Developed by: Compulsion Games
Release Date: 8/10/2018
MSRP: $59.99 USD
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC (played on PS4)
Written by Rick Warren / gfn21
When We Happy Few was first revealed, it immediately caught my eye with its Bioshock-like tone and art style. Since that first trailer, though, I tried to keep myself in the dark on the game. I avoided every bit of info from its early access run in hopes to go into We Happy Few completely blind, and I succeeded in doing so. I was ready to see the game that came out of that awesome first teaser. What I found upon playing was and an incredibly interesting setting, and quite possibly the worst running game I’ve ever seen. I loved exploring and finding new details about the world of Wellington Wells, but after nearly every discovery, I was met with bugs, long load times and crashes. The story was intriguing and many of the quests were fun, but the clunky gameplay and weak AI held them back. For every strength We Happy Few has, there’s a weakness to match it. Perhaps the game will be worth a playthrough down the road after some patches, but sadly, right now it’s too much of a mess to recommend to anyone.
For a full review, read on.
~ SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT ~
The Wonderfully Weird Wellington Wells
Before getting into the numerous problems with We Happy Few, the strengths need to be talked about, and there’s not much stronger than the game’s setting. After a dark, creepy intro that immediately sets the tone for the game, players are thrust into the world of Wellington Wells. After Germany’s occupation in World War 2, England has been divided into various islands. One is a city filled with people high on Joy, a drug used to make them happy enough to forget the “Very Bad Thing” they did to remove the Germans from their home. Another island is home to the rich, whereas the outer islands are filled with plague victims and “downers”, citizens who are off their Joy.
Conforming to the rules in each unique area is necessary for the gameplay, as the police and machines in the city will cause problems for you if you’re off your joy. Likewise, those in the quarantined islands will attack you if you’re wearing a fancy suit and tie. Following rules joins eating and drinking as one of We Happy Few’s various survival elements, but it also serves to make the world feel more unique. The game’s quests do the same.
Whether you’re answering questions in a rigged game show or breaking into a military compound, the quests of We Happy Few are varied and fun. Compulsion Games balances storytelling and the We Happy Few’s dark humor well during the main story, and that same level of quality can be seen in the side quests. One side questline involves the discovery of how Wellington Wells gets its meat, and it’s equally gross and entertaining. Another involves the infiltration of a cult that uses hallucinogenic drugs, and yet another is a heist of an expensive cat statue. All these quests offer insight into the daily lives of the city’s citizens, and while those lives are entirely controlled, there are moments of normality that shine through.
While the quests do a great job of establishing the game’s world, the exploration does an even better job of world-building. It’s through reading documents, watching TV broadcasts and finding collectable flashbacks that the plot and characters are fleshed out. The “very bad thing” is explained as being the delivery of all children to the Germans in exchange for England’s freedom from the Nazi regime, and piecing that together on one’s own is plenty of fun. The flashbacks do a great job of fleshing out the relationships of the three protagonists, and there’s plenty of story to the game for those who are interested enough to search for it.
With all this in mind, there’s no denying that We Happy Few has one of the most interesting video game settings in the past few years... but there’s also no denying that it’s basically wasted.
Good Ideas, Poor Execution
We Happy Few’s gameplay is similar to that of Dishonored, relying on a blend of melee combat and stealth mechanics. Unlike that series, though, neither melee or stealth feel great here.
There are some truly awesome weapons, like flaming pipes and electric umbrellas, but the enemy AI makes weapon choice irrelevant. Whether they’re angry civilians, plague victims, or Doctors (scary-looking, chainsaw-wielding fellas that can smell if you’re off your Joy), enemies are easy to take down. The fighting doesn’t look or feel great, either. Enemies are constantly clipping through walls and floating in the sky, so it’s hard to take any encounter seriously.
Just as many flaws can be seen in the stealth gameplay. Again, there are plenty of fun tools, like distraction ducks and vomit bombs, but using them is pointless since the enemies aren’t opposing. When enemies are chasing the player, all that they need to do is run for two seconds and crouch behind a corner; the crowd won’t go looking. This lack of searching makes hiding spots, like trash cans and benches, utterly pointless. Enemies also struggle to spot the player prior to any chase even occurring, and it’s possible to crouch directly in front of a guard and not alert them.
Even the game’s skill tree manages to make the issues worse. There are a handful of neat skills available; being able to run and crouch without people thinking you’re off Joy and eliminating the nighttime curfew are both excellent unlocks, as they help the game become a lot more fun. However, most of the skill tree makes the game ridiculously easy, a key issue when it’s already a cake walk due to the lousy AI. Huge Health buffs, damage increases, and even an option to eliminate the negative effects of not eating, drinking, and sleeping are available to unlock. If combat was deeper and smoother, and if the AI functioned correctly, these skills would be great. Instead, they’re simply overpowered.
Still, even with all these gameplay flaws, I pushed on because of the game’s unique world. I finished the first character’s playthrough, and I was excited to see the other two.
Then, my game crashed, and all my saves were corrupted.
A Technical Mess
The crash that took away my twenty-plus hour save files was by no means a rare occurrence. Truth be told, it was one of dozens of crashes in the back half of the first act. I absolutely want to go back to see the other sides of the story, but I'm waiting for a patch to fix the crashes; replaying everything is not worth the risk at the moment. While these game-stopping errors were prevalent and annoying, it’s a shame that they weren’t the worst effect of We Happy Few’s poor launch state. Instead, that role belongs to the game’s loading, because there is A TON of it.
Most games with poor load times do that loading when entering a brand-new area or transitioning into a cutscene. To be clear, We Happy Few does that too, but it also takes things a step further by loading in the middle of gameplay. There’s no telling when players will be with hit a load screen or how frequently they’ll occur. Someone can be running around perfectly fine, gathering plants to make some Healing Balm, and they’ll soon be hit with a loading screen completely out of the blue. A player can be engaged in a fight with a group of angry townsfolk, and in the middle of that fight a minute-long loading sequence will begin. If someone were to put a day’s worth of playtime into We Happy Few, it’s a safe bet to say that over an hour of that “playtime” would be spent waiting for the game to load.
Lastly, there’s the frame rate drops. Just as frequent as the load times, those who play We Happy Few shouldn’t be expecting a steady FPS at any point. As of now, the game drops to 15-20 frames per second consistently on the PlayStation 4. With how often this occurs, it’s safe to say that other platforms aren’t fairing much better.
When paired with the clunky, bug-heavy combat and poor AI, these technical issues make We Happy Few hard to look at... and even harder to play.
There’s a clear Bioshock influence present in We Happy Few, and the game’s greatest success is making its twisted world feel just as alive as Rapture and Columbia. Quests are diverse and interesting, while exploration leads to some great backstory for the characters and Wellington Wells as a whole. Sadly, though, that’s where the list of good features comes to an end. Even with some neat tools at the player’s disposal, combat and stealth feel very clunky. Worse, the AI is abysmal, making every encounter feel easy and taking any tension that should be felt out of the game. We Happy Few also runs terribly on PS4, as it’s plagued with bugs, frame rate drops, crashes, and never-ending load times. It’s easy to want to love this game, but that feeling rarely comes about due to all of its flaws.
We Happy Few has potential, but its AI is too weak and the game runs too poorly for that potential to be realized.
A Terrific Setting +4
Rewarding Quests and Exploration +3
Interesting Characters and Story +2
Some Gameplay Ideas Work... +1
...But Many Don’t Due To The Poor AI And Clunky Combat -2
Constant Crashes/Bugs/Frame Rate Drops/Load Times -2.5
FINAL SCORE: 5.5/10