The creator of Harvest Moon has found a new project in Little Dragons Cafe, an adorable life simulator that will have you exploring high and low while hunting for quality ingredients to please your denizens.
Rin and Ren live with their mum in a house with a cafe attached. Not long into the story, their mom falls ill and a strange man shows up with a little dragon named Draco by his side. He explains that in order for their mother to get better, the twins must help raise the dragon and improve the reputation of the cafe. It doesn't really make any sense, but Harvest Moon style games rarely make much sense so who cares? You choose one of the twins to play as and quickly get to feeding and petting the dragon, collecting ingredients around the cafe's vicinity, and adding new items to the menu.
Unfortunately, although the concept of a cafe simulator set in a world that slowly unlocks and lets you explore on the back of a dragon sounds like it would keep you busy, I found myself often putting the game down and waiting for time to progress, especially in the early goings. You start by collecting recipe fragments that you then take to Pappy (the guy who showed up with the dragon) and he forms a recipe out of them. You must then collect the required ingredients and play a quick rhythm game to create the dish to add it to the cafe's menu. Once you've got items on your menu, customers start showing up and you soon realise that you have to split your time between waiting on customers, exploring, and gathering ingredients. This is about as complex as Little Dragons Cafe gets.
The story in Little Dragons Cafe comes in the form of ten visitors that each arrive in a sorry state, stay at the inn above the cafe, and eventually leave after you and your staff help them through whatever personal problem they were dealing with. Each day, you'll see a cutscene that shows the staff of the cafe helping the visitor come to terms with their woes and their issues are surprisingly deep for a game with such shallow gameplay and cute presentation. For example, a character's mother just died, another is a ghost of a man who perished saving his deaf girlfriend, and one believes that the end of the world is nigh. The writing isn't half bad and I quite enjoyed watching the character animations, especially the quick-to-anger Ipanema. Each character staying at the cafe leaves after you make them their ultimate dish which varies from dead easy to quite tough so finding the right ingredients to finish a chapter can be tricky.
When I said that you see a cutscene every day, I didn't mention how difficult it can be to actually trigger the scene. For the first few hours, I found days going by where my hint was something like "come back tomorrow evening and check in on the staff" so I left and came back many times and nothing happened. This is because you have to take the hint as literally as possible. In that case, I had to leave the cafe in the morning and not return at all until the time of day that the hint mentions (even if you get a notice at lunch time that your staff is slacking off). If you return too early or too late, you miss your chance. Would it have killed them to be more specific about the timing or mention to leave and only return once in the day? I was convinced I hit a bug until I figured this out.
To increase the cafe's reputation, you must supposedly create high quality dishes and you and the staff must deal with customers in a timely manner. However, it appears that raising your reputation has nothing to do with these and more to do with progressing the story by triggering the necessary cutscenes. I would have a good day where I managed the cafe exceptionally well only to get an okay rating. I also had seemingly bad days but got a good reputation increase. You're shown the cafe's reputation on a screen at the end of each day and I can't understand the meaning of the coloured arrows that are supposed to indicate some kind of trend in regards to the number of customers helped and how many times you helped in the cafe yourself. Does red mean bad? Why is the arrow red and pointing up when I helped in the cafe a lot that day? It makes little sense and further confuses the whole reputation system.
When you're not at the cafe, you spend your time exploring the island around it. You start out with little Draco by your side and you send him into holes to collect meat while you gather ingredients from bushes, trees, and water. As the story progresses, Draco increases in size, allowing you to break open bundles of sticks, dive into water to catch fish, and eventually fly anywhere around the island with ease. It's pretty fun seeing him progress but it happens in only a few stages so I found myself doing everything I could with each stage of Draco within a day or two then anxiously waiting for the next upgrade to unlock so I could explore a new area.
Because of Draco's growth thresholds, the pacing in Little Dragons Cafe can be excruciatingly tedious as 70% of the time, you'll wonder when the next interesting thing will unlock and the rest of the time, you explore a new area as you gather all the new resources. In between dragon upgrades, you essentially wake up, gather the same ingredients over and over again, go back to help with the cafe every now and then, then go to sleep and wake up again to (hopefully) see a new cutscene. It's extremely monotonous and could have been avoided easily by having the dragon upgrade more often with smaller jumps in abilities.
I haven't touched on the graphics yet and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by how adorable they are. Little Dragons Café has quite a unique design that looks like a pencil drawing and there's a lovely choice of colour palettes that you'll discover as you unlock new areas. However, there are plenty of graphical issues that will often take you out of the gameplay such as stuttering and stray polygons.
If these problems don't bother you then you'll at least get frustrated with the controls. Jumping up ledges often requires multiple attempts and you'll constantly be annoyed at characters getting in your way when you're helping at the cafe. I also found it troublesome to get Draco to hunt animals. When you press the button to command him, your character pauses with enough time for an animal to attack and steal a dish. All of these problems add up to a severe lack of polish that occasionally makes gameplay a frustrating mess.
As far as content goes, there are 160 ingredients to find which is quite a healthy list. Most dishes require something along the lines of a meat, vegetables, and seasoning and it's up to you to mix them as you see fit in order to satisfy your customers. You also unlock 100 recipes to make and after your chef Luccola creates the dish many times, you unlock options to customize it further with higher quality ingredients that can be found in more remote reaches of the island.
There's a small fishing component that simply has you pressing a button when an exclamation point appears above your head. This is another area that they failed to make interesting as it would have been so much better to turn it into a mini-game of skill rather than chance. Collecting all of the fish can be fun and there are quite a few fishing spots around the island but after you find a certain fish once, there's not much reward in getting it again, especially considering any previously found fish can be harvested from a fishing spot close to the cafe every few days. Anyway, there are quite a lot of areas to unlock on the island but not enough to keep you occupied. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that you unlock aspects in large chunks means you lose the element of slow and natural progression.
My time spent with Little Dragons Cafe was bittersweet. The story, graphics, and exploration are enjoyable for a while but the terrible pacing, graphical issues, and often annoying controls will likely make you leave a less than stellar Yelp review for this cafe.
- + Adorable graphics and charming characters
- + Exploring the island is fun for a while
- + Decent variety of ingredients and dishes
- - Awful pacing that often bores and confuses
- - Controls can be super-frustrating
- - Overall rough around the edges with plenty of distracting graphical issues