It was a long wait to get this DLC on PC and Steam. It originally released back in January on consoles, while we early adopters of the PC version were stuck waiting out in the cold with no clue whether or not we'd ever get the expansion. I wanted to play it, but I was hoping that a PC version would be released because I was skeptical that controlling a shelter full of characters with only an analog stick (and no pause button) would be unweildy. But it finally did get a release on Steam, and was even discounted during the Steam Summer Sale, so there was no way that I was going to pass that up.
The base version of This War of Mine is a fantastic game and ranks up there with Papers, Please, Metal Gear Solid 3, and Ace Combat 4 as one of the best games about war that I've ever played. This War of Mine is a very harsh, brutal, and depressing game. But if you didn't think that it was a depressing enough game to begin with, then wait till you play it with children as playable characters! The expansion adds some new scenarios with child characters as well as a handful of child-specific craftable items, but it's surprisingly skimpy on new content. As far as I can tell, there are no new scavenge locations, ambient events, or neighbor events.
If the game wasn't already difficult and depressing enough, now you have to keep children safe as well.
The trauma of war
Children can be both a burden and a blessing in this game. By default, they can't perform most crafting, they can't shovel away rubble or unlock blocked doors, they can't be sent out to scavenge at night, and they can't do anything to guard or protect the shelter from raids. At the start, they are basically just extra mouths to feed that have the potential to consume more of your valuable medicines and bandages, but they can't contribute directly to your survival. They can also be particularly needy, and their needs can be tough to meet as you struggle just to get the basics like food, water, and an assembly line of crafting stations.
However, it won't stay like this for long, as children can be taught to do many of the same crafting tasks that the adults can do. When an adult attempts to craft an item, he or she can select the "Teach" option to invite a child to learn that task as well. The child will stand with the adult as the adult performs the task, which doesn't take any longer or consume any more resources. The child only needs a single lesson to learn how to craft that item, and from then on, they are just as effective as adults. Children can be taught to cook, craft some items such as water filters or herbs, and can use certain items such as the rainwater collector and animal traps.
Children cannot perform most tasks by default, but they can be taught to do certain crafting tasks.
There are some new items that are only craftable by children, and which are only usable by children. Old toys can be found while scavenging, and these can be broken down and crafted into items such as a toy ball, jump rope, or a swing. Children become sad very easily, and having a few options for toys can help to lift their spirits. There's also a few ways for them to play that are built into the shelter. With the expansion installed, you'll find a hop scotch track drawn in one room, and there may also be children's drawings on the wall. The child can interact with either of these locations to play with them. Children are easily bored though. They won't be willing to play with the same toy or activity indefinitely, so having a variety of toys is important.
Children can also talk to or play with adults in the shelter, which adds a welcome new element of social interaction to the game. Unfortunately, you can't seem to create scenarios with more than one child, which means they can't talk or play with other children, even though they may spend the whole game bemoaning the lack of friends to play with. The new child characters do make a couple of the base game characters feel more useful, which kind of implies that children may have been scoped for inclusion since the beginning. Cveta is a former school teacher who appeared in the base game with a "Loves Children" trait. This trait was useless in the base game as far as I could tell, since there were no children for her to love. With The Little Ones installed, she can be effective at consoling sad or depressed children, and is a good playmate for children if there aren't other children available for play. Unfortunately, there's no new social interactions between adult characters, so that area of the game still feels a bit underdeveloped. Regardless, it is undeniably charming to watch a child running around the shelter making airplane noises - a perfect example of the purity and innocence of children. It's also equally heartbreaking watching that same child beg her father to play with her or give her a hug while he is busy trying to cook the rat stew that's going to keep them all alive.
Children can be taught to craft some items, and can also craft toys to keep them entertained and happy.
You won't be able to teach your children to craft guns or certain other advanced items. They'll also never be able to be taught how to go out scavenging or to guard the shelter from raids. So they do remain somewhat of a liability throughout the game. Their vulnerability makes it very difficult to make the decision to leave them behind while their sole adult guardian goes out scavenging. Of course, if you decide to forgo scavenging in favor of staying behind to protect and comfort the children, then your supplies will slowly dwindle, and you may do even more harm to yourselves in the long term.
Fortunately for the characters and the player - but unfortunately for the game's thematic integrity - the difficulty of your decisions is mitigated by an uncharacteristic (and unfortunate) concession from the developers: the children cannot die. If you get all your adults killed, the children will be rescued by neighbors. They also can't be killed by injury or illness. If they get to a point in which the child would die, your remaining adult(s) take the child away to a different shelter to get help, and the game ends. This provides a sense of security and comfort regarding the children of which the adults don't have the benefit. I know that killing children is a very taboo topic in video games, and I'm not sure if this was a matter of censorship from Sony, Microsoft, and/or Steam, or if it was a willful decision by the developers. In any case this leniency and lack of consequences for children really, really, undercuts the integrity of the tragic bleakness and hopeful humanism that the base game achieved so masterfully. But that isn't to say that you can outright ignore or neglect children. Severely depressed children will also severely depress the adults in the shelter, which could lead to them losing efficiency or even committing suicide. And if the children become so forgone that they should die, they are taken away, and the game ends for everybody, even if the adults are fit enough to go on. So taking care of the children is still a priority.
