Review: We Happy Few

We Happy Few is a stealth/survival game taking place in a dystopic alternate version of 1960s England. In this reality, the Germans occupied Britain during the Second World War, and though the occupation only last a few years, the British were compelled to do terrible things in that time.

The title screen for We Happy Few.To cope with their shared trauma, residents of the village of Wellington Wells turned to Joy, a powerful drug that causes users to forget anything unpleasant, leaving them in a state of mindless euphoria. Being sad is now a crime, and “Downers” are exiled into the wilderness, or disappeared entirely.

That premise intrigued me from the moment I heard it, but stealth has never been my cup of tea, so I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy We Happy Few or not. I opted to wait until it went on a deep discount on Steam before buying it.

I kind of regret that now. We Happy Few is an amazing game, and I would have happily paid full price if I’d known it would be this good.

WHF’s reliance on stealth was an issue early on. However, the saving grace is that stealth in this game is not mandatory in the sense that being caught will cause a fail state. You just have to fight more if you’re bad at sneaking (like I am). I had to restart the game on a lower difficulty to survive the many, many fights I kept getting myself into, but once I did that I was able to start making real progress and truly enjoying the game.

The combat in WHF is a bit simplistic, but it’s enjoyable enough, and it gets the job done. I was also really surprised by how immersive and enjoyable I found the game’s survival and exploration mechanics to be. We Happy Few stands as one of the very few open world single-player games that I feel actually justifies its open world, rather than using it as a crutch to pad out the game.

The world seen through the lens of Joy in We Happy Few.I was especially impressed by the quality of the side quests in this game. Side quests are usually something I endure more than savour, but in WHF nearly every side quest was interesting or entertaining on at least some level.

My favourite involved a cult of lunatics worshiping a supposedly divine yam. The premise is great, but the execution was better. I was amazed by how elaborate the quest was. They even repurposed a lot of actual pagan prayers for use by the yam cult.

The amount of effort and research poured into such a silly and ultimately irrelevant side quest is a testament to the passion and devotion of We Happy Few’s developers.

For more of my thoughts on We Happy Few’s open world and survival mechanics, stay tuned to Massively Overpowered for an upcoming MMO Burnout column on the topic.

But while I did largely enjoy the game mechanics and exploration content of We Happy Few, it’s the main story and the themes it raises where this game really shines.

I’m not normally a fan of dystopic fiction, for a variety of reasons. However, We Happy Few aces two things that dystopic stories tend to ignore.

The bucolic splendour of the Garden District in We Happy Few.One is that this is a fairly appealing dystopia. The Joy-fueled haze experienced by the citizens of Wellington Wells may not be quite so brilliantly seductive as the selective memory editing of Remember Me, a similarly powerful dystopic game, but it isn’t too hard to imagine a world where people have been seduced by the promise of eternal happiness. It’s more believable than the openly horrific settings of other dystopias.

The other is that We Happy Few acknowledges something a lot of similar stories ignore: dystopias don’t work.

We Happy Few is less a story of plucky heroes rising up to throw off their shackles as it is that of a broken system collapsing under its own faulty premise. Absolutely every aspect of life in Wellington Wells is falling apart; Joy is poisoning the entire town, literally and figuratively.

There’s this terrible lie that pervades our culture — including our fiction — that evil may be unpleasant, but it gets things done. Efficiency and decency are seen as opposite ends of a spectrum, where one has to be sacrificed in the name of the other.

But that’s not true. We’re told that torture may be wrong, but it yields useful information (it doesn’t). We’re told that strongmen may not be lovable, but they get things done (they don’t).

In reality, oppressive authoritarian regimes are almost invariably riddled with corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency. Justice, equality, and liberal policies almost always lead to better results across all sectors of society.

Townspeople in We Happy Few.And We Happy Few understands this. Wellington Wells isn’t run by evil geniuses. In so much as it has any leadership at all, it’s run by cowards and idiots.

I will also say that a lot of themes of this game resonate with me on a very personal level, having spent much of my life on a rollercoaster of various sedatives and antidepressants, most of which just made things worse for me.

While I acknowledge that drugs do help some people, the way medication is often sold as a cure-all is deeply disturbing to me.

Something that really struck a chord with me is the fact that Joy comes in various tasty flavours — chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, blackberry… I was reminded of a time many years ago where my doctor gave me some free samples of an antipressant. They were chewable and had a delicious mint flavour.

