Were you sold after reading the title, too? I mean come on, Little Dragons Café sounds like it’s going to be one of the cutest simulation games ever. You’re telling me I get to run a café, explore an adorable looking world, all while raising a pet dragon? And that it was developed by Harvest Moon creator, Yasuhiro Wada? Yes please. I would like that very much.
Helping you get onto the happy hype train, Little Dragons Café starts off by panning through the world. I was itching to explore, looking at the cutesy art style, bright colours and little creatures (I need a plush of those fluffy flying pompom things). But before I can put on my hiking boots, it’s time for the story.
After choosing whether to play as Rin or Ran, their mum teaches them how to help out in the café. It’s rather convenient timing because she falls ill that night due to being part dragon, the blood of which isn’t syncing with her human blood (probably better not to question it). Luckily, a wizard pops out of nowhere to hand over a dragon egg. He claims that the creature inside will provide a cure if we raise it well. Oh and mum will probably be sad if she wakes up and her business is ruined. So keeping the café running would be a nice gesture.
Rather helpfully, mum has only left us with one item on the menu. Firsts things first, then, we better go find some more recipes. The easiest way to do this is to go out and explore. Boxes scattered around the world each contain a recipe fragment. Get four of the same one and you’re ready to get cooking. Well, that is, if you have all the necessary ingredients. Try giving bushes and trees a shake for fruit and veggies, look to rocks for seasonings, and go fishing for…fish. Once you’ve gathered an ingredient, its automatically produced in a farm right next to the café (which for better or worse automatically regains items over time).
From there, it’s the standard setup of progressing through the story to gain new areas to explore, each with their own style, recipe boxes and fresh ingredients. Turns out they’re all pretty small though. After being excited from the initial look at the world, there’s actually very little to see. There are probably around four, maybe five, different creatures roaming around. Attempts have been made for areas to have a unique feel, but it’s usually just a block color change. Oh, this area has purple grass rather than yellow grass, and thus the exact same enemies are also recolored. Great.
For the basic designs, there’s an embarrassing amount of pop-in. Now this sort of thing doesn’t usually bother me, but it got pretty annoying while trying to search for recipe boxes, or material spawn points. Failing to spot stuff because small objects don’t plop into existence until I press my face against them is highly frustrating.
The dragon helps make exploration more entertaining. As our scaly friend slowly grows into an adult, he gains useful abilities, from fighting monsters for their meat, to flying you around. This provides a sense of childish wonder and fun, as every nook and cranny of previously explored areas suddenly has new possibility. Wait time for these upgrades are crazy long though, and their entertainment factor does not last the 3 to 5+ hours of waiting for something new.
Okay, so the exploration is a bit lacklustre, but we’ve still got the café, right? Running this place is incredibly simple. Making food is completed via a Cooking Mama styled rhythm game with catchy jingles that I happily grooved to. The ingredients chosen can have an effect on the final dish, giving food a sweet, sour, bitter, or spicy edge. Further slots can be unlocked that impact customer opinion. Not all of them make sense though. Like, I get how a recipe for fish can be improved by adding lemon, but why is no one batting an eyelid at the eels I threw into the chocolate sundae? Gross.
Anyway, from there it’s a basic Diner Dash situation. Take customers’ orders to the chef, deliver the food, and clear away the dishes. That’s it really. Early on in Little Dragons Café, there are about four customers who promptly arrive for their lunch and dinner. You’re free to spend the rest of your time exploring. Things get a lot busier later on though, with customers demanding food at all hours of the day.
Since my staff don’t seem competent enough to run the place without me, having to be at the café 24/7 gets a bit draining. Like seriously Ipanema, you’re constantly having a go at Billy for being lazy, but I swear you slack off more than anyone else. And brother, how dare you question whether I’m doing my job while you’re there sweeping the floor instead of taking orders. Customers will leave if they’re not served quickly enough, wasting precious food resources, and I only have one pair of hands!
Managing to get the job done (with or without help from the staff) raises the café’s reputation. Doing so brings in new customers, 10 of which come with stories that essentially work to advancing the story. Everyone is tackling very real life problems, from the child who recently lost her mum, to the man trying to escape who he is. Childish whimsy is still very present however. Everything is always solved through good food and bedtime morals, such as listening to others, and respecting your parents.
While I have no issue with the stories themselves, I do have some beef with the way they’re presented. Cutscenes are super short, usually only around a minute, before being kicked back to the main game. The story menu will then tell you how to progress further, which 9 times out of 10 will boil down to ‘wait until tomorrow’, with the only reason why things can’t continue ‘today’ being padding. All it really serves to do is make the café and exploration sections more repetitive as you’re forced to wait for the next story mouthful.
Real talk then. One of the most appealing things about games like Harvest Moon, and Stardew Valley is how they give a sense of making a personal impact on your unique version of the game world. You get to prioritise what to do in each moment. Meanwhile, with its two modes of gameplay and linear story, Little Dragons Café will always produce the same experience. I spent most of the game longing for something else to do with my time. Let me handle money, update the café, or actually manage the farm. Finding the motivation to keep playing until the end was a real struggle.
When it comes down to it, Little Dragons Café consists of two café mini games, some small exploration areas, and cute stories with morals we tell to children. It’s all very quaint, but slow pacing combined with little player choice makes the whole thing repetitive. I really wanted to fall in love, and there is something special about being a dragon mum. Yet when even the game starts telling you to sleep instead of manage the café, it may be time to admit defeat.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Aksys Games.