We Happy Few

FBT is not one of the Few.

Happy at work censoring old newspapers for the government of a peaceful post-war Britain, Arthur reviews an old news clipping which turns out to be about his forgotten little brother - the sudden recollection breaks him out of his drug-induced bliss back into reality; the US never joined WWII, leaving Britain to be invaded by the Germans. Before they left to push back the Russians, the Nazis took all the children under a certain age, and to cope, the government created ‘Joy’, a drug that blocks memories and leaves everyone in a state of mindless contentment. Confronted by the reality around him, Arthur resolves to escape and find his brother, but the longer he’s off ‘Joy’, the more he remembers about the night his Brother was taken, and why he stayed behind.

This is a brilliant retro-alt-future, a place with 40’s Keep Calm grit, 50’s new world and 60’s psychedelics mashed together by Joy. It’s like Fallout 3 on acid. The Joy world reminds you of classic 60s British TV and Film, while outside the cities, Arthur finds a ruined Britain filled with desperate ‘wastrels’ who refused to take their ‘Joy’ or were deemed unnecessary to society. It’s like John Carpenter’s They Live meets Bioshock.

But… WHF is the most infuriating game. I desperately try to like but it just won’t let me. There is something timely about it, the misleading nostalgia of ‘the good old days’ used to hide the reality or justify heinous acts. But in-game, it doesn’t know what it wants to be; RPG, stealther, survivalist, it’s all those and too much more, so the amazing satire and commentary gets lost because the world is spread too thin.

You can spend hours walking and find little – mostly nothing at all, and whenever Arthur gets a mission, it’s invariably at the opposite end of the map. And when you get there, the thing that he needs to get for them is back at the other end of the map. And that’s where it gets really annoying.

Being off your meds can attract attention – and more attention until you’re running for your life, which attracts more attention until you’re cornered by an angry mob armed with cricket-bats. It’s great at first, but the game isn’t complex enough to make it fun/tense. If you take Joy to hide yourself your abilities wane, if you take too little you get noticed, and the balancing of that is way off. The world has very few places to evade in or use tactically. The world in Joy-land is just window dressing, the reality is get spotted and off you run, until cricket bat time.

In the wilderness it’s not much better. Anything you scavenge or trespass into will trigger a fight. Just getting anywhere is a real bind. You can unlock old bomb-shelter style bunkers connected by sewers to fast travel but it’s not enough to speed things up.

Of course, each mission requires you to infiltrate somewhere, by stealth, subterfuge or just go in bat-waving. Because the NPCs have zero tolerance and their reaction attracts everyone, you always end up surrounded by bodies which makes Arthur’s apologies ring hollow – you just bludgeoned ten people for the hundredth time, get over it.

The game isn’t totally playing fair either. More than a few bugs proved to be my undoing, the NPC’s ability to spot mischief is preternatural and their AI has two modes – suspicious or stand in the way. In one case I walked down an alleyway behind an NPC who decided to turn back. I couldn’t get past her, another came up from behind and in such close proximity they could tell I was off my Joy, so pulled iron pipes out of their mini-skirts and beat me to death. Which took ages. Fights are simple block/bash, then you respawn miles from where you wanted to be, with no Joy, low health and less interest in going through it all again just to have it repeat.

There are nice management moments though, like wandering into the wilds in a smart suit will get you attacked, while entering the Village in scruffs will get the police on you quick, but mostly the management feels shoe-horned in. Every weapon is basically the same, the skill-unlocks are pointless (you can remove the noise of lockpicking, but someone always sees you), your inventory is packed with stuff you never use, and in-the-field health is a faff, causing you to endlessly retreat back to a safe-house to trudge for miles back.

It becomes clear this is a society on a downward slide – there’s a Plague, Joy shortage and what occurred is never far from the surface; encounters trigger Arthur’s memories, and he keeps asking himself why he didn’t stay on the train with his brother… Unfortunately, because of the scale, the futile exploring, backtracking, and reloading, it took me the better part of 15 hours to discover the answer. As I sat contemplating the admittedly moving and satisfying reveal, and thinking maybe I’d been too harsh on WHF, Part Two started. What?

It all completely resets, the same world but explored from the point of view of Sally, an ex-crush of Arthur’s and 90s throwback to female characters - less able to fight but big on flirting; I mean, dialogue choices. Its revealed that she’s done something no one else has – had sex while on Joy, and now has a child to escape with, another bit of management. It just feels like one throwback too far to have the only female lead be a supposedly promiscuous sexpot with a baby. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a part three from the viewpoint of Ollie, an old soldier who is trying to reconcile reality with the hollow memorials. Both parts, along with Arthur’s story form a fantastic three-way satire on nostalgia but it’s at least two and half times too many. I ain't got time for that.

All three intersect in their respective stories; in fact, the stories differ and having unreliable narrators gives the whole thing a dream-like surrealism that you wish there was more focus on. If this had been linear, or pulled a tighter it would have been awesome. By the time you see Sally or Ollie's version of events, you've forgotten Arthur's experience.

If it had just been a third the size, more linear and focused, and a bit fairer in its execution, then I’d have really gotten into the subversive social commentary it’s trying to make. There is so much stuff here that deserves to make WHF one of the best games of the year – the way some security checks are in the style of gameshows or kid’s games, the jabs at British culture and hollowness of romanticising of the past, the subtext of the missions, and the opposing views of the three leads; and so much more, but it’s just a game that lost focus.

It’s just frustrating because for the first few hours, it’s an undiscovered gem – I was regretting that I avoided it on early access because the reviews were brutal. But now, I’m glad I waited for the sales. Like the world it’s set in, once the Joy wears off it’s a drag.