I don’t even think I want to know what they put into those things to make them taste so good. I don’t even like mint, normally.

I’m not shaming people who take antidepressants. If any of them actually worked for me, I’d take them happily. But I think we can all agree something has broken in our system when doctors hand out candy-sweet happy pills to anyone willing to ask for them.

The Jacobean Club is looking a bit worse for wear in We Happy Few.It also struck me that although the core theme of We Happy Few could boil down to “things suck, and there aren’t any easy answers,” I still managed to find it a fairly uplifting game.

One of the many things I’ve dabbled in to try to treat my mental health issues is dialectical behaviour therapy, and WHF is a great lesson in two of DBT’s core principles: validation and radical acceptance. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that yes, things suck, and it’s okay to feel bad.

Sometimes trying to cheer up — or having others try to cheer you up — isn’t helpful. It can even make things worse. Sometimes you just need to face the fact that things are bad, and there can be a certain relief in that.

I can poke a few holes in We Happy Few’s story here or there — it’s a bit slow-paced, and it doesn’t answer as many questions as I’d like — but its strength far exceeds its weaknesses.

If there’s one place WHF stumbles, it’s the DLC. Even then, none of it is actually bad; it’s just not as good as the main game. The first two DLCs — They Came from Below and Lightbearer — are just jokey side-quests, though they do feature some clever game mechanics.

The final DLC, We All Fall Down, returns to the main story and is all around a lot more enjoyable, though even then it suffers a bit from feeling somewhat disconnected from the events of base game.

Confronting the doctors in We Happy Few.Despite somewhat underwhelming DLC, though, We Happy Few is the most I’ve enjoyed a video game in quite a while.

Overall rating: 9/10

Star Trek Musings: Picard’s Premiere, Discovery Season Two, and STO

Despite years of feeling like my Trek fandom has been left behind, I find myself quite steeped in Star Trek lately. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get to it.

Picard:

The official logo for Star Trek: Picard.Let’s start with what everyone is talking about: Picard.

As someone who grew up with TNG, it’s hard to remember the last time any piece of media felt as much like an event as this does. I’ve been filled with enormous hope, but also great worry that they’ll screw it up. Truthfully, I just didn’t know what to expect.

The first episode hasn’t done a whole lot to clarify my feelings, honestly.

There is a lot to love. There absolutely is. It goes without saying that Patrick Stewart is absolutely flawless. He always has been, and even if everything else was bad, the show could possibly be worth it for him alone.

Thankfully, he’s not the only thing Picard has going for it.

For one thing, this is quite possibly the most beautiful, aesthetically masterful piece of television I’ve ever seen. Picard has the sumptuous production values of Discovery, but rather than being flashy and extravagant, it feels lived in and homey. Every shot feels like a work of art, and the soundtrack is stunningly beautiful.

Picard is amazingly rooted in what’s come before. As a fan of Nemesis, I feared it might be somewhat swept under the rug, being an unpopular film, but Picard is almost entirely a direct sequel to it. Even beyond that, this series is a love-letter to the fans through and through. Subtle callbacks and easter eggs abound, but even the major plot points are the sort of things that you need to have watched a lot of Star Trek to understand.

Jean-Luc Picard and Dahj in Star Trek: Picard.This could be a double-edged sword. Right now I’d rate the appeal of Picard for anyone who’s not a hardcore Trekkie to be pretty much zero. But on the other hand, it’s wonderful from the perspective of someone who does know and love that source material.

One small thing that maybe shouldn’t matter but which I really appreciated is that every single alien we’ve seen so far, even extras, are from pre-established species. Romulan, Tellarite, Xahean. It makes the Trek universe feel more like a real place, something Picard is already doing an excellent job across the board.

It’s not all good news, though. I do still see some cause for concern.

The first half or so of Picard’s premiere is pretty much perfect, but after that things start to slip a bit. It slides a bit more towards the kind of cheap shocks and sensationalism that have dogged Discovery. It’s nowhere near as bad as Discovery yet, but it does leave me worried.

Ultimately, this is a show that’s clearly playing the long game with its story. You can’t really rate the first episode individually. It’s just the first part of a much bigger picture. Future developments could justify what seem like missteps now… or just make them worse.

