We Happy Few Is (Now) Good At Being What It Is

In 2018, We Happy Few officially left early access and became a fully developed game. Allegedly. Footage from reporters at the scene verify that it was a Bethesda-grade cavalcade of bugs that interfered with the gameplay to the point where the game could only be enjoyed as a glitch safari. The heaping of shame the developers received for the state of that release was well-deserved, although I note that Bethesda got away with it for like four games until people finally noticed in Fallout 76.

Still, the whole point of having early access is so you can sell a cheaper version of the game in a playable but incomplete state with the promise that people who buy into the half-finished version will be upgraded feature by feature to the full release version for no additional charge, receiving each build as it’s finalized. It helps the developers bring in funds while they’re making the game, gives them a profit-positive QA process, and the game’s most enthusiastic fans can get their hands on it early, at a lower price in recognition of the risk that the game will never be completed, and have some influence on the game’s direction during production, while people who are more casually interested can just buy the full version when/if it gets released. It’s a good idea in theory, and even sometimes in execution. We Happy Few scammed the people who bought it only after it left early access, though: Those people took the deal that they’d pay full price (and I do mean full price – the initial release price was $60!) for a copy of the game that was finished the moment they installed it, and what they got was a feature-complete but glitched to Hell mid-beta release. Boo.

That said, people who bought in early, or who did what I do and waited two or three years for the dust to settle, got a perfectly good deal, because the game did eventually become good, though even in its 2020 state (when the developers seem to be largely finished with it) it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its premise.

The game’s bugs were mostly fixed (one quest line stands out as an aggravating exception), which leaves its main strengths and weaknesses being things that are endemic to the genre it’s in. It’s a stealth/survival game and that’s a weird combination that made sense primarily in the context of 2015, the year it Kickstarted, and was out of place even in 2018, the year it released, let alone 2020, the year I’m writing this, but if you like both of those things then We Happy Few does a perfectly good job of transitioning seamlessly between them. The Garden District areas are heavier on survival, with resources being more scarce and enemies infrequent enough that you can brawl your way past them instead of sneaking, while Wellington Wells proper is heavier on stealth, with resources being so hyper-abundant that you’ll burgle a house and leave half its contents behind because you just don’t need any more coarse linen while enemies are also so hyper-abundant that they may as well be infinite (possibly are literally infinite? I’m not sure how the respawn mechanic works) if you try to fight in the main streets, necessitating that you sneak past enemy checkpoints and patrols, and if you get caught you have to run into an alleyway where you can safely fight your way past the handful of guys who chased you without also aggroing the constant foot traffic.

The setting is fascinating, unique, and well-realized with solid writing and voice acting, unfolding three different interconnected stories each with its own character arc, and with each of the three main characters crossing over with one another. The initial character’s story is a grand tour of everything in the game in a way that works moment-to-moment but definitely reeks of contrivance when you take a step back and consider the narrative as a whole, while the other two are freed from the need to introduce you to the setting and are thus able to focus on their characters’ arcs.

As much as the seamless integration of stealth and survival is praise-worthy, though, the stealth and survival mechanics are pretty simplistic. I think the best representative sample of the problems with We Happy Few’s stealth mechanics is the detector turret that will demand you take a Joy pill (in compliance with the dystopian government’s mandate that all citizens be stoned out of their mind at all times to distract from the state of crisis to the point of imminent collapse their society exists in), but you can just ignore it, because from the time it begins its countdown to the time it actually administers any consequences, you can just walk out of its radius and it’ll forget all about you. Social stealth mechanics are there, but only barely, and the game is saved from the shallowness of its mechanics by the shallowness of its enemy design, who are dumb and straightforward enough to be easily handled by the somewhat limited stealth tools you’re given.

If you play We Happy Few, definitely play it for its setting and story, which are now bug-free enough to be perfectly enjoyable. The social stealth mechanics are great as roleplaying prompts even if they’re not particularly challenging, and the survival mechanics give a great sense of progression from a terrified fugitive to a demi-god of civil unrest.

There is a bit of an issue with ludonarrative dissonance, though, which happens to be most egregiously highlighted by the same quest chain that remains bug-ridden. Don’t do the butcher quests unless you really want to go for full completion or something. In my game, I dragged a butcher’s boy whose legs had been broken to safety in a house whose occupants I’d cleaned out the day before when they responded to a burglary for vital supplies with drug-induced super-aggression. Night fell and the guards came out in force to enforce the curfew, so in order to get him to safety I wound up plowing through two or three different squads of about a half-dozen constables each. There was still a bit left in the game’s plot, but this was the moment of apotheosis for my journey through the game, the moment when my Arthur Hastings had clearly arrived as the biggest badass in the city who could clear out swarms of lesser combatants.

The game’s plot still wanted to portray Arthur as a somewhat meek character who gave frantic apologies for harming his foes, though. Later in the same quest line you find yourself cutscene-captured by a cannibal butcher, enslaved by him for a few brief but infuriating quests, and then when you get your stuff back, you still have to hide from him and rat him out to the police rather than grabbing Mjolnir to cave his face in yourself. In gameplay, Arthur is at this point so powerful that he can take on one of the elite red-suited constables even without all his equipment, but the butcher guy gets a giant arsenal of insta-kill Tesla lasers to back him up, because this game really liked the opening scene of Delicatessen and demands you re-enact their version of it, which does not include the villain having their head caved in at any point.

Prior to cutscene incompetence kicking in, I was more deeply immersed into We Happy Few than I had been in almost any game, albeit largely by coincidence, as Arthur’s brawl with the curfew-enforcing constabulary for the sake of the crippled butcher’s boy simultaneously highlighted how incredibly badass he’d become and how pointless that was to his ultimate goal, which was to atone for a mistake he’d made twenty years ago and whose consequences were already so thoroughly set in stone that no amount of personal hyper-competence could reverse them. The butcher’s boy he was tearing the police force to shreds in order not to abandon and the brother he had abandoned long ago made very good parallels to one another, and for gameplay!Arthur it was simultaneously a decisive growth past the person he had been back in the flashbacks when he abandoned his brother and a moment of total futility: What does it matter that he’s grown, when the person he’s wronged is somewhere on the continent and Arthur still has no idea how to reach him?

Then I spent thirty minutes bouncing back and forth between game and wiki trying to figure out exactly which walls I was hitting in the follow-up quests were due to bugs and which ones were just really poorly designed such that the path forward is very obscure (it was mostly the latter, but still).

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