Easy Does it
I don’t say this very often about games that I play — normally because it isn’t something that needs to be said — but I feel as though you need to go into Little Dragons Café with a certain mindset. If you’re anything like me, when you heard the name “Yasuhiro Wada” being tacked onto a game like this, your mind immediately went to one place — Story of Seasons. And that’s fine. In fact, it would be kind of weird to not immediately jump to that series if you know who Wada is. But I’ll set the record for you straight right now; Little Dragons Café isn’t Story of Seasons. While it certainly does embody the spirit of SoS in some ways, it never tries to be anything but itself. And credit where it’s due, it does a pretty good job at distancing itself from its farming-based brethren as much as it can.
But that leaves us with something else to consider. What do you get when you take a game like Story of Seasons and remove its core mechanics? Well, something very… simple. Something that goes out of its way to challenge the player as little as possible, and instead let them focus on the world around them. To those wanting a challenge — those wanting to feel the thrill of both success and failure — you aren’t going to find much here. Truthfully, that kind of bothered me at first. However, as I continued to play, something began to occur to me. Regardless of its actual intentions, Little Dragons Café is basically a children’s game. It doesn’t much care what you do, nor when or how you decide to do it. Sure, there are objectives to follow, but none that you can actually fail. Little Dragons Café just wants you to enjoy the simulated life that it’s providing you. And, once you start let that settle in, the game becomes a lot more enjoyable overall.
Kitchens and Dragons
Despite its endearingly happy-go-lucky attitude present throughout the entire game, Little Dragons Café does start out on a bit of a sour note. The story follows twins Rin and Ren who, along with their mother, work tougher in a cozy café near the sea, aptly titled the “Little Dragons Café”. Together, the three work hard, share laughter and love, and live out their days happily… until disaster strikes, of course. One day, the twins wake up to find that their mother, rather than preparing the café like normal, is still in bed. And she isn’t waking up. Fearing for the worst the twins begin franticly discussing what to do, until a magical floating grandpa named Pappy appears in front of them (I swear this is really what happens). He tells the two that their mother is actually half-dragon, that her dragon and human blood isn’t mixing well with her dragon blood, and that the twins need to raise their own dragon to save their mother. He also summons a dragon egg for them because, you know, those aren’t very easy to find. Rin and Ren not only agree to this, but they also decide to keep the café open as well — vowing that everything will be just as good as it ever was when their mother finally awakens.
After reading that, I’m sure that you have a lot of questions. I did, too. But you’re going to have to shelve all of them, because I can tell you right now, despite not knowing what your exact question is, that you probably won’t be getting an answer. LDC isn’t really one for exposition. It doesn’t focus on backstories more than it has to — especially when it comes to your own family — and instead chooses to focus on the here-and-now. In a way, that’s very admirable. To be fair, I doubt most children would want to sit down and listen to a lecture about their possibly centuries-long family history while their mother is literally dying next to them. Still, I don’t think that a little more exposition in the beginning would have hurt. After all, it’s not every day that you find out that your mom’s half-dragon!
Strangely enough, most of LDC doesn’t actually focus on the twins’ journey to save their mother. Instead, it focuses on the many patrons which frequent their quaint, little café. Each of these unique patrons ended up being delightfully diverse — and include a crybaby warrior, a “catty” pop idol, and even a ghost — and each bring their own unique flavor to the tasty smorgasbord of personalities already lining up the café. Naturally, none of these “spotlight patrons” are here to simply dine and dash, however (except for Billy). Like you, they each have their own problems. Problems which, for some reason or another, brought them into the Little Dragons Café. And, being the good little kids that you are, you do everything you can to help them — all while never failing to neglect your own duties.
None of Little Dragon Café’s narratives are particularly alarming or thought-provoking. They won’t leave you speechless, nor will they cause you to think long after they’ve occurred. But what they will do, however, is make you smile. When you get down to it, LDC is about happiness and hope. It’s about not only taking the time to do what’s right for yourself, but about helping others however you can along the way. Sometimes, “just being nice” is all that you really need to make a story enjoyable. And in that sense, LDC’s story does quite well for itself.
Exploration Made Easy
LDC’s narrative may revolve entirely around the café after which the game is named, but most of the actual gameplay doesn’t take place there. Rather than forcing the player to remain stuck inside of a small (although admittedly very cheerful) café, the player is instead tasked with exploring the island around them. As a premise, this is pretty exciting. Unfortunately, there isn’t actually that much to do. In spite of how the game sets itself up, LDC ends up being little more than an adorable, incredibly visually appealing walking simulator with collect-a-thon mechanics thrown in for good measure. You leave your café, collect ingredients — and maybe the occasional recipe fragment or two — return to your house for some well-deserved sleep, and do it all over again the next day. The exploration is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also repetitive. Very repetitive.
