This is a story about a café, a boy, a girl, and their baby dragon. It’s not the best story ever told, the mechanics aren’t revolutionary, and the characters aren’t especially deep, and yet, I can’t shake the thought that there really is something magical about Little Dragon’s Café. A brand new IP by Yasuhiro Wada, creator of the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons series, Little Dragon’s Café, LDC for short, blends the adventure and simulation genres, bringing with it a heaping helping of whimsy, cute, and all of the feel-good vibes you could hope for.
The story focuses around two twins who have, until the start of the game, been living an idyllic life with their mother in a quaint little island café. Their lives take a sudden turn for the strange when their mother falls ill, and a mysterious man bequeaths them a dragon egg, promising that their mother will regain their health if they raise the dragon well and keep the café running. You pick which character you want to play as, male or female, and your sibling will become your helper, staying behind and running the café while you’re out adventuring.
Little Dragon’s Café feels like a hand-crafted, hand-colored story. The 3D figures are all shaded with scribbly lines, giving it a hand-drawn feel, and the inside of the café looks like it came right out of a pop-up book. Bright colors, simple designs, and expressive faces lend this game a storybook quality, enhancing its innocent charm. You know exactly what to expect from LDC just by looking at it.
And then there’s the dragon.
Unlike your sibling and the other café workers, who are stuck working the whole time, you get to run around and go on adventures with your own, adorable, puppy-like dragon. This little critter is full of energy, strange sounds, and happy tail-wags from the moment it hatches. More than just a cute accessory, your dragon, whom you can both name and change the color of by feeding it different kinds of foods, plays a vital role in helping you explore the island and gather ingredients. Not only that, the dragon become more useful the more it grows, allowing you to hunt monsters, move rocks, and even, eventually, embrace your inner Daenerys Targaryen and take to the skies on scaled wings.
The game is story driven, and broken into a series of chapters, each of which is dedicated to a different character. Unlike the characters in Harvest Moon, who are all generally happy, well-balanced, and eager to help the player, LDC comes loaded with a whole cast of troubled souls who don’t think twice about lugging their problems into your café. That’s ok, though! These wacky, over-the-top characters are as entertaining as they are troubled, and act as the mouthpiece for positive stories, tackling topics such as racism, depression, self-doubt, and empathy through the lens of vampires, witches, werewolves, ghosts, orcs, and even a superstar cat girl.
There is no voice acting in the game, though given the script, the odd collection of characters, and the outrageous outbursts which happen pretty constantly through the game, that’s not entirely a bad thing. As much as I love Ipanema… she yells a lot, and I get the feeling that my affections for her would have been damped had I heard, instead of read, her constant shouting.
That said, the soundtrack for the LDC is amazing. The café, as well as each, distinct area of the island, have their own music, and each fits the mood perfectly. Relaxing at times, exciting at others, I’d find myself humming music from the game while cleaning house, hurrying to a meeting, or just making my morning coffee.
Of course, adventuring is only half the game, you also have to run the café, maintain its menu, and cook food to keep your dragon buddy full and happy. Cooking in LDC revolves around a mini rhythm game, reminiscent of Cooking Mama. Once again, the music here shines, and I often found myself humming these songs, especially the Doo – Wop inspired track. Some songs are more challenging than others, and each dish become more complicated as you add more ingredients into the mix.
Fortunately, you’re not going to have to cook every meal in the café–you recruit a narcissistic orc to do that for you–but you’ll need to cook each dish at least one time before you can add it to the menu. While it’s perfectly fine to ignore the menu for long stretches, neglecting it for too long can result in severe shortage of the ingredients you need to create your most popular dishes. In addition to nailing the cooking mini game, which will assign a ‘chef hat’ rating, ranging from one hat to five, five hats only being unlocked if you hit every single button perfectly, your dishes will also receive star ratings based on the quality of your ingredients.
As you progress through the game, you’ll be able to harvest higher quality ingredients which you can use to up the star ratings of your dishes. The more stars and chef hats a dish has, the more likely your customers will be impressed with their meal. Of course, customers also have their own, unique tastes. Some want spicy food, some will be outraged if your menu only features cold foods, while still other will demand food that is crunchy. You can start racking up negative, yelp-style reviews on your dishes if you don’t keep your menu diverse enough to satisfy a whole range of tastes. Fortunately, these customer reviews don’t actually impact the game, beyond letting you know if you need to update or discontinue a dish, so feel free to ignore the little kid who gets mad every time he orders a salad. Curiously, the harmony of the ingredients don’t impact the rating of a dish; if you want to serve sunny-side up eggs, prepared with sugar, sardines, mustard, and soy sauce, go right ahead! It can easily become the most popular item on your menu, so long as you prep it well and use high quality ingredients. Trust me.
