Little Dragons Cafe: Fun, Adorable, but Frustratingly Flawed
Little Dragon’s Cafe is the latest gaming effort from the creator of farming sim giant, Harvest Moon. As a long-time Harvest Moon fan, I was hyped when I learned about this game. Harvest Moon! Gorgeous art! You get a pet dragon! And a cute fantasy-world cafe!
Then the game came out, and the reviews were a resounding… meh. The nicest reviews said it was cute. It was OK. It wasn’t much. Certainly not worth its triple A game pricetag. But I couldn’t resist. I managed to get a copy for half-price, and I dove in.
The premise of Little Dragon’s Cafe is… weird. You live with you mom and your twin sibling in a little cafe, and everything is happy and great, until one morning, your mom doesn’t wake up. As a creepy wizard guy shows up to explain, your mom is half-dragon, and so now she’s in a coma, because reasons. Luckily for all of you, the creepy wizard just happens to have a dragon egg, and if you raise the dragon to adulthood, and make the cafe really successful in her absence, your mom will wake up again.
Since this all makes perfect sense, you dive into improving your family cafe that, until this point, apparently lacked any menu, customers or staff. Your sibling is utterly useless, but luckily, three random strangers will wander into the cafe and volunteer to be staff — a slacker dude with a guitar, a girl with a huge temper problem, and a vain orc chef whose feelings get hurt incredibly easily. They will “help” you run the cafe — where “help” means “cause more problems than they’re worth” — while you gather ingredients, cook new recipes, serve customers, and run around after them, telling them to stop slacking and actually do some goddamn work.
Each chapter of the story is built around one of the inn’s customers, a person who needs a little bit of help and guidance in the world. Maybe they’re a kid who’s convinced he’s a hero, or a witch who hates humans and has lost her powers. They stay in the cafe (because apparently now it’s also an inn), revealing more of their story through cut scenes every day, before you finally figure out how to heal their problems, through the power of COOKING! Each chapter ends with you hunting down the recipe and ingredients for a meal with personal significance for them, and they depart having learned a nice life lesson.
In between all this stuff, you explore the world around the cafe, looking for recipes and ingredients. In the logic of the game, recipe fragments are found in shipwreck-style boxes cast about the landscape, and all ingredients, from cabbages to fresh cream, can be gathered from the various bushes, trees and… weird tiered cake things. As you progress through the story, your dragon grows and gains new abilities, giving you access to new areas, new recipes, and new ingredients, which in turn let you have a better menu and increase your cafe’s reputation.
In its first half, Little Dragon’s Cafe is low-key but nice. It doesn’t pull off that farming sim loop of “I’ll do just one more day,” but it’s the perfect game to play on the train home from work (thank you, Switch), or while chilling before bed. Wake up in the morning, explore the wilderness to gather ingredients for the cafe with your dragon, pop back to help with customers at lunchtime, go out again til dinner. Find new recipes, cook em up with a little rhythm game and add them to your menu. Everything feels balanced and enjoyable.
Sure, you don’t want to play loads of in-game days of it in a row, and sure, there are bugs. Sometimes ingredients fall places you can’t collect them, and sometimes the jump action is frustrating, but overall it’s a fun experience. The art is lovely, the music is calming, and there’s something satisfying about zipping around the map, collecting ingredients, especially once you and your dragon can fly.
Plus, it’s just all so distractingly weird. The seagulls look like flying cats. You have a weird wizard guy just living in your house now, reforging recipes from their fragments for you and otherwise just hanging around looking at your comatose mom. You collect dragon manure from your dragon’s bed — sometimes while they’re sleeping in it — to make ingredients grow faster, and when they outgrow the bed, you still collect it from there, like it’s turned from bed into designated dragon litter tray. The game has fully embraced the fact that it makes no sense, and is all the more weird and refreshing for it.
Unfortunately, the game is horribly balanced in its later stages. As your cafe gains popularity, you get many more customers, but you have the same number of staff members, and they tend to slack off unless managed. Unless you are in the cafe literally all day, your customers will be dissatisfied, preventing you from progressing the plot. But being in the cafe becomes incredibly stressful. NPCs walk into you constantly, dragging you around the screen. No matter how fast or how hard you work, customers will storm out in annoyance at not being served quickly enough, with an irritated sound effect that ruins any of the zen of the game. And because you have so many customers, you run out of ingredients quickly… but if you go out to find more, things at the cafe fall apart.
The most fun element of the game is exploring, but by the final quarter of the game, you feel punished for doing so. And as you get to move faster, flying on dragon-back, more bugs become apparent. From a distance, all gathering spots have the same animation, and you have to get close to see whether they actually contain any new ingredients or whether the sparkly “ingredients here!” animation is a lie. Sometimes, gathering spots don’t appear at all until you fly closer, which can be a huge pain when you’re desperately searching for some goddamn rice for your stupid bibimbap and you can’t pick out likely spots from a distance.
If you like cute games and Harvest Moon, Little Dragon’s Cafe is a good game to pick up in a sale, for like $25 or so. It’s a perfect pick-up-and-play Switch game, and I got a lot of hours of relaxing fun out of it. But it’s not a game you play to be challenged, and so, when the later game starts putting almost impossible demands on your time-management skills, it’s no longer any fun to play.
Little Dragons Cafe is available on PC, PS4 and Switch.