There has been much buzz surrounding Little Dragon’s Cafe, the latest simulation game from the mastermind behind the Harvest Moon series, Yasuhiro Wada, and for good reason. Although I don’t really have a pony in the farming simulation race, it is my understanding that many people have felt that “something” has been missing from the more recent games. And since Yasuhiro Wada hasn’t been directly involved with a Harvest Moon game in over a decade, series fans, particularly in the west, have been clamoring for something of substance from the infamous game designer for years. While Little Dragon’s Cafe isn’t a Harvest Moon game whatsoever, nor is it even a farming simulation, it’s a definite throwback to the days where Wada was at the helm. But don’t worry about the lack of farming mechanics because, instead, you get to raise a dragon. A DRAGON, people.
Little Dragon’s Cafe is primarily focused around twins (one male, one female) that live a relatively quiet life with their mother. The trio together run a successful cafe that is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Under the guidance of their mother, the twins will occasionally pitch in by gathering materials outside, bussing tables, or trying their hand at cooking for customers. This process more or less repeats itself until one day, much like with any carefree story, things take a turn for the worse.
Suddenly, your mother is struck with an illness that leaves her in a comatose state. But fear not, for the old man (henceforth known as Pappy) that just magically appeared in your room informs you that 1) your mother is human/dragon hybrid, 2) raising a dragon of your own can cure her…”because” 3) you better run the cafe AND raise this dragon, all while taking care of me (Pappy) in the process. Wait, what?! I don’t know about you, but I smell child slave labor brewing here.
The actual story behind Little Dragon’s Cafe is quite bizarre, borderline nonsensical, but it is supported by a varied and interesting cast. As you progress the story, you will befriend many individuals that will become regular patrons at the cafe, guests at your lodgings, and even a select few that decide to stay and help out your establishment…just because. A flamboyant, green-skinned pig-chef, a shoplifter-turned waiter thats attention (and work ethic) is often diverted by his pie in the sky dreams, and a girl that goes super saiyan when the previously mentioned worker slacks off are among a few of the people that join your ragtag team. These characters often have their own stories that are slowly rolled out along the way, and the wide-cultured cast as a whole helps the quirky storyline immensely, as it wouldn’t be near as entertaining or digestible in their absence.
Training Your Dragon
Once the tutorial yoke comes off, there isn’t a shortage of things to do in and around the cafe. And raising your dragon is but one of many plates you’ll ultimately be spinning along the way. First and foremost, you’ll need to take proper care of your dragon, which isn’t quite as exciting as you’d expect. There aren’t any fights or dragon-based stats to worry about, with the exception of one: its energy level. Your dragon has a stamina meter that will naturally decay over time while draining quicker if its various field skills are used out in the world. The energy deficit can be counteracted by giving the dragon attention, whether it be from physical contact or giving it a meal, with the latter impacting the color of your dragon as well. Those looking for further depth with dragon upkeep might be a bit disappointed as it is a fairly cut and dry system. Still, the dragon is adorable and it is enjoyable to watch it grow and unlock additional field utilities, such as clearing piles of debris to even flying.
Don’t frolick off into the sunset with your dragonkin friend just yet, because you have a business to run as well! Yeah, forget your dreams of living a normal, fun-filled childhood and instead prepare to get your hands dirty. As in you literally touch dragon poop on a regular basis, but we’ll save that for the non-food related discussion later. The key to progressing the game is by advancing the notoriety of your cafe, and the only way to do that is by serving up quality food with the same level of customer service to match it. Initially, you will want to devise a solid menu for your customers, and that is done by experimenting with dishes yourself.
The cooking system involves finding a recipe, matching it with compatible ingredients, and finally cooking it through a rhythm-based game. The end result will vary in quality based on the selected ingredients and your prowess at the rhythm game. You can repeat any recipe as much as you like to improve the output, granted you have the proper ingredients to do so. Even though I’d normally never care about any sort of rhythm mechanic in a game, Little Dragon’s Cafe manages to make the process fairly enjoyable. While you might rage here and there after barely missing that perfect dish that just used up the last of your rare ingredients, the rhythmic pieces are short enough that repeat tries don’t feel like a chore and are easy enough to memorize to perfection.
With the menu intact, your head chef will take care of replicating those dishes when you actually have guests. Cafe patrons will then select off your menu depending on their tastes, often providing feedback in the process. If someone thinks your food sucks, they aren’t going to beat around the bush about it. The feedback system makes it easy to see what dishes are performing best, allowing you to further tweak things as needed and on a daily basis.
But it’s not all about the preparing the food, as you have to make an impression through your service as well. Taking orders, delivering food, and bussing tables in a timely fashion are just as important as the dishes you serve. Thankfully, your staff will help with these processes…most of the time. What do you mean by “most of the time?” Without naming names (you know who you are), some of the staff are prone to distractions and will temporarily stop doing their job, regardless of whether you are in the middle of that lunch time rush or not. If you see someone not pulling their weight, approach them and they will get back on track. Honestly, making a habit of talking to both your coworkers and the customers every day is worthwhile because it often leads to a little insight on your performance, new recipes, and even free materials. Don’t worry too much, because you can also dive in and help in these positions as well. You will want to help out as much as possible in order to maximize your reputation gains each day.
Speaking of reputation, a performance summary is presented to you after each work day that provides useful statistics on what dishes went over the best with your guests, the morale level of your coworkers, and how much your reputation increased based on those factors. You typically have to reach a certain level of reputation before the next major branch of story content is accessible, and the fastest way to do that is by running a tight ship day in and day out. I found myself really enjoying the whole cafe management portion of Little Dragon’s Cafe despite the fact that you are unable to participate directly in the cooking section of it outside of a non-management capacity.
