Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada left the franchise he built several years ago, however much of his games since then have embraced his unique approach to storytelling, as well as his lifestyle-focused gameplay. Little Dragon’s Cafe is a bit of what you’d expect from Wada, however it does some new things and presents a new world complete with its own set of new characters. It feels familiar, and yet is definitely unique. Does the game stand on its own as a solid title, or is it too derivative? Read on to find out.
Little Dragon’s Cafe
Publisher: Aksys Games
Developer: Toybox Inc.
Platform: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4
Release Date: August 24th, 2018
Little Dragon’s Cafe has a stylish, cel-shaded style reminiscent of Wada’s designs found in the Harvest Moon series. The game features sketch-like textures for surfaces, textures, even characters. It’s a very interesting mix of cel-shaded colors and abstract textures that looks wonderful.
While the game doesn’t stand out as downright visually mesmerizing, it manages to capture a very nostalgic and comfy feeling that I can’t really describe. It has a visual flair that sets the mood for a very laid back and relaxing game, set in a light fantasy world.
Character designs as really great and have quite a bit of variety, most especially the wide range of characters, races, even otherworldly beings that eventually join the crew at your makeshift diner. As the characters are the focus, it makes sense they look the best, and are well animated.
Unfortunately, the game seems to have some poor optimization as there’s lots of pop in and somewhat of a variable framerate. The framerate is usually ranging between 20-30 FPS, however, there are noticeable dips and consistent stuttering as you explore the outside. This happens on PS4, too.
This is largely gone while spending time in the cafe, but sometimes you’ll get stuttering indoors too. This can even affect the cooking mini-game at times, throwing off your timing as the game stutters and the notes you have to hit jump forward. It’s consistent enough to be noticed, but not awful.
Unlike the Harvest Moon games, the addicting farming and micro-management gameplay mechanics aren’t in Little Dragon’s Cafe. Instead, you’ll spend your days exploring the island, gathering cooking ingredients, killing monsters, and managing the eponymous cafe.
There’s a day and night cycle, as well as progression of days that are directly tied to the main story. While you can’t really farm, the cafe itself has a small farm with randomly generated ingredients. You can also catch egg-laying fowl, fish, and harvest ingredients from the island itself.
The core focus is the cafe. Following the mother getting sick, both kids are tasked with running the joint. You have to expand your menu by collecting recipe pieces, stocking ingredients, all the while managing an increasingly bigger residency with their own problems. Oh, and a dragon too.
There’s no real combat in the traditional sense – you instead command your dragon to attack beasties and they drop meat to cook. You explore the island during the day while your staff manage the cafe. At times, your staff will slack off – you can instantly return to go holler at them to work again.
I was a bit let down at the overall challenge of the cafe management. The only real risk you seemingly have is running out of ingredients, otherwise you can keep exploring and collecting things for days on end. Staff that are slacking don’t seem to have a very detrimental effect on your reputation.
So long as you keep finding more recipe pieces, add new dishes to your menu, and meet the criteria to trigger the next cutscene, you’re pretty much golden. There were times I felt the conditions to progress the story were a bit ambiguous – like being somewhere at night or just going to bed.
The cooking mini-game has you hitting corresponding buttons, with songs that are pretty much random. I’ve played quite a lot of music/rhythm games, so this mini-game felt a bit bare-bones and the song selection was a bit underwhelming or just random. It’s serviceable, but not great.
As you have to cook things yourself prior to being able to add them to the menu, I think it would have made more sense to make each dish cooking session a full-fledged song, and not a quick section of a track. I know this wasn’t the focus, so this was probably intentionally limited as such.
Outside of exploring, cooking, and managing the cafe, there’s lots of in-game cutscenes with dialogue between the characters. All of these have cutscenes and even back-to-back cutscenes each have loading screens. The writing and characters themselves are fun, but the loading screens are iffy.
The game isn’t really meant to make you fail. On the other hand, it seems to be totally focused on telling its story, which is totally centered on the two siblings trying to save their mother. Over time you get increasingly stranger guests who bring their own problems to the cafe, and live there for a time.
When speaking to Wada prior to playing the game, he told me the goal was to showcase characters that were basically losers. I wasn’t sure what he meant, most especially with the adorable style of the game. When playing, you quickly get inundated with freeloaders, troublemakers, and more.
Arguably one of my favorite characters, Billy, shows up as a layabout that resents his father. Arriving penniless and with a very dejected attitude towards work and responsibility, he grows with everyone else and starts to get protective of his new home. Sometimes he even slaps intruders!
This game is moreso about the journey of a ragtag group of individuals all coming together under various circumstances, but most of them have their own issues. As people come and go, you’ll get to learn their story and see how, if at all, you can help them. It’s a pretty relaxing and fun time.
The soundtrack in Little Dragon’s Cafe is the kind of instrumental pieces you’d expect for a light fantasy cafe management sim. Upbeat flutes, enchanting electronic instruments, and some eclectic tracks are found throughout. The cooking mini-game has its own music, as well.
I was a bit let down by the variety of music in the cooking mini-game, as well as the length of songs you play. I think this mechanic would have made much more sense if players did an entire song, and not just a fragment. The music sounds ok, but it’s definitely nothing to write home about.
Little Dragon’s Cafe is an interesting attempt from Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada that plays to his strengths. The game takes you away to a rural, sparsely populated island and drops you into a cute and heartwarming story about strangers growing together.
I really enjoyed my time with the game but definitely feel like it was held back a bit, perhaps due to budget constraints. The consistent performance issues make this feel like more of a budget title from a storied Japanese developer, and it just needed a bit more polish and flair to really shine.
Little Dragon’s Cafe was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a review copy provided by Aksys Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 8
- Lovable cast of characters that are flawed in their own ways
- Heartwarming story that has a mix of emotions
- Comfy and charming light-fantasy world complete with stylish cel-shaded visuals
- Fun cooking mini-game that ties into an interesting cafe management sim
- Consistent framerate and performance issues, lots of loading screens
- Reaction to player input with cafe operations seems minimal, or nonexistent
- I wish the cooking mini-game was expanded upon, and had more variety of music
- Some conditions to progress further are too nebulous