If the dragon isn’t cute, there is no game — Little Dragon’s Cafe hands-on and interview with Yasuhiro Wada

It’s always a treat to get some quality, unrestricted hands-on time with a game before it launches, but my time with Little Dragon’s Cafe was made all the more exciting, since I had Yasuhiro Wada, creator of both Little Dragon’s Café and the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons games, as my personal guide. Joy-Cons in hand, I settled in with an adorable story about a boy, a girl, a dragon, and the family café, as Wada and Akibo Sheih, the founder and CEO of Aksys Games, looked on. No pressure.

Little Dragon’s Café, or LDC for short, focuses on a small café perched on the cliffs of an island, not too far of a cry from the rundown farmhouse you traditionally inherit in Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons. “I like making games about places that are not in the city, so that was the idea behind the island,” Wada explained through Sheih, who was translating. The island is surprisingly large, though you’re restricted in where you can explore early on.

You begin by running errands for your mother, collecting eggs and other ingredients, then, much to the twins’ surprise, Mom suggests that you try cooking a dish yourself. “Right now, the kids have been relying on their mother,” Wada explained as I laughed at the open-mouthed looks of panic on the character’s faces. Cooking in LDC revolves around a rhythim mini game; the better you do, the higher quality product you’ll be able to place on your menu. I didn’t do so great, what with learning the system and trying to carry on a conversation at the same time, but Wada was unconcerned. “There is no penalty if you don’t do well at the cooking game, but if you do well something good will happen. You’ll be cooking a lot, and making a lot of recipes, so you’ll get better at it.”

The good news is that you won’t be cooking every meal which your café serves; whichever twin you don’t choose to play as will be in charge of managing the Café and they’ll do the bulk of the cooking. One of the cornerstones of this game is finding and restoring lost recipes, and fragments are scattered all across the island. Once you’ve collected all four parts of a recipe, you’ll need to cook it before you can add it to the Café’s menu. You can also go back and re-cook any dish to try and boost its quality, something which becomes important later in the game, when customers start leaving Yelp-style reviews, which can apparently be pretty brutal if your dishes are sub-par.

Little Dragon’s Café is, according to Wada, primarily an adventure game, and you’ll be spending most of your time exploring the island with the help of your newly-hatched dragon. Oh yeah, did I mention there’s an adorable baby dragon you get to run around with? When your mother mysteriously falls ill, an old man appears, bringing a dragon egg and hope for the twins. The adventure officially begins once your custom-named dragon hatches, and you set off to explore the island together, gathering ingredients, farming, and creating dishes to delight people all the world over.

“The dragon is an important part of the game, as important as the recipes,” Wada explained as I asked my scaly buddy to crawl inside a small cave. “Recipes will help you bring in new people, and your dragon, as it grows, will be able to help you by ramming monsters, so you can collect an ingredient from them, flying, and clearing obstacles.” And, of course, the dragon is cute. Ridiculously cute. It hatches one of three colors, depending on a decision you make during the tutorial, changes colors as it grows based upon what you feed it, and it loves to be petted. I kept remarking on how adorable my little blue buddy was, which only made Wada laugh. “If the dragon isn’t cute, there is no game.”

There are two distinct art styles within Little Dragon’s Café, the brightly colored, 3D world of the island, and the hand-colored, 2D, storybook-feel of the Café’s interior. “We wanted it to look like a fairytale,” Wada explained, motioning to the walls. While the two styles are distinct, they mesh well. The scribbled, crosshatched look of the inside of the Café has been carried over into the 3D models of the world, making it feel harmonious.

Time marches on as you explore the island, and the world changes around you in real time. The sun sets in the most spectacular fashion as night falls. After being urged to head to bed, I couldn’t help but ask if this game, so focused on young characters, was a daytime-only affair, where young children should go to bed at a decent hour. “Oh, no!” Wada said, shaking his head and gesturing to the trees, which were taking on a purple hue at twilight. “Day and night are very important to the game. Of course you can explore after dark, and there will be items that you can only find at night, ingredients you can only find at night.”