Fortunately, some of that repetition is mitigated thanks to the game’s own mascot. While your dragon may not be able to do much in the beginning, they slowly grow over time and develop new abilities in the process. This, in turn, allows the player to explore more of the island. Truthfully, I would have liked to have seen more from the player’s dragon — especially where raising them is concerned. Outside of feeding and petting them, your dragon pretty much takes care of itself. Honestly, after having played the game, the dragon seems like kind of a strange fit. I’m aware that its placement into LDC wasn’t something that was planned from the start, and, despite it ultimately enhancing the game, it does come across as being somewhat shoehorned in. By adding in additional care-taking mechanics, the developers could have not only helped to smooth over the fact that adding the dragon in was a late decision, but also could have added to the game’s quality The overall lack of interaction with your dragon really feels like a missed opportunity.
A Bountiful Harvest
As I’ve already said, LDC places significant importance on harvesting crops. But in this game, you don’t do it in the way that you’re probably used to. All of that actual farming? Gone. No need to till soil, plant seeds, and lovingly take care of your crops. Instead, you’ll find everything you need in the wild. Don’t get too excited, though. Although scavenging around for all of your resources might sound like the beginnings of a survival or resource management game, it isn’t. The island that you live on is lush with flora that, for some unknown reason, has the capability to grow both numerous and varied kinds of vegetation. A single harvesting session from one of the many plants within the game could yield you carrots and mushrooms one day, and cabbage and potatoes the next. Heck, that’s not even the weirdest this game gets. This game even has plants that produce condiments. Have you ever reached into a pitcher planet and pulled out a bottle — a literal bottle — of ketchup? You will in this game!
Veggies are good and all, but LDC offers foodstuffs of the more protein-packed variety for players to collect as well. Living on the island are two types of “huntable” animals (outside of fish, anyway); Yakis and Zuccis. Yakis, LDC’s strange birdlike creatures merely require that you bump into them to get them to drop the goods. Zuccis, on the other hand, aren’t as simple, requiring that the player bait them into chasing them and then lead them straight into a wall. And if that’s too much work, you can just get your dragon to take them out (if its grown up enough). As frustrating as it could be sometimes due to the odd hitboxes that this game employs, hunting actually ended up being one of my favorite things to do. Chasing something down (or avoiding the same fate) always felt like a breath of fresh air compared to picking up fruits and veggies and, while I wish that they had done more with hunting, I was thankful for what was there.
The randomness of LDC’s collection mechanics ends up being both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, RNG can be kind of fun. The fact that you won’t always get the same thing can be exciting, especially in a low-stakes game like this one, and it helps make the very repetitive process that it LDC’s day-to-day collections feel less tedious. On the other hand, it also tripped me up a few times. Although most ingredients are easy to come by, there are a few which don’t like to crop up very often. Normally, that would be fine, but LDC has no kind of ingredient journal whatsoever — it’s up to the player to memorize where everything is, and where everything could be. Because of this, it’s quite possible to become stuck if you don’t know where to find what you’re looking for. I’m okay with not always getting what I want from a search point — I’ve already admitted to liking RNG — but a complete inability to track where things spawn in a game that’s almost entirely about collecting things seems cruel.
Serving up Smiles (Mostly)
All of those ingredients and recipes that you collect while you’re out aren’t just for show; Little Dragons Café also lets you cook up culinary delights for your dragon. Cooking isn’t delegated to merely selecting the ingredients and hitting “Okay”, however. Amusingly, the game instead actually makes the player cook up the dish themselves through, of all things, a rhythm game. Normally, I would be all for this. I love rhythm games. But LDC has a tiny problem when it comes to actually staying on-tempo. Fortunately, these beat-based mini games never last longer than 10 – 20 seconds, and your overall quality doesn’t actually matter a whole lot, but it’s still annoying. I can overlook a lot of things, but there’s no excusing a rhythm game whose notes are off-beat at least 50% of the time.
Players are also able to help their fellow staff members out at the café during lunch and dinner hours, and I’m happy to say that this goes over a lot better than the actual cooking. Working at the café isn’t any more difficult than any other portion of the game, with the player basically just walking from place to place as they take orders and serve up food. It’s a small part of the game, and not one that’s actually necessary, but it still makes for a fun break when you get tired of collecting things.
Pleasant, but Plain
I’ve played Little Dragons Café all the way through, and my opinions on it are still, quite honestly, very mixed. On one hand, I appreciate it for what it is. As much as I enjoy complex and difficult games, I’m not immune to the charm of stopping to smell the pixelated roses. If you’re looking for something that’s both easy and happy, LDC is great. On the other hand, I was expecting something more from Yasuhiro Wada. There are so many things that you can do in this game. You can explore an entire island, cook unique dishes, work in a café, and even raise a dragon — but nothing feels as fleshed out as it should be. In the end, yes, I suppose that I would recommend LDC — it’s a nice game to sit down and unwind with, and I still stick by what I said about it being great for children — just don’t go in expecting it to be yet another Story of Seasons game, lest you’ll end up being disappointed.
FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4 ; Publisher: Aksys Games ; Developer: Aksys Games, TOYBOX Inc. ; Players: 1 ; Released: August 24, 2018 ; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10+ ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Little Dragons Café given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.