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We Happy Few Review — Keep Calm and Take Joy

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We Happy Few is a quirky, dark, and exceptionally British survival game set in the fictional town of Wellington Wells. Developed by Compulsion Games, We Happy Few was originally crowdfunded on Kickstarter as an independent project. The game later received an announcement trailer which took the world by storm during Microsoft’s E3 2016 show. The first version of the horror-esque open-world survival was made available in July 2016 for PC and Xbox One with the promise that the title will release simultaneously on all platforms in the coming future. Now, in 2018, the project officially left Early Access and became available for all gamers, minus a Nintendo port, and runs relatively smoothly with an incredible and distinctive art style.

We Happy Few begins in an isolated office block where chipper protagonist, Arthur, continues his desk job of censoring potentially distressing content from the local newspapers. Arthur’s life is quickly thrust into a downward spiral, however, as he refuses to take the mandatory mood-altering pill known as Joy. Without delving into spoiler territory, the world established by Compulsion Games is a brilliant balance of a bleak and atmospheric story compiled with charmingly unique characters. Each friend and foe throughout the town feel genuine with their own oddities and compelling lore. As Arthur interacts with the various residents of Wellington Wells, the haunting events that occurred prior to the main plot become clearer with each retelling bringing something new to light.

The game begins on a fairly linear path as players are taught the ins and outs of the game’s most basic mechanics. Stealth plays an important role in navigating around Wellington Wells as players are not only tasked with sneaking past guards or Bobbies (police) but also blending in with the general populace. Performing the traditional gaming habits of sprinting or jumping will look suspicious and cause nearby NPCs to become aggressive.

Players can attempt to disguise themselves using various outfits that can either be crafted or purchased from shady dealers. Choosing to wear a prim and proper suit, for example, will allow Arthur to walk among the majority of villages without much fuss; however, when venturing into the more downtrodden areas, the outfit will cause people to mock the fancy clothes. To remedy this embarrassment, Arthur can choose to tear up his suit (which can be crafted again provided players collect the right material) to appear more common.

The easiest and most common way to blend in is by taking Joy. Not only does the drug give Arthur an extra pep in his step, but it will visually alter the world around him by making it brighter and changing some of the more unsightly aspects of life, such as flies or pests into butterflies. Be warned, however, as taking too much Joy will cause Arthur to overdose and lose some of his memories, forcing him to become a Downer for a brief period. During the Downer phase, the after-effects of the drug have the reverse effects and will make the world appear much bleaker and dark. While in this Downer state, NPCs will act negatively towards the player and, should the player refuse to take more Joy, inform the authorities who will forcibly “send Arthur on holiday” with a rather hard truncheon.

While Bobbies make up the bulk of resistance that players will come up against, Arthur will be pitted against various other enemies that roam the town. The game does not feature a great deal of variety in regards to enemies, as the main differences are merely cosmetic; for example, the Headboys act similarly to the Bobbies but dress like biker gang member. Headboys, unlike Bobbies, will constantly act aggressively towards the player but are ultimately weaker than a Bobbie in terms of both health and damage. Enemy drones begin to circle the street after curfew and can give Arthur a nasty electric shock if caught unawares.

The general population of Wellington Wells can also act as an enemy in many cases; if players are caught off their Joy, or antagonise an NPC too much, the townsfolk can react in a number of ways. The most common residents, known as Wellies or Wellettes, will attempt to attack Arthur with various household objects or bare fisted. As well as the common Wellies, little old ladies are mixed with the crowd, and will scream at the top of their lungs to alert any nearby Bobbie.

We Happy Few does an excellent job of portraying the feeling that the world itself is out to get Arthur, making the player just as nervous and jittery as Arthur himself. This connection between the player and character creates a more believable form of storytelling that can be tricky to pull off on an open-world adventure. Games such as Grand Theft Auto are often at odds with the player’s choices where the protagonist, such as Niko, will be trying to settle down and start a new life or going straight, but as soon as the cutscene ends, players are back to mowing down pedestrians in a flashy sports car. However, when Arthur bludgeons an enemy, he is remorseful, uttering phrases such as “I didn’t want it to come to this.” This approach feels more believable, as it makes the act of killing or knocking out NPCs more out of necessity than a violent urge.

Should players feel that having poor Arthur murder people takes too much of a toll on their moral compass, they can craft plenty of non-lethal equipment via the quick-crafting tab in the start menu or by visiting a crafting bench. Crafting works similarly to many RPG systems where players will have to gather dozens of resources scattered around the map to make tools such as lock picks, healing ointments, weapons, and cups of tea.

Other ways of making life easier for Arthur is to wisely invest in the leveling up system. After completing missions or side quests, players are awarded skill points that they can spend on upgrades that can help in a number of ways. For example, by investing in the stealthier skills, Arthur will eventually be able to freely run and jump about without having to worry about attracting unwanted attention.

Despite sharing many of the traditional RPG tropes, We Happy Few offers a unique experience where fighting one’s way out is not always the most viable option. Instead, stealth and cunning are Arthur’s deadliest weapons and picking fights should only be done when absolutely necessary as health replenishers can be difficult to find.

What makes We Happy Few stand out among the crowd is the overtly charming presentation of the story and characters; the game exudes wit and charisma throughout each interaction. However, despite the wonderfully compelling nature, the game can struggle from a technical perspective. While the title plays exceptionally well on a recommended PC, several issues are present that many console players may face, such as jarring and lengthy loading screens and an excess of texture popping. From a gameplay perspective, one of the flaws that some players may encounter is the sudden difficulty spike when facing multiple enemies at once, as foes will take any opportunity to surround and club Arthur to a pulp. This ‘gank’ method becomes increasingly more frustrating due to the minimal healing supplies made available.

Currently, the graphical hindrances do not derive from the overall enjoyment of the game. Compulsion Games is continually working to iron out the issues and provide a smoother running experience. Despite some minor problems, the game is an overall joy to play and well worth a playthrough for RPG fans or any gamer in need of a well-written bash.

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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