We Happy Few’s bright exterior hides a dark secret

Happy, happy, joy, joy!

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For a while, the general aesthetic in games was dark and grimy, with muted colors to convey dismal feelings. The more recent counterculture of color was welcomed, bringing happiness back to the medium. But a funny thing happens when colorful palettes are taken a step too far. Add too many big smiles, bright eyes, and soothing pastels, and the mood turns from joyful to creepy.

We Happy Few cashes in on this uncanny area past whimsy. Its world is so bright that it feels alien. Indeed, behind the vivid color of Compulsion’s newest creation is a dark place. It may be pretty, but it is eerier than any run-down mansion on a stormy night.

Compulsion was fairly tight-lipped on the story of We Happy Few, but did give a few details to get me started. It takes place in a dystopian city on an island, where everybody exists in a constant state of euphoria thanks to a drug called Joy. At least, everybody except the player, who finds himself to be the only lucid person among the smiling drones.

The goal is to find a means and an opportunity off the island, but neither is clear from the outset. Without much obvious direction, the more immediate concern is survival. The player has a few meters to keep track of, including hunger and thirst. Eating and drinking keep those at safe levels, but finding supplies is the tricky part.

Or it’s one of the tricky parts. Another thing to consider is that the government laces the town’s water supply with Joy. It sets up a sort of push and pull, where drinking too little causes dehydration and drinking too much will put a lot of the upper into the player’s system. This has some beneficial gameplay effects like increased stamina, but comes with a hard crash after a while. Overdosing can cause the player to black out and lose a day entirely.

Past basic need management, there are other supplies to be found in the world of We Happy Few, many of which can be crafted into more interesting items like lockpicks or weaponry. Fighting isn’t always the best option; stealth is often preferable.

The interesting thing about We Happy Few‘s stealth is that it isn’t about skulking in the shadows, but about blending in with the population. Walking down the street in broad daylight will garner no suspicion from the locals, but loitering in one spot for too long or sprinting will. I could almost imagine my character passing others with exaggerated arm movements and a forced smile just to avoid any second glances.

There is a planned day/night cycle, with different events occurring at different times throughout the day. I was not able to see that in my time with the game, because I jumped out of a third floor window and broke my legs in a botched escape attempt before the day could turn to night.

It seems like it’s meant to be a fairly short but replayable game, because the team at Compulsion is putting some effort into procedural generation for the city. Though the overarching story and player goals will remain the same from run to run, individual playthroughs may yield different buildings or events, and the layout of the city will always change after the player dies. Creative Dude Guillaume Provost didn’t use the word “roguelike,” but it did seem to lean in that direction.

Combat in the preview build was mostly melee-based, with angry Joy addicts coming at me with skillets and cricket bats. Unlike the crafting and stealth systems, straight combat didn’t feel particularly deep, but I didn’t have enough time or resources to create any of the cool toys that were available in the menu.

Compulsion has already nailed the atmosphere for We Happy Few. As it turns out, there are some cool ideas for a game under that too, and the way the gameplay and the narrative interact via the unique stealth system is a great touch. It certainly needs some more time to fully flesh out the ideas laid out, but so far this looks like one to watch.


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Author
Darren Nakamura
Darren is a scientist during the day. He has been a Destructoid community member since 2006, joining the front page as a contributor in 2011. While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. He produced the Zero Cool Podcast for about four years, and he plays board games quite a bit when he can find willing companions.