Think of the Children Review: Cute Concept But Fundamentally Unbalanced
Parenting is hard work. It involves delicately balancing love and discipline -- and making sure things don't catch on fire.
Think of the Children from Fellow Traveller and Jammed Up Studio sets out to show players just how tough striking this balance is when you have six kids -- and they're all extremely flammable.
The game has some redeeming qualities, of course -- like its ridiculous death scenarios and silly writing.
But try as it may, Think of the Children is, in many ways, on fire itself. The game is supposed to be a challenge, but it's more of a rote masterclass in patience and repetition. It'll need some balancing before it provides the "good" kind of challenge (as opposed to the "pull-your-hair-out" kind).
We tried our hand at virtual parenting and came out thankful that we're (just a little bit) better at it in real life.
Ready, set, parent!
We're Pretty Sure Parenting Doesn't Work Like This
Think of the Children consists of several stages, each with its own set of objectives. Set up a barbecue in the park. Do some shopping at the store. Set up umbrellas and buy ice cream at the beach.
Each of these tasks is accomplished by walking over to key spots on the map and pressing a button repeatedly.
The catch? While you're tending to the BBQ, your kids are wandering off onto the road and getting run over. They're climbing the shelves and getting crushed when they fall. They're getting eaten alive by seagulls.
To save these unusually dumb kids from their inevitable fates, you run around and pick them up whenever they come into harm's way. You then place them down or, because it's more fun, fling them toward safety.
You can also call them over if they're nearby for some crowd control, but as this has an unfairly long cooldown, it's actually not very useful at all. Resorting to the other methods is just more efficient.
Each child is given a random name, and it's darkly funny to see the names get crossed out one by one as you inevitably fail to save little Kristy from burying herself alive in the sandpit or baby Mort from swinging so high he flies off to his demise.
The levels end when the timer runs out or when all the kids die. At the end of each level, you're given a letter grade for completing objectives, with a score multiplier for every child that's still alive.
You can play in two main modes in Think of the Children: Party Mode and Story Mode.
The former lets you play any stage while shooting for the high score, while the latter tells the story of poor parents who have racked up over 400 counts of negligence on countless kids, dead and alive, and are now in court pleading their cases before a judge and CPS (protip: that's definitely not how it works IRL.)
Although it's absolutely unnecessary to even have a story in this ridiculous game, the writing is funny and very tongue-in-cheek, which is a big plus.
The downside to Story Mode is that it makes you play each level again and again until you get a passing grade in order to continue — a feat which, as we'll see in a moment, is basically impossible to accomplish alone.
Frantic and Unfair
The game bills itself as a "multitasking simulator", and it certainly is that — but to a point that goes beyond challenging and becomes just downright unfair.
Every level's objectives are displayed in a tiny notepad in the corner of the screen, making it a bit difficult to see what you're supposed to do while also keeping an eye on the kids.
Like real parenting, you have to be in about 10 places at once. Just as you start unfurling the towels and opening the beach umbrellas, one kid swims off dangerously close to a circling shark, another kid tempts fate by poking a jellyfish, the grill back by the car has caught on fire, and — oh! — so has the tanning dude by the water who forgot to put on sunscreen (is… is this how it works? We're starting to believe it).
All of these things are happening all around the screen and even if you run it's impossible to save everyone. Literally. Impossible.
It didn't take long before my partner and I realized the only way to get through a level was by just holding onto one child at all times and dragging them back if they started to wander off while other tasks were being completed.
And even then, points were lost for, you know, letting five other kids die, and the grade was inevitably an F, dooming us to repeat this weird parenting Hell for Story Mode over and over again.
Quite simply put, the balancing is off. When playing solo, there is no way to actually accomplish everything the game expects you to accomplish while also keeping those darn kids alive.
Luckily, Think of the Children has one saving grace: local co-op.
Parenting Is a Collaborative Experience
With drop-in local co-op for up to four total players, Think of the Children doesn't seem to scale difficulty when more people join.
Every player gets to choose an avatar: quirky, blocky people (and animal-headed creatures) with fun hats and colors. These are actually quite charming, and more features and character designs can be unlocked by doing well in the game.
Having co-op in means that if you have a few friends over who want to experience the joys of parenting, you can just about complete the levels by splitting the tasks between you.
If one player watches a group of three kids and another watches the other three, a third stands by for all the things that tend to catch on fire, and the final player sets everything else up… well, then things become doable.
We're not sure we'd call it fun, but it definitely becomes a bit easier to handle, which, let's face it, is true for parenting in reality. Sometimes, splitting the tasks is just about the only way to make sure everyone gets out of things alive.
Think of the Children is a cute idea in theory but in practice, it lacks the balance it needs to succeed. Couple that with an unfair pace and it's more of a train-wreck than a fun time.
It also doesn't help that it is literally impossible to complete levels on your own. So while the co-op mode makes the game a bit more manageable, it ultimately lacks the depth it needs to be enjoyable on every front.
Of course, we can see it being a fun and silly party game, where flummoxed IRL parents take a shot every time a digital child dies, but ... well, we hope we never type a sentence like that again.
In the end, it's silly, colorful, and ridiculous, and we'll hope for a patch that better balances the game -- but until then, we'll stick to real parenting. It's easier, and the kids don't (usually) spontaneously combust.
[Note: The developer provided the copy of Think of the Children used in this review.]