'We Happy Few' Review: A Waste of a Good Story

5.5/10 (Xbox)

We Happy Few has a lot of pretty scenery and unique character development, but it's spread far too thin across an empty open world. It's tragic, really, because when dealing with first-person action games, the problem is usually the opposite. Lots of games offer decent mechanics but lack creativity. We Happy Few is a wholly original world, seeped in a '60s-era British mod style that's equal parts fun and freaky. But its two-note combat system, meandering craft progression and clunky stealth unravel whatever tapestry Compulsion Games manages to weave with it's cool story and neat characters.

Let's start with the good. We Happy Few defines a point of view early on that is consistent and engaging throughout the game. You spend the bulk of your time as Arthur (although two other playable characters become part of the mix as the story progresses) and he proves to be a lively protagonist. He can be pitiful and loathsome one moment and affable and romantic the next. A lot of games struggle with ludonarrative dissonance for characters this boldly defined, but everything Aruthur does fits your sense of who he is, down to his reluctant use of force. He laments violence, and more often than not the best course of action is simply to run from trouble. It feels very much in line with his personality.

As you run, take in the sights. They're spectacular. We Happy Few offers a dystopia that, like most dystopias, is a blend of Orwellian surveillance and Huxleyian pharmaceutical control. Denizens of this technicolor Britain take a mandatory medication called Joy, a mood-altering substance that gives everything a vibrant, lively appearance with the added benefit of erasing your memory. "Happy is a country that has no past," propaganda explains, and being "off your Joy" is a crime punishable by mob justice. You will get bludgeoned to death a lot while playing We Happy Few . But strolling around high on Joy is a pleasure, until you realize how paper-thin the world actually is.

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Combat is cookie-cutter. Compulsion Games

My biggest complaint with We Happy Few is it builds a pretty sandbox but doesn't fill it. There are NPCs everywhere, but few offer anything more than a wave hello. Tightly clustered townhouses have few doors or windows to enter, so despite there being rows and rows of buildings, interior spaces are painfully limited. There is a lot of found narrative by way of letters and diaries strewn around, but most have no impact on the game world. So much of this world is just empty and, even worse, so much of it is buggy.

AI bugs in particular tainted my experience. Guards melted through floors and spinning torsos rose up out of the linoleum. Spend enough time watching the pathfinding and you'll see guards bumping into each other like a tired Scooby-Doo gag, then clustering up and spinning around to try and find a way out of the scrum. Even regular NPCs will attack you if you trespass or act suspiciously (see: anything other than walking at a reasonable pace or wearing the correct outfit) and they were impossible to predict. Not because they were so sophisticated, but because they would do things like open a door and get stuck behind it, only to glitch through a wall and spot you. There is a substantial launch patch that should hopefully address these issues, but time will tell.

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On atmosphere alone the game is flawless, but gameplay is another, sadder story. Compulsion Games

You sneak a lot, and steal almost as much. Gathering every piece of loot in sight is the engine that drives exploration, but it's tied to a largely useless crafting system. Other than making some basic burglar's tools and health items, I didn't have need for much. The same is true for the skill tree. Passive skills offer some buffs to sneaking or combat, but don't feel vital. Combat has no arc or progression: you block, shove and attack. Anything more than two or three enemies gets chaotic, so you run away.

We Happy Few deserves praise for its ambitious style and narrative themes. I liked the story a lot, but the open world 101 gameplay was such a slog between beats. I'd rather watch a cutscenes montage on YouTube than invest dozens of hours going through everything. It feels like a story that would've worked better as a graphic novel or animated short, anything other than a convoluted open-world stealth action experience that obstructed narrative flow time and again. If you're looking for a cool story and unique aesthetics, and don't care much for challenging or innovative gameplay, then We Happy Few won't disappoint. But anyone who carries a high bar for the genre, particularly given the legacy of titles like Skyrim , Dishonored and Bioshock , won't be able to see past the buggy vanilla gameplay.