Booting up Little Dragons Café for the first time, the first thing that strikes is how damn cute the whole thing is. From the adorable twins you choose between to play as to the quaint café itself complete with delightful miniature vegetable patch and impossibly sweet chickens running around, everything is designed to immediately tug at the heartstrings. You’re then thrust into a bizarre, and surprisingly dark, storyline where these young children have to save their half-dragon comatose mother by running her café themselves and raising a dragon that hatches from an egg a strange old wizard brings by.
Little Dragons Café is brought to us by the creator of Harvest Moon, a fact which is immediately evident. There are a lot of similarities, from the lack of combat and peaceful ambience to the farming for ingredients and exploring new areas in the world. Stylistically it’s quite different with Little Dragons Café having a storybook feel, helped in part by its childlike colouring for its art style. This has even more of an impact when coupled with the slightly supernatural and magical feel of the characters and story – it's hard not to be charmed.
Having to run a café and raise a dragon by yourself is a daunting prospect, but during the prologue the twins are joined by a few characters who wind up moving in and working for them. While it’s nice to have help around the café, the staff need almost constant supervision to prevent them from slacking off. The café does run without your presence, but you’ll receive updates that “staff are slacking”. When you’re in the café helping out (which consists of taking orders, delivering food, and clearing plates) it’s beyond frustrating to see one of your staff walk straight past a waiting task and sit down. For some of them it’s kind of excusable as it’s part of their personality to be lazy, but when your own twin can’t focus on the job in hand, it begins to feel like an oversight in the game’s production.
The only task you’re not directly involved in is the cooking of the food; you have an orc named Luccola who does that. You will have to create the menu, though, and learn new dishes by collecting four recipe fragments or speaking to certain people. Once you’ve learned a dish, it’s time to collect ingredients and do some cooking. Cooking is done through a short, but oftentimes frustrating, mini rhythm game. The little tunes in these portions are ridiculously catchy, much like the music in the rest of the game. There's no voice acting, and the soundtrack does its job of being interesting, but not distracting from the game. Playing along with the rhythm game using the d-pad, it can sometimes be hard to differentiate between each direction, especially if the ingredient assigned to that direction looks similar to another one used in the recipe. Luckily, these sequences aren't long so if you get anything less than perfect, ingredients willing, it’s not too much of a drag to try again. Each dish has a star rating depending on the quality of ingredients used, so it’s important to use high-rated dishes on your menu to raise your reputation.
Little Dragons Café is actually kind of a misleading title, as the café is turned into an inn fairly early on by the old wizard. This allows patrons of the café to come and stay, and is the basis for the plot of each chapter. The staff turn into pseudo-psychotherapists as each chapter brings a new guest with their own problems. The guests themselves, and in fact the staff, are all wonderfully colourful characters, with their own nuances and personalities. Some are more likeable than others, but they stand out from one another and are memorable in their own right.
Figuring out what to do next to progress each chapter isn’t always immediately obvious, but going to the Story menu shows a breakdown of the chapter and gives you a hint of how to progress, which all but tells you what to do next. Often this will be collecting parts of recipes to learn a new dish, and sometimes it’s as simple as just going to bed to progress to the next day.
As cute as Little Dragons Café is, it does become quite stale quickly. Tasks are repeated, and to complete a chapter there feels like very little you actually have to do when you can skip chunks of a day by going to bed. Customers don’t visit while you’re asleep, and no customers means no reputation increase. Though going to bed at 7AM means no increase, there’s also no penalty or decrease for serving no customers. Not working in the café does feel a little counterproductive – that is the name of the game after all – but when you see the same customers twice a day, every day, it gets a bit tiresome.
When boredom strikes in the café itself, the wider world is ripe for exploring. Although it feels a bit claustrophobic at the beginning of the adventure, new areas soon open up as the plot progresses. Your dragon also grows, allowing them to help move obstacles and hunt the food-stealing predators that roam some of the lands. Traversing the different areas enables you to map out the best areas for ingredient collecting, which will be vital as you run out of ingredients. You need to know exactly where to go for each ingredient when you’re running low in order to maximise efficiency when you’re out. Of course, you don’t have to take it quite this seriously, as there’s no penalty for staying out for days on end.
Pressing down on the d-pad while out and about enables you to transport directly to the café, but there's no way of transporting to areas in the wild. This means a bit of each day is wasted travelling to each area, though there's plenty of opportunity to raid bushes or shake trees to obtain ingredients on the way. Navigating around the forests and open spaces is often difficult as you try and jump ledges, only to be found with a lack of precision and a clumsy mechanic which proves to be frustrating at times.
Little Dragons Café can be fiddly and repetitive, but it's not all together awful. A host of interesting, well-rounded characters provide an engaging story as you raise the world's cutest dragon. It might not be the most taxing game, but it provides a cathartic experience with its simplistic approach to café management.