Everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover or a movie by its trailer, yet gamers around the world judged We Happy Few by its initial gameplay debut at E3 2016. That demo, covering roughly the first five minutes of the game, revealed the setting: a bleak, British dystopia, where citizens pop their Joy pills to fill the world with butterflies and rainbows, censor any news that might cause unhappiness, and brutally beat down anyone who tries to leave this strict regimen of drug-fueled bliss. It’s a promising premise, and fans immediately began speculating if We Happy Few could be the next BioShock.
Then, the game arrived in early access, and the grim truth was revealed like a Downer going off their Joy. Instead of the tight, story-driven, political game many had been expecting, We Happy Few was revealed to be nothing more than a procedurally generated survival and crafting game. Let loose in a world of same-y, infinitely repeating trees and houses, scrambling for berries and water to keep endlessly depleting hunger and thirst meters from bottoming out, players looked around at the bleak state of the game and realized that expectations had utterly failed to meet reality.
To its credit, developer Compulsion Games realized this and took the criticisms to heart. Over the last two years, the team has tried to turn We Happy Few into that game that so many players wanted. At launch, it’s straddling the line between the two different visions. There’s now a story following three different characters: Arthur, Sally, and Ollie. The game has a tight path for each of them to follow, with a decided narrative. The survival mechanics are still present, but have been tuned down, causing debuffs instead of death. The world still randomly forms through procedural generation, but large parts of the story take players through specific, pre-designed levels and puzzles.
Unfortunately for We Happy Few, this marriage of genres isn’t a happy one.
As I write this review-in-progress, I’m 27 hours into the game. I’ve played through all of Arthur’s story and about half of Sally’s, which should put me at around the game’s halfway point. That means that I may be looking at a 50- to 60-hour experience to finish the full game. I’ll be honest, however: The story of this game is not one that seems like it should take nearly that long, and that’s entirely due to the weird mashup of the randomized survival elements and the narrative.
There are a few simple reasons why it drags on. The narrative has strict requirements: Go here, do X, craft Y, gather Z. The random generation of the world, however, is not always kind to the needs of the story. For example, at one point I snuck into the depths of a police headquarters to recover a file, only to discover that it resided inside a locked cabinet. I didn’t have any lockpicks or the bobby pins needed to craft one on me—I’d been using them indiscriminately up to that point. When I combed the rest of the building nearby, the random generation failed to produce any bobby pins or lockpicks. I snuck back out of the building and began combing the town, only to realize that I had been too thorough in my first venture through, and there were no bobby pins to be found.
I left the city and ventured back into the wastelands, hoping to find an abandoned house with bobby pins I hadn’t picked over yet. Searching for another hour proved futile; whatever RNG spawned dressers and cabinets simply wasn’t producing lockpicks. Up until that point, I’d been playing Arthur as the type of shy, unassuming man he’d seemed to be from his dialogue. In my frustration, I went outside at night, brutally murdered every policeman who wandered by, and finally managed to extract a couple of bobby pins from the pile of corpses I left on someone’s doorstep. Then I was finally able to sneak back in and resume my stealth mission, because nothing says inconspicuous and stealthy like a trail of bodies.
That wasn’t the only time the game failed to provide a crafting component or other item I needed to advance the story. A search for three pieces of coarse linen took me roughly six hours—six hours—of picking picking through identical, procedurally-generated houses, all with the same layouts and rooms. So far, in my playthrough as Sally, I’ve been told in a tutorial that I’m supposed to knock out enemies using chemical compounds and hallucinogens, but the game has yet to provide enough crafting materials for even one spritz of knock-out gas. Beating the bobbies to death with an umbrella it is.
That’s not the only way randomization hurts this game. We Happy Few has a pretty unique aesthetic. At first glance, the cities are original and cool in a creepy way, with rainbow roads and signs assuring citizens that they look fabulous. All the residents’ masked faces are stretched out into uncanny wide grins. Poke around for more than a few moments, though, and everything becomes very repetitive. Due to the procedural generation—the game engine deciding what goes where, generating it anew for each players’ game, rather than things being laid out by human design—every street looks exactly every other street. That tree? One of six identical trees on this block, because it’s the only tree the game knows how to create. The same NPC models repeat over, and over, and over, a city populated by identical portly grandmothers in floral prints, policemen in masks, one haunted gangly man, and one haunted gangly woman. The random generation means that roads make no sense. I spent more time with my nose in my map than in actually looking around, because there are no landmarks, no distinguishing features, no logic to anything to learn your way around. Once you’ve seen one road, one house, one sign, you’ve—quite literally—seen them all.
