An unremarkable nobody, a brilliant socialite, and a broken veteran walk into a drug-soaked dystopia…
Like many, the last time I put my hands on We Happy Few was when it was released in early access all those years ago. Back then I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Its weirdly wonderful retrofuturistic setting and mandatory drug consumption for the citizens therein creates an evocative space to explore, but outside that exploration, what is it?
It was apparent after first showing that many expected a traditional narrative, characters, and story to flesh out the world and tie it all together, so developer Compulsion Games set to make that a reality. And after spending an hour playing through chunks of story ahead of We Happy Few’s August 10 release, that effort is paying off.
As a refresher I replayed the opening of Arthur – the bumbling reluctant hero who works at the Wellington Well’s propaganda ministry – as he decides enough is enough and tosses his required dose of the psychedelic drug Joy. Much of the experience was the same, but what struck me this time was the polish and detail put into this section since the last time I’d seen it. The time spent retooling and refining We Happy Few certainly shows.
Each character is deeply broken, damaged, or threatened in their own way.
While Arthur’s opening story hadn’t changed much, once he eventually gets out of Wellington Wells and through the city limits, he discovers a scarred world on the outside. The fields surrounding town were littered with burned out houses and pockmarks, remnants of the war that sparked this whole mess of drug-induced denial. And there’s a pervasive sense of psychological damage to go along with that physical battery. There’s graffiti everywhere calling the establishment liars, sad set pieces full of cribs and childrens toys, and pages of sad stories left to find. It’s all working together to create a rather devastating picture of loss on the strength of these environments.
The new characters I got the chance to play as were a not-so-slightly crazy Scottish veteran named Ollie, and the brilliant, high society chemist named Sally. Mechanically each character plays differently. Sally isn’t as strong as Arthur or Ollie, so she can’t sneak up and take down enemies in a traditional manner. But she’s an excellent chemist and can instead whip up syringes full of that good knockout juice. Ollie is much more physically gifted, but he’s slower. Arthur’s a happy medium, though each character has a modified skill tree emphasizing their differing play styles.
They each have their own separate story arcs but do come into contact with one another throughout the overarching journey. In this way, We Happy Few is setting up its narrative in an exciting way. You’ll see some events or sections from multiple perspectives, allowing Compulsion to sort of periodically reframe the experience, and reveal more of the story through another set of eyes.
Compulsion doesn’t seem to have shied away from the heavier tones of the human condition.
With these two new faces joining Arthur, We Happy Few’s main characters are pleasantly different. While Arthur wants to get out of Wellington Wells, Ollie is already gone, squatting outside the city with his imaginary friend. Sally, on the other hand, is a very respected member of the community and plays the part. But Sally’s hiding a huge secret, which motivates her to want change.
These differences are setting We Happy Few up as a varied experience that lets you see what’s it’s like to run from the law with Arthur, or get a peek inside the machine with Sally. And you’ll slowly untie the knot of mystery at the heart of it all.
But from a story point of view, the most exciting part of each character for me are their obvious (and not so obvious) flaws. They’re all deeply broken, damaged, or threatened in their own way. And Compulsion doesn’t seem to have shied away from the heavier, sadder tones of the human condition either. I was genuinely surprised how powerful – and in one or two specific cases, alarming – each character’s plight was as I learned more and more.
Having only played short portions of each character’s arc I’m looking forward to putting more of those pieces in place at launch, but as someone who enjoys unusual stories told in unusual ways, I’m really liking what I’m seeing.
Brandin Tyrrel is IGN’s Xbox Editor. You can find him on Unlocked, or chat over on Twitter at @BrandinTyrrel.