My heart all but melted when I heard that the creator of Harvest Moon — Yasuhiro Wada — would be making a brand new game for the Nintendo Switch. Little Dragons Cafe has so much to live up to in that regard. And really, it's an unfair comparison given that it's not trying to compete in that same exact genre. But does Little Dragons Cafe flourish on its own without the backing of an age-old formula?
Little Dragons Cafe places you in the shoes of a young boy or girl whose mother runs a little cafe on what one could mistake as the edge of the world. She falls ill one day, however, and one fashionably late wizard informs you the only way to save her is to raise the convenient little dragon he just so happens to have a spare of.
This isn't Tamagotchi or Nintendogs, though. The only way Spyro (that's the name I chose for him and you can't make me change it) can grow is to successfully run and grow your mother's cafe as if she'd never lost a step. That means you're in charge of the day-to-day operations of your very own cafe. Fun!
Bottom line: This game by Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada is relaxing after a long day, but there's not enough game here to warrant the high price tag.
- Memorable cast of characters
- Soothing soundtrack
- Eye-pleasing art style
- Shallow gameplay
- Annoying technical issues
- Vastly overpriced
A charming simplicity
The story is presented with a huge degree of linearity — the game shows you exactly how many different story arcs there are and your progress toward completing them. Most often, you'll be greeted by some interesting visitors who are merely finding their ways in the world. Each day you wake up, you'll learn a little bit more about them and their story, as well as what they like to eat since you're the one feeding them. Cutscenes will automatically trigger after certain conditions are met, and the game even tells you what these conditions are in most cases.
With a simple narrative, the game can sometimes struggle to give you the sort of motivation to go through the tedium of actually completing it, but this is helped greatly by a charming cast of characters who will absolutely grow on your over time. Obviously, I want to save mother and see my dragon come of age by feeding it human dishes which somehow change its colors, but I wouldn't have been so interested in the story of the boy warrior who uses a spoon for a weapon had it not been for the fact that he's just so darn cute.
Sometimes managing the cafe becomes a bit of a bore.
A large part of the rest of your motivation will come from finding recipes (of which there are many), gathering ingredients (again, lots), earning cafe upgrades (which aren't nearly as frequent or customizable as you'd hope), and trying out your dragon's new capabilities (smashing rocks and flying around the world). It makes for a gameplay loop that initially feels rewarding but quickly becomes stale as you realize just how little control you have over the course of your days. I eventually found an efficient system for managing all the day's responsibilities, and there was little in the way of distractions to keep things fresh.
Crops grow back daily like clockwork with almost no work needed on your behalf. The most you'll be tending to is the daily distribution of your dragon's manure, though that only helps produce more rare ingredients (important for making higher quality dishes) or hastens the time to harvest for the little bit of farmland and fishing hole you have.
The most exciting element is when you go out to fight some Zucchidon monsters, but even that only does so much. They can't kill you, after all, and the only thing that happens when they tackle you is the theft of any cooked dishes you might have on your persons at the time. The lack of true danger is understandable in a game that seems to want little more than to offer a relaxing time, and when the penalty for carelessness is that your pet loses one of the many snacks you've prepared for it you begin to realize that's exactly what Yasuhiro Wada intended it to be.
Even managing the cafe becomes a bit of a bore. The exact same customers come in at the exact same time every day, and while they'll order different things and have different opinions according to their tastes (which can be reviewed at the end of each day with the handy little summary you're afforded), you can mostly sweep the bulk of the work under the rug. Unless you're making new dishes for the first time, daily operations can mostly be left to your cohorts to handle.
For what it's worth, the cooking mechanic is pretty fun. You select the dish you want to make, and you'll play a short rhythm game — not unlike Dance Dance Revolution — to determine the quality of its outcome. Hit everything perfectly and you have a 5-star dish on your hands. The music is different for each type of dish you make, and it's always cool to see which song you'll have to master in order to knock it out of the park.
Tunes range from slow-bopping melodies to uptempo toe-tappers. It's fitting that this is the only mechanic in the game which challenges your competitive side, and that it will. When you miss that one note that keeps you from the perfect dish, you'll be reaching for more ingredients to have another go at it.
I typically don't like to judge a game based on the creator's older works, but Little Dragons Cafe presents itself in such a way that it's almost unavoidable. Yes, Yasuhiro Wada has his habits, and evidence of his influence is on display from the very moment you fire the game up.
Little Dragons Cafe features an art style that can brighten your worst days. I'll admit that I didn't care for the scratch-drawn scrapbook look when I first booted the game up, but in time I felt it gave the game a unique, inviting, and homely look. Much like Harvest Moon (and its spiritual successor Story of Seasons), the characters in play are doing double duty in their job to keep you coming back for more.
The further you play, however, the more you can see that the game wasn't handled with quite the same level of care as its biggest influencers. Technical problems such as frequent loading screens, item pop-in, annoying camera controls, an uninteresting world, and a clunky jumping animation often take you out of the game and into minor fits of frustration.
It's clear Wada didn't have the same amount of time, technology, or resources to dial in the quality to a level we're used to, though none of it is so bad that the game becomes a chore to play. The only chore, in fact, is figuring out ways to keep its core gameplay loop entertaining after the first few hours.
If you're expecting a farm management title that rewards you for grueling hours spent sowing and perfecting your crops, Little Dragons Cafe isn't that game. Yes, there are crops, and you do harvest them on a regular basis, but these crops are largely predetermined and need no input from the player to ripen.
If you were expecting a restaurant management simulator, this also isn't that game. You take orders and cook food, but the process of creating and serving a menu poses no meaningful challenge.
And if you were expecting Skyrim: Cute Edition, this definitely isn't that game. The dragon makes for a fun presence and gives you the feeling it's a faithful companion, but eventually becomes an afterthought when you realize its just a cuddly pet who can help you get to some hard to reach areas in the world.
That's not to say Little Dragons Cafe is totally ragged. I can always find comfort in a game that takes care to build up memorable characters, and it definitely has its place as one of those games I can count on for a relaxing reprieve at the end of a long day. It's nice to sit back with a cup of tea and learn more about those who have business at the cafe while listening to the game's soothing soundtrack. But you're not getting a whole lot of game for the $60 price tag Little Dragons Cafe commands, and that ultimately makes it hard to recommend.
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