropriately so, to give you, my reader, the best review possible, and as such, I’ve never ranked a video game higher than 9.5/10, but this game isn’t far from perfect.
It has an amazing, dystopian lore that is both rich and depressing, it has an accessible easy mode for anyone to pick up, and it’s really good fun, but there are two minor gripes I have with it.
First, the buggy gameplay could make a monk swear at parts, which really takes you out of a graphically-rich and immersive environment, and secondly, the limited spontaneous dialogue does exactly the same. However, this is a thoroughly enjoyable game, and gets a rating of 9/10.
If you want to talk to me in person about this, please don’t hesitate to have a good coffee with me at Power Up Coffee, in Paisley, Scotland.