Ask someone to neck a load of military-grade hallucinogenics and then try to get them to recount what Britain in the 1960s was like.
The result would probably be something similar to We Happy Few – one of the most original, surprising, and… well, horrifying horror games I’ve played in a long time.
While this odd little indie number from Compulsion Games might not reinvent the wheel in terms of actual gameplay, the world of We Happy Few – as well as the characters and ideas that dwell within – are enough to leave a real lasting impression.
For me, this was always the key motivating factor in wanting to come back for more chilling adventures.
If you have no idea what this game is about, its main premise is pretty simple: set in a retro-futuristic version of 1960’s Britain, We Happy Few is a first person stealth/horror/survival game set in the town of Wellington Wells.
The inhabitants of this ‘idyllic’ town are driven to forget the horrific realities of their lives by living in a constant state of drug induced denial.
In this case, the opiate of the masses is a drug called ‘Joy’. Anyone who doesn’t take it, or displays signs of being a ‘downer’ is often swiftly dealt with by the local bobbies, who may either forcibly inject you with Joy, or else beat the shit out of you with their truncheons.
Of course, you play as a downer, and it’s your job to stay alive in Wellington Wells by blending in with the locals while sneakily foraging for supplies and finding a way out. It’s 1984 meets Wicker Man, with a healthy splash of Doctor Who.
Yep, this is classic 1970s style British horror through and through – and that’s what makes this game so refreshing.
See, Compulsion has managed to absolutely hit the nail on the head with their dystopian depiction of a nightmarish Britain, this fusion of future and past styles is something you’ve seen done before in games like Fallout and BioShock, but it’s not often done with this much style.
Everything from the cobbled streets and red post boxes, to the police uniforms and general character design create a solid, believable (and lived in) world. Even the bins look like tiny Daleks – but a special mention needs to go to Uncle Jack.
This chap is the unsettling and vaguely threatening TV announcer whose softly spoken ‘Queen’s English’ pronunciation will keep you informed of the world around you whenever you choose to turn on a TV or Radio. He’s the prime example of We Happy Few’s unique blend of the familiar and unfamiliar.
See, what Compulsion has done with We Happy Few is what any truly great horror game does – it first pulls you in with a fully realised, perhaps even somewhat relateable world – then it piles on the chills and thrills.
Just look at games like Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill. Those games are horror classics in part because they built a strong world around the horror, a world in which you could absolutely see yourself. I’m not sure if the uniquely British trappings of We Happy Few will translate for everyone in the same way, but it’ll be interesting to see if it does.
As previously mentioned, the gameplay itself is where we start to return to ‘seen it before’ territory. If you’ve ever played a survival horror game, then the mechanics of We Happy Few should be immediately familiar to you.
As the game begins properly, we’re introduced to the basics. You can craft a variety of helpful tools, such as lockpicks and weapons, while your own basic requirements such as the need to sleep, eat, and drink are also constantly looming.
Having to stay fully fed and watered is a pretty good motivation to encourage the player to take more risks in an attempt to gather more resources – a few times, I found myself trying to sneak away with food right under somebody’s nose.
In one foolish instance, I thought I could kip in a stranger’s bed for the night without consequence – needless to say, the police were swiftly called to beat me to death.
But what makes We Happy Few really terrifying is that locals of Wellington Wells can go from being friendly with you, to chasing you down with a cricket bat in the blink of an eye.
As with George Orwell’s 1984, conforming is the order of the day. If a local begins to eye you suspiciously, you can give a cheery wave to indicate everything is rosy. As soon as they start to realise something isn’t quite right with you, a mob can (and will) chase you down quicker than you can say ‘please don’t kill me’.
The rougher parts of Wellington Wells will usually be less wary of you, but as you make your way to more affluent areas, even your shabby clothes can serve as a giveaway.
Stealth and combat will always play a part in this game, but a lot of the time simply hiding in plain sight will be your best or only option – and that makes for some arse-puckeringly tense moments.
When you do have to fight or run, the game presents what I feel is currently the weakest aspect of We Happy Few. This is an early access title, so naturally, it’s constantly being tweaked and improved – however, the nature of the procedurally generated world often resulted in me getting stuck in a corner, or unable to turn and properly fight back.
Basically, as soon as things start to really kick off (often when you’ve been discovered) framerates can slow down and start to feel a little clunky. But again, I’m confident this is a kink that’ll be ironed out before long.
Death results in you re-spawning back at your hideout, but those seeking a challenge can activate permadeath. Naturally, dying with this option activated means your character will then be gone forever, further piling on the tension to a game that’s already guaranteed to keep you on edge at all times.
We Happy Few is the most interesting game I’ve played in a long time. A few minor technical issues and bugs coupled with the kind of gameplay I’ve seen done plenty of times before isn’t enough to stop me from enjoying the way that Compulsion has brought together all of these elements and wrapped it up in a stylish world with a great concept that challenges what it means to be a modern horror videogame.
With a proper narrative driven mode not expected to be fully fleshed out until final release, it might be worth holding off till then, but this is a remarkably polished Early Access title from what I’ve seen so far.
If you just can’t wait to jump into the world of We Happy Few, then I recommend grabbing it now. Over the course of the Early Access, the city will expand and features will be improved, so there are more than a few reasons to jump in early and enjoy a very different kind of horror game.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.