Gather All The Things
Whether you like it or not, running a successful cafe will require a boat load of materials. Fortunately for you, the areas surrounding the cafe are home to every sort of ingredient you could imagine. The majority of these gathering/harvesting nodes require very little action outside of pressing a button. Fishing exists as well, but isn’t anything compared to the also simple but addicting system found in Stardew Valley. You simply cast your line statically and reel in when an exclamation mark goes over your head: there is no sort of skill or progression in it whatsoever. A little dull and uninspiring, but at least you can fish.
Although there isn’t a farm to manage, you do have a plot just outside of the cafe that will grow over time which will routinely produce almost every single base ingredient you discover over the course of your adventure. In addition, a hatchery on the local shoreline is available that serves a similar purpose for your aquatic-based resources. Checking both of these resource hubs periodically will go a long way in filling your pantry with enough materials to cover the majority of day-to-day culinary activities within the cafe.
What the aforementioned plots will not produce consistently, however, are rare ingredients. These can be found by applying fertilizer to individual gathering nodes which increase your chances of harvesting better stuff the next day. Your dragon will crap in its bed every day, which acts as the sole source for quality fertilizer. No, I’m not kidding. Only a few of these are produced each day, and you are limited to the amount you can hold (gross), so figure out what rare ingredients you are aiming for and plan to use the fertilizer accordingly. Fertilizer can also be used to speed up growth on the hatchery and multi-harvest node mentioned earlier, but I would not recommend that being your sole fertilizer dump if you’re wanting to target specific rare ingredients. If I wasn’t clear before, rare ingredients can vastly improve the overall quality of food you make at the cafe, so it’s important to shoot for as much of them as possible.
Probably the most interesting and unique thing about Little Dragon’s Cafe is the art style which, unfortunately, doesn’t utilize the stunning, colored pencil-like assets throughout 100% of the objects/terrain in the game. But I’ll give the less interesting, polygonal-based textures a pass since the other form of art is so well done. It’s really hard not to appreciate or, at the very least, smile while experiencing the world through that sketch-esque lens even if you aren’t a huge fan of the character designs themselves. Like I said though, some of the terrain in the open world seems out of place since it does not adhere to the color pencil design, but that is a minor complaint to an otherwise stellar showing of visuals. Did I mention that the main, original artist from the early days of Harvest Moon reprised his role here? God bless him for that.
While I’ve more or less been overwhelmingly positive about Little Dragon’s Cafe up to this point, the praise comes to a screeching halt once performance comes into play. Although you will spend a good portion of time indoors where things tend to hover around 30 FPS, you’ll allocate an equal amount of time out in the world where it is a totally different ballgame. Upon stepping out into the open world it becomes obvious that the Switch is either not powerful enough to handle the engine, or the game is just poorly optimized for the platform. Texture pop-in goes off like fireworks and shadows generate in an equally displeasing fashion. Both of these things kill any sort of joy or excitement you would normally muster from exploration itself, and ends up just being a serious letdown. These issues are at their worst in docked mode, but the handheld version isn’t totally totally immune to them either.
Short, but frequent, loading screens also detract from the overall experience, but arguably the strangest thing happens when scripted story events are loaded in. Often times, the game will load a dimly-lit, frozen depiction of the scene to come, akin to watching a live theater performance where the actors freeze in place until the lights come back into the action. The difference is that the live performance feels natural where in the game it just looks weird. I would have much rather seen an extended loading screen, or even a solid black one, in its place.
As was the case in my review of Battle Chasers several weeks ago (a phenomenal game hindered by questionable performance), I’m getting more and more concerned about Switch developers cutting corners with optimization in order to capitalize on striking while the Switch iron is hot. It would be easy to give the performance in Little Dragon’s Cafe a pass due to the fact that it isn’t an action-oriented game (therefore optimization may not necessarily matter as much), but that would be a poorly lit torch to carry for other developers to see (and potentially emulate).
A couple other problems stem from the controls and, mainly, the tutorial. Character movement is a bit floaty and almost feels like there is a bit of latency between button presses and execution. This can become a bit of a pain when you’re weaving in and out of people during the cafe’s busy hours (since you can’t walk through people), or if you are trying to interact with some objects that require a certain level of precision. It is isn’t the worst I’ve seen by any means, but it’s not great either.
But we’ve got to talk about that tutorial. I mean, holy crap. I get that mechanics and characters must be introduced in a way as to not overwhelm the player, but I feel like it moves at a snail’s pace in Little Dragon’s Cafe. It was so dull that, at one point, I wanted to hang my hat up and be done with the game.
Ultimately, Little Dragon’s Cafe is worth pushing through its overly-lengthy tutorial because once it completely opens up to you, it is genuinely a joy to play. Is it for everyone? Maybe not, especially when you consider the performance issues and the price. Little Dragon’s Cafe is a $60 game, and may not be worth the cost of admission to those that are simply “interested” in it. A game like Stardew Valley can scratch a similar simulation experience itch for a much lower entry fee, albeit in a different way (2D farming and combat vs 3D dragons and cooking). It’s really going to boil down to what you favor gameplay/aesthetic-wise as to whether the game should be a “buy now” or “wait for sale” kind of thing.
I really hope the developers spend some time further optimizing the game, if such a thing is possible pre or post launch. Beyond that, the most important takeaway for an RPG or Harvest Moon fan looking at Little Dragon’s Cafe is this: it isn’t a new Harvest Moon game (though obviously draws heavy inspiration from it) nor is it much of an RPG in a traditional sense. Rather, it is a respectable stab back into the farm/life simulation genre from Yasuhiro Wada and Co., something that should adequately sate the appetite of those that have lied in wait for so long. Admittedly, it is not the best fit for me personally (with price and performance weighing in heavily), but I do see the value in it for other people.