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We Happy Few Review: A Very British Dystopia Charms

We Happy Few has been on the to-watch list of gamers around the world for some time. The game's initial reveal caught huge interest due to its striking visuals, attracting attention from both a style and plot perspective. Its dystopian setting resonated with plenty, and as such, there was a rush to Kickstarter to help crowdfund the title.

However, perception would eventually sour a little. Developer Compulsion Games teamed up with Gearbox Software (of Borderlands fame) to publish the title, but the news didn't take with some of those who had previously supported the game. Meanwhile, potential launch-day players tentatively watched the title's pre-release builds, wondering if its vast potential could be achieved.

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Thankfully, those worried that the power of its setting would be lost during development can rest easy. Unlike some games that see success prior to full release, We Happy Few manages to build extremely well upon its earlier versions, utilizing the depth of its setting to create an interesting world and an almost different style of game to its early access builds altogether, albeit one with a few flaws.

As one might expect, We Happy Few is a visual masterstroke. Compulsion Games has developed a stunning and unique setting, full of rich detail and smoky suggestions of a greater world. The dystopia of Wellington Wells feels like a living, breathing place, one draped in imagery and style. All in all, it's easy to see why We Happy Few has attracted attention for a movie adaptation.

Perhaps the best element of We Happy Few is just how well it positions itself tonally. In general, the game manages to maintain a perversion of "Keep Calm & Carry On" Britain, all stiff upper lip and pleasantries until that thin veneer is pulled away. Compulsion Games, which was this year acquired by Microsoft, is all too happy to pick away at the hypocrisy of its game world, and it's here that the game's darkly comic position comes through the strongest.

In short, Wellington Wells is a place of paranoia and grief, its secrets hidden beneath that haze of the drug Joy. However, it doesn't take much to find what makes the setting of We Happy Few tick, even when faced with its in-denial denizens intent on crushing any dissent. Within this, Compulsion Games does a great job of ramping up the tension, as the player wriggles through its haunting dystopia like a hunted animal.

Within this framework, We Happy Few manages to put together some great world-building and storytelling. The game never lingers too long on one character, keeping the basic goals simple and, instead, taking more of a show-don't-tell policy. It works well, the player picking up bits and pieces while catching their breath.

It's clear that We Happy Few takes some major leanings from some of the classics of dystopian literature, as well. This isn't the quite the grim post-apocalypse of Fallout or the ruins of Rapture found in BioShock, even though it has some of the same retro aesthetic at face value. Instead, its society and structure is still there, standing closer to the likes of Brave New World with its positioning of the player as an other, someone who has fallen into disobedience.

We Happy Few isn't quite as grim, though, retaining a caricature-like quality that helps amplify its themes well. On top of that, there's something almost slapstick about it, from its cartoonish characters through to bizarrely lighthearted location names. The game is less ruins of the Capital Wasteland and more Little England on a descent into madness.

It's not all Rose of Gileads, though. Unfortunately, We Happy Few does have something of a friction between its gameplay and its storytelling and atmosphere. Although Compulsion Games has done a good job of transcending traditional craft-and-survive mechanics to create something greater, at its core the remnants of its survival gameplay don't gel with what the player may want to focus on.

That's not to say that We Happy Few isn't fun, because it's certainly an enjoyable title. But, there's still something of a divide between gameplay and setting, and it's here where We Happy Few frustrates. No one likes being hampered when trying to progress, and sometimes it feels as though survival gets in the way of storytelling, a hangover of that shift from survival sandbox in early access to a more linear experience.

Even so, We Happy Few is worth checking out. It's likely that players can get past this dissonance, and if they can, there's a fabulous yet horrifying world to explore. The title doesn't quite reach the high level of expectation some had, but nevertheless, there's plenty to pick apart for curious players.

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We Happy Few releases on August 10, 2018, for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Screen Rant was provided with a PC code for the purposes of this review.

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5 (Very Good)
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