(Somewhat amusingly and frustratingly, the map and world seems to generate anew with each new character’s story. In Arthur’s story, I visited the city of Maidenholm, stopped in a few shops, and met with Sally in her house. Now, playing as Sally, I still live in Maidenholm—but my house is in a completely different location, all the shops have moved, and Maidenholm itself seems to be placed in a completely different part of the world map, despite these events taking place at the same time. Make of that what you will.)
That’s the general trend in We Happy Few. At first glance, things look cool! But venture a little deeper, and the systems begin to fall apart. As another example, a large part of the game deals with deception, requiring the characters to dress the part of the grinning upscale Joy addict to fit into a city or donning old, torn clothes to not be a target for the wastrels outside the city. NPCs treat you better if you greet them in passing and grow suspicious if you run, jump, stay out late at night, or climb through windows. That’s a neat touch. However, set one foot out of place, and the town explodes. Did you jump over a wall by accident, or accidentally punch a lamppost, or go off your Joy, or take too much Joy, or crash from Joy? Prepare to start running, because there is no middle ground for the AI between a happy greeting and beating you to death. There’s nothing quite like accidentally going through the wrong door and suddenly getting your skull smashed in by a pack of identical grandmothers armed with pipes, all of them screaming “MURDERER! HE’S GOT BLOOD ON HIS HANDS!”
The same goes for the survival elements in the game, which, as I’ve stated above, have thankfully been tuned down from their initial iterations in early access. The struggle to survive while maintaining different identities in different areas could be an interesting one, in theory. In practice, though, it’s simply tedious. It’s night time—so stop everything and sleep. Arthur’s hungry—so stop everything and grab berries and eat. So far in Sally’s story, I have to constantly stop what I’m doing to go home and take care of a baby’s needs in addition to my own, and stop my searches outside to find diapers and baby food. (Honestly, I’m astonished that somebody out there looked at a sleep-deprived single mother struggling to take care of a baby and thought, “Yeah, tending to a newborn looks like fun! Let’s make it a game!”) While perks exist to alleviate some of these needs, gaining those perks feels more like eliminating an annoyance than getting more powerful. Once you’ve stopped running around in circles filling up meters, you can finally play the dang game.
That’s not to say that everything in We Happy Few is terrible. The story, or the part of it I’ve seen so far, is interesting. Many story-centric locations are handcrafted, providing unique environments to sneak through or puzzles to solve, and they’re the best parts of the game. I genuinely enjoyed sneaking through factories, hospitals, police headquarters, and even a kinky illegal pleasure house in an attempt to learn the terrible secrets the city is drowning out with Joy. It’s enough to make me wish that Compulsion Games had scrapped the RNG and survival elements entirely and made a game with just the narrative and deception systems, because shrinking the scope of the game to something intentionally crafted could have made it so much better than the sprawling, repetitive, and boring mess it is now. The handful of times that I saw items glitch through the floor, was randomly teleported, and heard the same (out of place) quest text voice line every time I loaded into a new area of the map made me wish that the game had gotten a little more attention to take care of bugs and glitches, as well.
I have yet to finish the game, so I’m reserving judgement and a review score for now. I’ll see how the game feels upon finishing Sally and Ollie’s stories, and I’m curious to see how they turn out. Quite honestly, though, as I face my future of sinking another 20 or 30 hours into this game, my predominant feeling is one of apprehension—I don’t want to keep taking care of Sally’s baby, and I don’t want to spend more hours of my life hoping that RNGesus blesses me with lockpicks or cloth. Once I’ve seen the credits roll, though, I’ll be back—and I’ll let you know if the remaining half of the story has enough surprises to make it all worth it.