You have the emotional safety valve of knowing that the children will survive no matter how utterly you fail.
Preserves the few weaknesses of the base game
The concessions made for the child campaigns does serve to undermine the purity and integrity of the game's campaigns. This would be more acceptable if the expansion made up for this weakness of the new content by providing additional content or by fixing some of the few weaknesses of the core game. Unfortunately, The Little Ones doesn't do anything to address those core weaknesses. I have a handful of nagging interface and control issues that are still present with the expansion.
I was annoyed that the base game didn't allow me to check the requirements for crafting a specific item unless you actually walked a character over the relevant crafting station and activate it. You also can't access your complete list of supplies while in a crafting screen. Trying to figure out which items you'll be able to craft is made a bit obnoxious by these limitations, since you have to run back and forth between crafting stations (or keep the crafting wiki open for reference).
Another thing that has always annoyed me was the inability to mark or label what tools you might need at a particular scavenge location - and in fact, you can't even view the list of available scavenge locations during the day. If you visit a location and find that it has locked doors or metal bars or other obstacles that you can't currently pass, there's no way to label that on the map (and the game doesn't label such obstacles either). It's up to you, the player, to remember. Admittedly, this is one of the sources of the game's addictive nature. I often want to play through the next day so that I don't forget what tools I need to craft and take back to the same location to finish clearing it out the following night. I'm not sure if this was deliberate by the developers or not, but there's no reason why the characters shouldn't be able to remember this information and indicate it somehow on the map. They remember which types of supplies are left, so why can't they also remember that those supplies were locked behind metal bars that need to be cut through with a saw, or that the only remaining items are private property that would need to be stolen?
Some new scavenge locations, ambient events, or neighbor events
(especially ones focused on children) would have helped make replays less rote.
Other minor nuisances have also gone unaddressed. There's no fast-forward command. Sure, you have the "Skip to End of Day" button, but that isn't useful if you're just waiting for everyone to finish sleeping so that they can work on other projects later in the day. Speaking of sleeping, I also wish there were some kind of notification to tell the player when a character wakes up from sleeping, stops performing a task due to depression, or other changes in the characters' activity that wasn't instigated by the player. Some kind of flash on their character card or something would have been nice, so that if you're focused on another part of the shelter, you'd be less likely to miss another character standing around doing nothing.
Could have used some more new content
Another one of the major weaknesses of the base game is that once you're familiar with all the locations, the game can become very easy and even dull. You know where all the easy supplies are located, you know where all the challenges are and how to get past them, you know exactly which tools to take with you to a specific area, you know where all the ambient events are, and so on. Since this expansion doesn't add any new locations or events, you're often stuck playing the game exactly as you did before, following all the same rote steps of exploration and event-resolution. Adding at least a few new locations to explore would have gone a long way towards increasing the replayability of the game. Focusing any new locations or events around children would have also contributed to a tight sense of theming for the new content, while also allowing Little Ones content to play some relevance in base game scenarios. There could have been new locations that only children could access, so you have to risk sending them out to scavenge. Crafting toys and then trading them to parents at scavenge locations (or just selling the broken down toys you find as loot) could also have been a good way to incorporate the new content into both base game and expansion scenarios.
I was also disappointed that there's only one scenario with children unlocked from the start, and completing it does not unlock additional scenarios with children. Sure you can always create a custom scenario with any of the child and/or parent characters, and all the characters are unlocked from the start. If you already played multiple scenarios in the base game, then you might already have more of the child scenarios unlocked upon booting up The Little Ones for the first time. But if you're like me, and the difficult nature of the game meant you only completed one or two base scenarios, then you'll have to do some catch-up in order to unlock the rest of the expansion's content.
The game starts with only 1 child scenario unlocked by default.
You must beat a couple base scenarios to unlock more child scenarios.
As much as I love This War of Mine, and as much as I like the new thematic dynamics that the child characters bring to the gameplay, it's kind of hard to recommend the expansion. The game always had the issue of limited replayability due to familiarity with locations, and the expansion doesn't address that issue. So if you come back to the game in order to play one of the new scenarios, then you may end up getting bored with scavenging through the same abandoned cottage and shelled schoolhouse again, since you've done it all before.
On the other hand, if you haven't played This War of Mine yet, then I highly recommend checking out my original review and buying the game along with this expansion. I also highly recommend the PC version. The game was designed with a keyboard and mouse in mind, and I've read that the console version's analog stick control can be clumsy. And in a game with permadeath and no manual saving, imprecise controls can completely sour the experience. Whichever platform you play on, This War of Mine is still a touching and masterfully thematic game, and the inclusion of children ups the tragedy and intensity to another notch, while also providing a welcome dose of heart and humanity. And when I go to bed at night, with my own child safe, sound, fed, and warm, I'll feel all the more grateful that This War of Mine isn't my war.
The laughter of children can be a great comfort during times of war - as long as you keep those children safe...