It’s difficult to escape making comparisons between Mr Wada’s two properties, Harvest Moon and Little Dragon’s Café, particularly when one of the features of LDC is a small garden, located right beside the Café. While Little Dragon’s Café does feature farming, it’s far more simplified than in Harvest Moon. Your garden is mostly self-sustaining, and you’ll simply need to check in every few days to harvest your vegetables. There are other vegetables you will find around the island, and you and grow them all in your garden. You will also apparently use your dragon’s dung to fertilize your garden--nothing like organic farming, am I right?

The biggest difference between the games, Wada explained, is that Harvest Moon quickly became a dating sim. “Dating and marriage made a lot of sense within the context of Harvest Moon. It was what the fans wanted, so it was very hard for me to do anything else. I think there is no point in making another game like that; I want to make games that are different. Little Dragon’s Café is an adventure story, it’s about meeting characters and growing.”

Character relationships are a major focus in LDC, much like they are in Harvest Moon, but they progress differently in Wada’s newest title. The characters who come into the Café, Wada likes to say, are all losers. They all come in with problems, and, through the magic of good food, you’ll help them address their issues and grow as individuals. They’ll become your friends and employees of your Café, but unlike the always helpful and chipper characters in Harvest Moon, you’ll have to do a little work to make their inner qualities shine.

While I only got to see a small cross section of characters, I was delighted to see that they were all quite unique, both in design and personality, and that the dialogues between them are actually quite funny. I laughed aloud as a customer was so outraged by the poor service of lazy Billy, a would-be dine-and-dasher forced to pay off the cost of his meal by working in the Café, that she threw a temper tantrum, wrecking the Café’s dining room. Wada said that he had little trouble switching gears from simulation games to an adventure title. “I wrote the story first, and then I created the game around it,” he explained, “so it was easy in that sense.” When asked if he had a favorite character, Wada quickly shook his head, raising his hands in surrender. “I cannot pick! That is like asking which of my cats is my favorite. I have three cats at home, each with a different personality, and I love them all. I cannot pick!”

Hands-on with a young adult dragon in Little Dragon's Cafe

Since there’s no fighting in LDC, I had to ask about the dishes--would the twins be serving meat, or would this be a vegetarian-only dining experience? “There are meat dishes,” Wada confirmed with a nod. “I have nothing against vegetarians, but with all the many kinds of food in the world, I didn’t want to be restricted only to vegetarian dishes.” I was also excited to hear that. While there are only around 10 dishes needed to advance the story, there are around 100 recipes in the game, meaning you’ll have plenty to collect, cook, and diversify your menu with.

My baby dragon was able to harvest what looked like ham hocks from a cave, but once your dragon grows up a bit more, it will be able to charge into aggressive monsters, removing them from the map in a puff of smoke and leaving behind delicious, delicious meat, ready to be cooked. Monsters may not be able to kill you in this game, but they will rob you of any cooked dishes you’re carrying, so it’s worth avoiding that charging pig-like thing.

While you’ll be able to customize the color of your dragon, based off of what you feed it, the same cannot be said for the twins. “Because this is an entirely new property, we wanted to make sure that you could really enjoy the game. So, we focused on making the game full of features, on making it special.” The characters do have two different outfits, one which they wear inside the Café, plus an adventuring outfit which they automatically change into whenever they step outside. The Café itself will also grow and expand as you collect new recipes and expand our business. “The Café doesn’t get bigger in terms of wide,” he explained, pantomiming with his hands, “but it will expand upwards.”

“There’s a lot of me in this game,” Wada explained as we wrapped up the interview. He pointed to lazy Billy, sulking on a stool in the Café, claiming he was on break yet again. “That is me, that is part of me. I have good qualities, and I put them in the game; I have bad qualities, and they’re in there, too. Every person has good qualities and bad ones, and I wanted to show that in this game. I made sure to give each character their time, to make them unique, that was important to me.”

Little Dragon’s Café will be coming to PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch on August 24th, and will be available both physically and digitally. You can also preorder limited edition bundles for the PS4 and Switch, which both come with additional goodies, including the soundtrack and an exclusive 9 inch long baby dragon plushie. Check out the videos above to see more gameplay, and check out the Little Dragon’s Café website to learn more.

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