This game was reviewed on Xbox Series X
Compulsion’s Journey Finally Brings Joy
We Happy Few was originally released in August of 2018 to highly mixed reviews. The game was a mix of its original survival genre roots interspersed with a well-received story. Bugs were frequent and it truly felt like a game stuck between two fandoms. One wanted the original survival game, and the others wanted a Bioshock like narrative-driven title. Two and a half years later has developer Compulsion Games been able to right the ship and deliver on their goals?
The Cost of Joy
1960’s England has never looked so happy, so joyous, so grooooovy. Underneath the surface of the fictional Wellington Wells though lies rot and despair. In this alt-history Germany invaded England and stole away many of their children leaving the country in a dire state. To combat this the hallucinogenic drug Joy was created to placate the populace. It kept them in a constant state of happiness, and more importantly, forgetfulness. The dark memories of World War 2 and the invasion of the Germans were gone. Instead, the only focus was on being happy, anyone not happy was a downer, and downers were punished severely.
This is the setting that the fledgling young developer Compulsion came upon for their survival game, set in a procedurally generated world. The year was 2013 and survival titles were hitting high popularity in the independent developer circle as they could be done cheaply by smaller teams. Through a Kickstarter, campaign development would go well and after a few years a demo was shown at a PAX convention. This led the team to sign up for an ID@Xbox deal with Microsoft and eventually a publishing deal with Gearbox. These new resources would shift the focus of the game as crowds were taken by the 1960’s England setting and potential for narrative content.
This shift would lead to a game at release that had the impossible task of trying to satisfy two completely disparate fanbases. There were those that had stuck around for years helping craft the game as it was developed in early access on PC, and those who saw the E3 2016 trailer at the Xbox conference and saw great potential in the story side of things. In the end, many of the survival elements remained but the negative consequences of debuffs were lessened to not be obtrusive. The melee combat was perhaps the greatest weak spot though. It was a shallow system that would never feel great to play even in its very final form.
So Many Different Types of Gameplay
This is not a spoiler-free review as it is impossible to talk about the gameplay without giving a bit away. If you are looking to play the game you might want to skip this section. You spent the start of the game as Arthur Hasting, who quite is a fantastically written character. He is not however fantastically fun to play as. Arthur’s main skill is being very fast for short periods of time. This is good as he is a weakling who is truly terrible at hitting people. The melee combat for Arthur is shallow and as his story can easily last over 20 hours if you do the side quests it is the major hurdle for playing this game. There is a large emphasis on stealth and the NPC’s are kept blind and hard of hearing enough so that it rarely was frustrating. You can save outside of certain situations, and I save scummed to my heart’s content to get through some of the rougher stealth sections. Only one that I can recall had a fail state on being caught, as most of the time you simply get chased by guards until you can hide in some rose bushes and then wait 30 seconds for the joy to kick in and their memories of you to fade away.
The survival aspects of the game come in the form of resource gathering and management. You have hunger and thirst meters, though the negative effects of these are less stamina. The positives? More stamina allowing you to swing your weapons more or run a little longer! I rarely cared about it and simply ate whatever I had on me whenever I remembered to do so. The other resource to manage is your levels of Joy. There are “downer detectors” littered through the cities and you need to have Joy in your system or else they will set off an alarm. Take too much Joy and you will suffer from an Overdose state where you are stuck as a downer for an extended period and everyone around you will want to rip your bloody eyes out. The inventory system is generally cumbersome to deal with. Crafting, equipping, and using items generally takes longer than you want.
The spoilery part of this section is that you end up playing as two other characters throughout the main campaign. Second up is Sally Boyle, a character you briefly meet during Arthur’s playthrough. Sally has a decently similar setup to Arthur but with an extra very spoilery resource that you must always worry about. She is a chemist though and she can easily take out anyone stealthily by jabbing a giant needle into their neck and pumping them full of her home-made sedative. Finally up is Ollie Starkey. He is a mad lad who Arthur spends some time with as well. Ollie loves making things explode and I found him the most fun out of the three to play as. There is less focus on resource management and his segment was the shortest for me. Instead of non-stop busy work I just had fun messing with the purposely dim A.I.
