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

My Top Five Games: New School

Instead of doing a top ten list of all my favourite video games, I’ve decided it’s more fair to rank my favourite older and newer games separately, five each. I’ve already covered the old school greats, so now it’s time to run down my top five games from the modern era.

5: Dungeon Siege III

Fighting as Anjali in Dungeon Siege 3Entry #24601 in the “things Tyler loves that everyone else hates” category is Dungeon Siege III.

It is a very big departure from the previous games in terms of game mechanics. Part of me misses the old model. But looked at on its own merits, it’s still quite a strong RPG.

Choosing a class (or character in this case) is more generic than just playing and evolving naturally, but the “class” designs are among the best I’ve seen. Lucas is just your standard warrior dude, but the others are more unique:  Reinhardt is a steampunk techno mage; Katarina is a gun-toting, curse-flinging gypsy witch; and Anjali is a divine warrior-priestess who can shapeshift into a fire elemental.

Anjali in particular is one of my all-time favourite characters/classes in any RPG. Just so much fun.

And while it was a departure in terms of gameplay, it’s a true sequel to the original Dungeon Siege in terms of story, something DS2 definitely wasn’t. In fact it improves upon the already strong lore of the original, deepening and expanding it, and it evolves into a complex, powerful story with an incredible ending.

Add some gorgeous graphics and a lovely soundtrack and you have one of the most underrated games ever.

4: Portal 2

A screenshot from Portal 2Much has already been said about the Portal games by myself and others, so I don’t see a lot of need to repeat it. If you’ve played them, you know how special they are. If you haven’t, go do that right now. I’ll wait.

Both games were good, but I think Portal 2 is the more memorable one. The first Portal was entirely too short. Portal 2 had all the same wit and creativity, and while it’s still a relatively short game, it’s not quite the “blink and you’ll miss it” affair the first was.

3: Mass Effect 3

And again another of my unpopular opinions.

While I seem to be the only one that feels this way, I found Mass Effect 3 to be the strongest entry in the trilogy by a significant margin. I’ve always been a fan of epic, apocalyptic stories, and ME3 certainly delivers on that front. In the previous games, the Reapers were a distant threat, but in ME3 their full fury is unleashed, and as the game unfolds, you get to see them tear the galaxy apart in excruciating detail.

It’s a dark, intense story, and I admire that it pulls no punches. The heroes fail many times throughout the story, and the losses are deeply felt. Not many games have the guts for that.

Keelah se'lai, Tali'ZorahLike ME2, it’s also a very big game with lots of side missions and secondary content, but unlike ME2, none of it feels irrelevant or chore-like. Everything connects to the main story. Everything feels important, and exciting.

Even the most minor side-quests can be memorable. For me one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the game is a brief side mission where you assist in the evacuation of the Elcor homeworld. It’s just the most basic kind of collection quest, but the ambassador’s reaction at the end is so powerful.

And then there’s the excellence that is the Rannoch arc, and the sheer joy of drunk Tali, and all the little conversations between the crew members between missions, and Traynor… It’s just an excellent experience all around.

2: StarCraft II

StarCraft II’s sheer scale can make it a difficult game to rate. It has had two expansions the size of standalone games plus a fair bit of DLC. Looked at as a total package, StarCraft II is now massive in scale.

And it has had its stumbles along the way. Wings of Liberty was mostly a good game but did suffer from Blizzard’s failed experiment with non-linear storytelling, and I think we can all agree Heart of the Swarm was something of a disappointment.

Hierarch Artanis and Executor Selendis rally the Golden Armada in StarCraft II: Legacy of the VoidBut when you look at the big picture, it’s clear StarCraft II’s successes easily outweigh its failures. Despite its hiccups, Wings of the Liberty still wound up being a pretty strong story, and Legacy of the Void was one of the greatest sci-fi epics I’ve seen in gaming. Hell, even Heart of the Swarm gave us Abathur and the Primal Zerg, so it was hardly a total loss.

Similarly, I’m not without complaints about its gameplay, but overall SC2 still deserves to go down as one of the great RTS games of all time. The campaigns have featured some of the most creative level design in gaming history, the co-op mode added in Legacy of the Void is infinitely replayable and incredibly fun, and its competitive play remains one of the greatest tests of skill in the gaming world.

1: The Secret World

I’ve already spent no shortage of time raving about how amazing TSW is, so I shouldn’t repeat myself too much.

A lot of my love for this game boils down to the fact that story will always be the most important part of gaming for me, and TSW has some of the best writing in video game history. Its dialogue is second to none, its characters are unforgettable, its world-building is spectacularly deep and incredibly original, and its ambiance is like nothing else.

But it’s no slouch in the gameplay department, either. I love how you can build your own “class.” I love that it’s challenging, but not cheap. I love how the enemies are powerful and intelligent rather than just HP sponges to be mowed down. I love that its progression is fair to all playstyles and offers incredible freedom to the player. I love how many awesome cosmetics there are to collect.

The Blue Mountain quarry in The Secret WorldAs with the first list’s winner, Warcraft III, The Secret World is probably as close to a perfect video game as we’re ever going to see.

Honourable mentions:

Despite some initial stumbles (and a few lingering problems), Diablo III has evolved into a really excellent game, as the hundreds of hours I’ve sunk into it can attest. It was sort of a dead heat between Diablo and Dungeon Siege for the fifth spot in this list.

Something that has been interesting about recent years in the gaming industry has been the growing push for video games as art, and it’s produced a number of titles that are truly amazing experiences despite being light on gameplay. The Park, Oxenfree, and Remember Me all come to mind as examples of this.

Obviously World of Warcraft is conspicuous in its absence from the list, but despite the countless hours I’ve spent with it, it has far too many flaws to be considered a truly great game. SW:TOR is another title that has given me some great times but has too much wrong with it to earn a spot among my all-time favourites.

It does seem a bit strange that I’ve spent the majority of my gaming time over the past ten years playing MMOs, and yet only one of them made my top five (albeit with top honours). I’m not sure what, if anything, should be read from that.