If you’re familiar at all with my writing, then you know how deeply I love the Harvest Moon franchise. It is from this love that I get excited for any game I see Yasuhiro Wada’s name alongside. He created something that I loved so deeply and in my heart of hearts, I know he’ll do so again.
He produced Birthdays: The Beginnings last year, and while it was a little rough around the edges, I did enjoy it overall. This year I find myself in a similar place with Little Dragons Cafe; a game for which in every moment I am enjoying it, I find myself feeling I could be enjoying it more.
In Little Dragons Cafe, you play as a young boy or girl who runs a cafe with your mother and twin sibling. One fateful day, your mother suddenly falls into a deep sleep from an unknown illness and a wizard appears and explains that this is due to the fact that her blood is half human, and half dragon. He proceeds to summon a dragon egg stating if you can raise the dragon well, your mother’s dragon blood might sync with her human blood.
It’s a familiar story, not unlike the one in the old-school fishing-sim Legend of the River King (which was also made by Natsume during the golden age of Harvest Moon); and plays into the element of managing a cafe— as creating delicious meals to feed to the dragon will strengthen your connection to it, and the better your cafe, the more delicious recipes you can unlock.
Gameplay in Little Dragons Cafe is a bit disappointing. While the game certainly gives you a lot to do in terms of exploring the world, gathering ingredients and tending to your dragon and cafe, there is a lack of depth that leaves the game feeling hollow at times. Gathering ingredients is limited to shaking bushes and certain rocks, and while you do have a garden beside the cafe, it grows on it’s own and produces a wide amount of products—including meat which I thought was weird. I was initially surprised to see that cooking food was a rhythm-based mini-game, which is by no means a bad thing, but am I the only one who misses the way cooking worked in Harvest Moon: Magical Melody?
The lack of depth is most prominently seen in the management of The Little Dragons Cafe itself as it pretty much runs on auto-pilot. As a player, all you can do is cook dishes to set as menu items (the chef cooks for customers) and help out by taking orders, serving food and taking dishes to the sink. This may sound easy, but it’s actually quite tricky since the AI will B-line it to any available task before you can blink; and is only really necessary if your workers are slacking off—as getting a good cafe rating helps advance the plot; but even if you don’t you can do fine most days.
But the insistence on helping at the cafe puts the game a bit at odds with the exploration element as the game informs you the staff is slacking, urging you to rush back to the cafe to help. Which could have been fixed if there were set calendar days, some when you’re open and others when you are not, giving you more flexibility to gather ingredients and explore. Furthermore, there’s no form of currency in this game, creating this weird paradigm where you’re compelled to help, but not really incentivized to do so.
When I initially got into this game, I assumed I would have a host of options to create my ideal cafe, from layout to decor to managing employees—in true Harvest Moon fashion. But none of those things are present here and so much of the game is tied to story progression. Main characters who help run the cafe are made available right at the beginning as part of the intro tutorials, and aside from the chef, their roles are identical. There is no form of currency in this game, The cafe is upgraded as the story progresses through wizard magic, even the dragon only grows in size through story progression so it never truly feels like you’re actually doing anything; and any fan of these kinds of games will tell you the fun comes from the satisfaction of seeing your work yield results.
On the technical side, the game is severely lacking. The game has an abundance of load screens for something so small scale, the frame rate when in the wilderness is pathetic and textures and objects pop in from a jarringly short distance, making the whole thing look like an amateur-hour indie game. At best, I’d say this could be a high-tier mobile game, but for something on the Nintendo Switch—which I reiterate can competently run The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, both DOOM and Wolfenstein 2, and Skyrim—this is pretty unacceptable. Which is to say nothing of the clunkier elements like the “combat” you can have your dragon participate in; which consists of getting close enough to a monster for the “attack” prompt to appear, usually putting you insight of the monster so they bulldoze you causing you to drop any dishes you have until your dragon defeats them. It’s rough, to say the least.
Where Little Dragons Cafe really shines though is in its visuals. The game has a beautiful, sort-of hand-drawn aesthetic with bright colours all looking like they’ve been shaded in with pencil crayons and certain objects looking flat like they’ve been drawn into the world itself. Characters all have an adorable chibi look that I love, and each new character that is introduced through the story is interestingly designed and fun.
The overworld itself is most interesting with several unique locations to explore that open up as you progress through the game’s story. While each new area is well-designed, and all have their own unique feel to them with a variety of colours and different musical arrangements of the main overworld theme, they do end up feeling a bit hollow mainly due to the lack of however any main town areas where you could visit some of the main story characters and the get the feeling of life within the world.
I feel like this review is coming off as overly negative, considering, for the most part, I did enjoy Little Dragons Cafe. Its problems, while apparent, are not glaring enough to really put me off the game, and I did like it’s laid back atmosphere and the few Harvest Moon-like elements it does participate in. But it is a deeply flawed game and I personally don’t think there’s enough here to justify the $70 asking price.