A lot’s changed since I first played We Happy Few, more than two years ago now, to offer an optimistic first look that ran counter to the backlash surrounding its strict implementation of survival mechanics. Most notably, Gearbox Publishing picked the game up and provided a substantial cash injection, inflating the size of developer Compulsion Games (since bought by Microsoft) and the scope of the project alongside it. While having moved to scale back the controversial survival elements makes We Happy Few read slightly less like a commentary on its player base, finally allowing them to appreciate its retrofuturist dystopia at their leisure, it’s anything but scaled back in other areas and that comes at a cost.
While scaling back the controversial survival elements makes We Happy Few read slightly less like a commentary on its player base, it’s anything but scaled back in other areas and that comes at a cost.
Many of the hours spent with Arthur are devoted to unravelling the dark alternate history of this psychedelic take on post-war Britain, where, with the Germans victorious, a defeated government prescribe their downtrodden population mood-altering drugs in order to ward off nationwide depression. Its unsettling premise and biting cultural commentary are effectively put across by minutely detailed environments and a fantastic script, delivered by a committed cast that convincingly sell the whole crazy shebang. Absorbing the fiction that first time through is a little bit special, but not so the second and third when you’ve already been there and done that.
In a fittingly bizarre twist, perhaps the greatest motivator in progressing through the bonkers variety of missions is to fix a number of glaring design nuisances. It’s essentially a tacit admission of guilt that the most expensive upgrades serve to bypass obtrusive gameplay conceits - like not mirroring social norms or adhering to a curfew turning all NPCs hostile, prompting drawn-out chase sequences reliant on finicky stealth to escape - making for legitimately powerful motivation to keep playing, whilst, at the same time, being a damning judgement of the systems you’re so eager to nix.
Having to once again adhere to these unreasonable standards when you take on the role of each fresh-faced protagonist comes as a crushing blow, though working your way back to a decent quality of life at least doesn’t take as long with higher paying rewards being dished out in the later stages. You’re extended a similar sort of half-courtesy when it comes to rebuilding an inventory, though not to the extent that you aren’t required to rummage through every cabinet, desk and drawer in order to properly deck yourself out with the crafted kit you’ll need to re-engage with the more satisfying elements of combat.
Further to that, the town of Wellington Wells procedurally regenerates between acts, throwing your internal compass off and failing to make contextual sense when overlapping story events now unfold in different locations. It’s obviously there for variety’s sake, having already endured plenty of backtracking through the map’s previous incarnation, but needing to rediscover areas and fast travel points is an egregious example of artificial padding.
In a fittingly bizarre twist, perhaps the greatest motivator in progressing through the bonkers variety of missions is to fix a number of glaring design nuisances.
Delaying players is doubly counterproductive when it also presents time for the numerous technical issues to rear their heads. We Happy Few recently received a patch enabling of Xbox One X support, noticeably sharpening the visuals while failing to address the bevy of infinitely more pressing performance issues. Glitches, dropped frames, agonising load times and horrific crashes - which can shut your console down completely - are frequent occurrences that, as they say, make the struggle real.
Despite all that - perhaps because I’m in the unique position of working in Quality Assurance and so am used to tackling worse on the regular - We Happy Few is, much like State of Decay, a broken solo survival game that I can’t help but love. If you aren’t as tolerant - which, let’s be honest, you don’t need to be when there are so many great games on the market - Compulsion have produced an exquisite world that’s often dull to exist in and, thus, hard to recommend you pay a visit.
It gets said so often that it’s fast becoming cliché, but We Happy Few really is a game that would’ve been better served as non-interactive media. The acquisition of movie rights by dj2 Entertainment is a shrewd move then, as the shorter cinema format should help eliminate the temptation to implement a grab bag of ideas without fully bringing them to fruition.
I don’t doubt that the eagerness to shove more and more content into the package largely came from a place of passion, but it makes a strong case for the editing process when things are stretched so transparently thin; We Happy Few could’ve been an exponentially more engaging experience if boiled down to its striking core concepts, cutting away two thirds of its swollen structure to focus on Arthur’s story, with Sally and Ollie serving in greater support roles. Compulsion, Gearbox and the industry as a whole need to realise that more isn’t inherently better, because no game’s worth is decided by its runtime.