Paranoia Happiness is Mandatory is a great adaption of the Paranoia RPG

Paranoia player and GM since the early ’90s, I’ve always been a fan of the boardgame’s darkly humorous setting and its dual hooks of trying to survive while simultaneously outfoxing fellow players and a malevolent GM. By capitalizing on the motto of “be boring, and you’re dead” Paranoia is a social game where comedy and good-natured inter-party backstabbing are paramount. Black Shamrock and Cyanide Studio try to replicate this in the single-player focused Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory, but deliver mostly negative results. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, players find themselves stepping out of a cloning vat in the “utopia” known as Alpha Complex. Friend Computer, the ruler of the complex, demands total loyalty and mandates that all citizens are happy at all times. Failure to comply is treason, punishable by summary execution. The player is a member of the troubleshooters — teams sent by the Computer to root out trouble, and shoot it. While on missions from the Computer, the player must guard against committing acts of treason (like straying into the wrong security clearance zone) while also trying to implicate teammates for similar transgressions.

Mechanically, Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory is an isometric action/turn-based RPG hybrid. When not in combat, troubleshooters may engage in conversations with citizens. Based on ability scores, they may be able to influence conversations via special options. This allows the player to get extra information from NPCs or to gain passage into otherwise-inaccessible locations. When combat is inevitable, Paranoia allows players to pause and give orders to troubleshooters in groups or individually. Their special abilities and mutant powers have cooldowns, and weapons can be swapped on the fly to suit the situation. It’s all fairly basic, and the combat is far less exciting than the tabletop version, as there are no opportunities for player creativity. Making matters worse, because troubleshooters are untrained and their weapons suck, battles are prolonged. This is funny in the tabletop version as it leads to opportunities for slapstick action and creative, out-of-the-box antics (I’ll swing from this electrical cable to draw their fire, citizens!) Unfortunately, those moments of player-inspired mayhem aren’t possible, so combat becomes a drag as lack of efficacy in combat means troubleshooters die frequently. In the pen and paper version, clone replacements show up immediately (at the GM’s discretion) to maintain player engagement. In the videogame version, losing teammates makes combat harder and character death results in repeating the mission. Another thing causing problems with combat is that Paranoia doesn’t explain that players lose equipment after each mission. There’s a ‘secret stash’ where they can keep ill-gotten gains like that handy rocket launcher or a high-level laser, but space is extremely limited and players never know what items may be useful in the future. Playing on the fear of being unprepared is useful in the tabletop version, but it only means that players don’t feel like they’re gaining experience or power here. Progression apart from losing equipment is similarly odd.

Characters can temporarily improve stats by taking drugs, but I’m not clear if these bonuses stack and skill checks in the early game don’t seem passable, even with the drugs. Oddly, a character death allows players to respec and even gain a few extra skill points, but it’s not consistent — getting killed may allow a character to improve, except when it doesn’t! It’s terribly frustrating. Paranoia’s pathfinding is just problematic as the rest. Characters can become stuck on walls or staircases easily, and after becoming unstuck, the characters sometimes stop being animated and glide eerily across the floor. When clicking on a destination, it’s easy for characters to accidentally run through zones they aren’t cleared to enter, and each such “offense” adds treason points to the player’s total. Collect enough, and it’s time for a new clone. It’s fine to be penalized for making an incorrect dialogue choice or willfully engaging in treasonous activity, but these unavoidable situations are irritating and forced me to micromanage my troops more than I should. All of these issues in design and execution are really a shame, since they mean that Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory is not enjoyable for any amount of time. The dialogue is clever and witty, and I enjoyed seeing Alpha Complex come to life in videogame form, but aesthetics can only carry something so far. While I can’t recommend this iteration. there’s always the pen-and-paper version for those who need a fix.

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