In March of 2019 Update 1.7 introduced three new game modes to try and deliver the survival-focused experience that the game’s original Kickstarter fanbase had been hoping for. The first mode is aptly enough called Survival and allows the player to choose from Arthur, Sally, or Ollie to play as. You get to then pick which size island along with multiple other options as well and your task is to last as long as possible before your inevitable demise at the hand of the bobbies. The Night Watch allows you to take up the role of Constable John Constable, a man born for his profession. Constable Constable’s focus is on beating up as many downers and plague victims as possible, each one earns you money with which you can buy upgrades and Joy. If you run out of Joy though it is game over. Finally, there was a Sandbox mode added where you could simply have fun using all the tools that the devs could think of to mess about with their gameplay systems. I personally found the Night Watch to be the most enjoyable as Constable Constable was no Arthur when it came to laying a beatdown.
A Season Pass That Delivers
There are 3 DLC’s released for the game, the first of which is titled It Came From Below. You play as a couple of houseboys named Roger Bacon and James Maxwell who are trying to locate the person they work for. This one gives you some crazy tech like a ray-gun to use and a new enemy type in the many robots that their boss had created down in their ridiculously large basement laboratory. The gun is a nice change of pace and things handle well.
The 2nd DLC stars a brand-new character not seen in the main campaign named Norbert Pickles, stage name Nick Lightbearer. His last name serves as the DLC’s title and his campaign features zero combat. Instead, he uses the power of his guitar to fend off his adoring fans. I consider this the weakest gameplay-wise, but it makes sense narratively and I still enjoyed it.
The final DLC is also the best, titled We All Fall Down & starring Victoria Byng who was Arthur’s boss. It might take dozens of hours to get to this point, but this DLC is excellent and made the whole thing worth it to me. Victoria uses a whip which can be used as a weapon and for traversal, and a dart gun which can be used to silently knock out enemies. The gameplay here is finally close to being on par with the storytelling and world-building.
What a Story Mark
I have mentioned it several times, but I am not sure I can overstate just how much the story of this game carries it. After a few hours I was completely hooked, and despite my reservations with what a wuss Arthur is to control his story arc along with the others is truly fantastic. Joy has a second purpose, that being memory loss. A large portion of the game is piecing together the character’s pasts as they deal with their Joy withdrawals. The denial of what they have been through, what they have done, and having to face it is powerful in a way that few games can achieve. There is genuinely funny comedic moments, another rarity in video games, and in the end I found myself sympathizing greatly with people who had done some monstrous things. The ending of the base game and the final DLC has stuck with me in ways that do not normally happen for me.
Helping that story is a beautifully realized alternate reality England. The animations can be stiff but running at 4k resolution and 60 frames per second on an Xbox Series X the game looks and runs far better than it did on the Xbox One platform. Even on my mid-range laptop I was able to run everything maxed at 1440p without issue. The character designs are well known, but the most striking part is when you alternate between being on Joy, being a downer, and being off the drug completely. You rotate between a bright, cheery, and colorful scene into one that is pure Victorian-style horror when in the downer state. After reality finally hits and you see the world for what it is, neither beautiful nor hideous but instead slowly decaying and rotting away it hits you. This world is dying, and drug dependent denial is the cause.
A Psychedelic Symphony and Some Jolly Good Voice Acting
The soundtrack is on par with the storytelling. A mix of synth and organs straight out of the time period set the mood. Occasional full vocal tracks that are surprisingly catchy accompany gameplay segments and they helped make for some memorable sequences.
The voice acting for the main characters is generally excellent. Arthur, Victoria, and Sally being stand-outs. Having well-written lines certainly helps, but the genuine emotion that Alex Wyndham conveys as Arthur is genuinely heartbreaking by the end of his story.
I proposed the question at the start, does We Happy Few right the ship and deliver on the goals set out by the developer? After a lot of incredibly hard work, which is showcased in the excellent documentary “The Cost of Joy”, that answer is absolutely. What had been a rough product in most facets at launch is now a solid if a bit long game. The story is excellent throughout and I find myself extremely excited to see what Compulsion Games is working on next.
*Reviewed on Xbox Series X|S and Windows 10 PC*