All things considered, Picard’s first episode does an admirable job of living up to the mountainous expectations placed on it, but my worries are not entirely erased. There’s still lots of room for this to go badly wrong, and modern Star Trek doesn’t have a great track record for quality.

Agnes in Star Trek: Picard.Speaking of modern Star Trek…

Discovery: Season two

I pretty much gave up on Discovery after what I will generously call a rough first season. However, I heard from enough people that season two was better that I eventually caved and decided to give it another shot. I finished up just in time for Picard to start.

In some ways, season two of Discovery is a lot like the first. But in other ways — in just enough ways — it’s quite different.

The main thing that Discovery’s second season shares with the first is that they are both — to put it bluntly — really, really stupid. Season two’s meta plot is crushingly convoluted and riddled with enormous plot holes, and it completely falls apart under any kind of inspection.

Season one was dumb, too, and worse still it wasn’t even an enjoyable story. It was a dull, lifeless slog full of cheap shock value and terrible, occasionally offensive story choices.

At times, season two slips back into that. The most egregious example is what they’ve done with the character of Saru. Once a highlight of the show, season two manages to nullify pretty much everything that made him compelling as a character.

Doug Jones as Commander Saru in Star Trek: DiscoverySaru was introduced as a member of a prey species who live in constant, instinctual fear. It was a really unique concept for an alien race, and as someone who suffers from chronic anxiety, I identified with Saru in a way I rarely can with fictional characters.

Season two reveals that Saru’s species are not the prey but in fact apex predators once they reach a certain age. Firstly, this completely sabotages what made his race different. Now they’re just Klingons with better manners.

Secondly, the idea that chronic anxiety is something you can just grow out of is breathtakingly tone-deaf and downright offensive. It’s akin to writing a story where a gay person realizes they were straight all along once they meet the “right” person. It’s awful.

However, offensive stupid like that is thankfully the exception in Discovery’s second season. The whole arc is dumb, but most of the time it’s fun dumb. There are worse sins for a story to commit than to be dumb. Discovery’s first season was stupid and boring. Its second season is stupid and entertaining.

As always, Discovery knocks it out of the park visually, with state of the art special effects, spectacular art design, and lots of battle scenes filled with eye candy.

But what really makes the second season work where the first didn’t is that it has heart. There are many moments where the characters risk life and limb to do the right thing, with no real motivation beyond the fact that it is the right thing. That’s what Star Trek is all about, and though Discovery gets so much else wrong, that’s the one thing it really needs to get right. The first season didn’t, but the second does.

Michael Burnham in Star Trek: DiscoveryAs of now, I would consider myself converted to Discovery. It’s still a long, long way from my favourite Trek series, and there’s still a lot wrong with it, but it does now feel at least worth my time, with occasional flashes of true greatness.

STO update

And while I’m rambling about Star Trek, I might as well give an update on my continued adventures in Star Trek Online (beyond what was already said in my recent column).

I continue to mostly enjoy my time there, somewhat to my own surprise. I’ve said before it’s a very rough game, and it’s not getting any less rough the farther into it I get.

I played through the starter stories for both other major factions — oddly, the Starfleet content is shockingly brief, and Klingons don’t fare much better — and returned to playing my Rommie full time. She’s now at level cap and delving into the faction-agnostic story arcs.

Turns out this game has a pretty sharp difficulty spike at max level. I’ve gone from waltzing over enemies to struggling to stay alive on nearly every fight. This might bother me more, except there doesn’t seem to be an real death penalty in this game (as it should be, IMO). That makes the difficulty less frustrating and more a problem to be solved.

I am hoping to upgrade my gear some. To my dismay, the main source of endgame progression in STO seems to be reputation grinds, which I consider the very lowest form of MMO content, but on the plus side the lower tiers of reputation aren’t too hard to unlock. It could be far worse.

Space station Deep Space Nine in Star Trek Online.I’m also still playing my Starfleet character, an Andorian science officer, here and there. I switch over to her for story arcs that feel more appropriate for a Starfleet officer, like helping out the Bajorans. One thing that’s really nice about STO is that you can play through the missions in any order, and everything has level-scaling, so I can hop between the two characters at will without repeating any story or worrying about falling behind. This is an extremely alt-friendly game.

I still half expect myself to drop this game at any moment, but for now it’s still keeping my attention, if only because I’ve got Trek on the brain these days.

On top of everything else, one of my friends is now forming plans for a Star Trek tabletop RPG one-shot…