While I enjoy high-energy and action-heavy games, I do sometimes like to unwind afterward with a more calming and relaxing game. These kinds of titles can take many different forms, but many have some simulation aspect to them, like Game Dev Tycoon and Stardew Valley. Little Dragons Café from Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada’s studio falls in this wheelhouse, but caught my attention more than other games with its gorgeous looking aesthetic and the fact that you get to raise a dragon on top of running a small café. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
Little Dragons Café was one of the titles I was most eager to get my hands on this year, but I was unfortunately underwhelmed by the whole package. The game still ended up being a charming and relaxing experience with a wholesome and heartwarming story but is marred by obvious technical issues throughout the entire adventure, a slow start, and the lack of any real rewarding progression towards the endgame.
The game begins with twins Rin and Ren running the titular café with their mother, but things soon become dire when she falls ill due to being half-human and half-dragon. Fortunately, a weird old man the kids call Pappy shows up to give them an egg, which soon hatches into a dragon. The kids still have to manage the café on their own, though they will quickly get help from the lazy and funny musician Billy, the dedicated but temperamental waitress Ipanema, and Luccola, a fancy and talented chef.
While the story’s throughline is finding a cure for Ren and Rin’s mother, Little Dragons Café is much more about the adventure and experiences that the players have along the way than the destination. During Little Dragons Café, ten unique characters from various races and strokes of life show up, and the café staff gets to know them before cooking a meal and helping them with their problems. While the writing is somewhat formulaic, Little Dragons Café doesn’t stray away from covering some heavy topics like death and caring for a person who is sick or has a disability.
Little Dragons Café ultimately has a wholesome story about making friends, connecting with people, and learning to deal with the curveballs life can throw at you. While the arc structure may be repetitive, every character that wanders into and stays at the café is both interesting and likable by the time they leave. Little Dragons Café plot is a textbook example of telling a feel-good story in a game, and it helps make the game a great one to wind down with.
This feeling is also assisted by the games welcoming art style. Little Dragons Café looks somewhat hand-drawn or painting in an attempt. This style helps Little Dragons Café, as the developers intended, to feel like a playable storybook. All of the character designs are also quite charming and creative while still playing with tons of tried and true fantasy concepts that most gamers will be familiar with.
Running Little Dragons Café and raising the dragon Pappy gives you are the driving forces of the gameplay and work well for the most part. Each day, players have to go out to gather ingredients from the island they live on, whether this is by scavenging through bushes, fishing, or having your dragon hunt the wildlife. While exploring the world, recipe fragments can also be found, which must be redeemed with Pappy to be cooked via a rhythm minigame. They then must take the order of those who come into the café, deliver their food in a timely fashion, and clean up after them.
As players progress through the story and the dragon grows, so do the explorable parts of the island around them. At first, players will be limited to just wandering around the café and using their dragon to wander into small holes, but they’ll be able to fly around the island on the dragon’s back by the end of the game. Unfortunately, due to the game’s laid-back nature, front-loaded story, and incremental world structure, things do take a while to get interesting in Little Dragons Café.
For the first few hours of the game, players will repeatedly gather ingredients and fish in the same places, only to go back and play the most basic rhythm game. Little Dragons Café is most enjoyable once you can ride on the dragon for the first time and have unlocked 3+ ingredient recipes. Having more to explore and having a more interesting cooking-rhythm game bolsters the experience and creates an addicting but calming gameplay loop that will satisfy those looking for a more relaxing experience.
Even once you reach this point, a couple of flaws are still apparent. At this point in the game, there isn’t as much of a driving force when it comes to the gameplay. I still wanted to revive the twins’ mothers and see how the stories of the café’s guests played out, but not as much motivated me after I had seen pretty much every part of the island while gathering ingredients, as the cafe’s progress bar can popularity can only increase. This keeps things simple, but even in similar laid back games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf or Stardew Valley part of the fun is having to make money or avoid a fail-state.
There is no punishment for doing poorly outside of slower progression to the end goal you are bound to reach anyway. With restaurant managing being such a big part of gameplay, I was surprised it never amounted to anything more than making sure my staff never slack off and keeping my customers happy for a better end-of-day rating that is very incremental in the grand scheme of things. Dragon growth is also locked to story progression, taking some wind out of the rewarding nature of raising it as well. This even hurts the end game, as there isn’t much more to do once everything is maxed out by the end of the story.
While the underwhelming start and finish of Little Dragons Café can be problematic, they weren’t dealbreakers for me. I still thoroughly saw everything the game had to offer and had a nice and fun time doing so. The biggest issue that would leave a sour taste in my mouth after playing Little Dragons Café were its technical shortcomings. Whether it be due to a slightly too ambitious structure, an inexperienced team, or a faulty engine, Little Dragons Café falters somewhat with things like frame rate and pop-in.
The frame-rate wasn’t unbearable, but random drops on Nintendo Switch were frequent enough to be annoying. The controls also have a weird delay to them, especially when on foot, which adds to the clunkiness and restrictive nature of the early game. The most significant issues though are clipping and pop-in, which are both standard, with the pop-in being detrimental to the whole experience at some points. Clipping is minor, but is quite common in the café and can take you out of the experience.
I was stuck for a long time looking for an ingredient at one point because the required and somewhat hidden fishing spot wouldn’t pop in unless I was standing right next to it. If you ever look outside your general vicinity in Little Dragons Café, there is a really noticeable pop-in, and it clashes with an otherwise amazing aesthetic gameplay that has one looking for things in the environment.
Even with its technical flaws and progression structure problems, I still can’t bring myself to dislike Little Dragons Café. When Little Dragons Café hits its stride mid-game, it is indeed a beautiful, relaxing, and wholesome experience that I would recommend to those looking for a more laid back title to cleanse their palette before this busy fall season. That being said, enough problems did persist to still make it a tad disappointing. Little Dragons Café may be worth waiting on until some technical issues are fixed and the price drops if the incentive of raising a dragon isn’t enough for you.