I’ve mentioned that the game is beautiful, and that beauty is only further highlighted by the dramatic, real-time day-night cycles. Time marches steadily on in the world of LDC, with 10 minutes passing approximately every seven seconds, and the atmosphere is forever changing around you. Dramatic sunsets turn the sky shades of orange and teal, shadows stretch dramatically before you as the evening grows near, storms blow in, darkening the midday sky, and at night, the music falls quiet, allowing the natural sounds if insects to serenade you as you wander beneath the full moon. A minor disappointment: the seasons don’t change, so there are no fall colors or sparkling snow for you to frolic in with your dragon. You’re free to roam the island anytime of the day or night, collecting egg-laying birds, fishing, harvesting veggies from strange bushes which grow broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and pinto beans at the same time, collecting heavy cream, salt, sugar, and even Worcestershire sauce from pitcher plants, and shaking fruit from trees. There’s a lot more that your dragon can pull off, but I’m deliberately leaving several of these tricks out so that you can have the fun of discovering them for yourselves. Items which appeared decorative suddenly become useful, and it’s nothing short of delightful.
Any fish you catch or ingredients you harvest will automatically be grown in your fishery or garden, respectively. This, oddly enough, includes products like eggs, meat, and ketchup. No matter how far you roam, you’re never that far from home. The – button on the Switch serves as a fast-travel home, allowing you to return to the café in the blink of an eye–a good thing, as you’ll often have to pop back in and have a quick word with your coworkers, who are prone to getting stressed, fuming in the corner, or goofing off in the back.
Your dragon loses stamina as time passes, and as it assists you out in the world. The more tasks you have your dragon perform, the quicker it’s stamina bar will drop. Feeding it a cooked meal not only refills its stamina and can changes the color of its scales, it also causes the dragon to… well… poop. You’ll be able to collect dragon manure after feeding your dragon, and you can use this manure to reduce the time you must wait before harvesting your garden or fishery, or to immediately cause a bush, plant, or tree to respawn ingredients. Nothing quite like organic gardening, am I right?
I can’t help but feel like I’m not doing this title justice by just spelling all its features out on paper. There really is something about Little Dragon’s Café that is deeply charming in a way that’s difficult to articulate. Maybe it’s the whimsical look, maybe it’s the game’s adventuring spirit, maybe it’s the fact that you can actually hug your dragon, but I watched this game light a spark in the eyes of numerous people. I pulled my Switch out at a couple gatherings, handing it over to those present, and everyone, regardless of age or gender, found themselves enthralled, if only for a few minutes. One 30-something Overwatch player flapped his way to a high-up area, then started singing, “Adventures with a draaaaagon!” He may not have played for terribly long, but for that brief moment, he was a little boy again, riding on the back of a dragon through a colorful new world. If that’s not a moment of true magic, I don’t know what is.
As delightful as LDC is, it’s not flawless. The story progression quickly becomes repetitive, and more often than not revolves around a formula of watching a cut scene, then going to bed so you can watch the next cut scene tomorrow. While NPCs were happy to comment on the story as it unfolded, they were less than forthcoming with hints and tips about where to find new ingredients or recipes that were occasionally required to propel the plot forward, something which left me stuck and more than a little frustrated for a significant amount of time fairly early on in the game. There’s a distinct lack of minimap, and it’s also worth pointing out that, like many other Switch RPGs, LDC has suffers from some rather long loading screens whenever you enter or exit the café. While these aren’t as long as some other Switch titles, they could still negatively impact your enjoyment of the game. As a side note, I believe that there are some noticeable differences in load times between the Switch and PS4 versions.
While most of the mechanics are quite forgiving, I found myself constantly frustrated by the game’s mapping and collision. Moving around in the café became exasperating as my coworkers would constantly push me halfway across the kitchen, slowing down my table service and causing impatient customers to leave in a huff. The hunting mechanic, which requires you to stand near a monster, whistle for your dragon, then wait for the dragon to headbutt the monster, turning it into meat, was by far the worst part of the game. Monsters become aggressive and charge while you’re in whistling range, and steal a dish from your inventory if they collide you. The entire hunting mechanic relies upon the pathing of both your dragon, and the monster, making it feel like a much more luck based mechanic than a skill based one. This was especially frustrating on the occasions when my dragon decided to ignore my whistle and, instead, stand around with a dropped ingredient around in its mouth, barking like a sea lion while I was pummeled from all sides by monsters.
I also would have enjoyed having been being given a little more control and statistics around the simulation part of the game. While each day you’re given a summary of the three most ordered dishes and the three most highly rated dishes, there’s no easy to access the least popular dishes. Updating the menu becomes overly difficult after you’ve collected a number of recipes, as there’s no way to jump to the dishes you’ve most recently cooked, no quick-sort to see what recipes you have ingredients for, and the customer reviews on a dish vanish as soon as you remove it from the menu, meaning you have to try and remember if they liked each dish or not. Again, this aspect of the game can be mostly ignored, the tools are adequate for what LDC requires of you, but the lack of features can be frustrating for those who, like me, want to collect, create, and perfect every dish in the game.
Given the importance of feeding your dragon, I was surprised to see that there was no way to mass-cook dishes. I enjoyed keeping my dragon a delightful purple-blue color, and had to constantly whip up the same set of dishes which contained red and blue dragon dye one at a time in order to keep the little guy full and purple. I would have loved the ability to cook four or five portions at once, running the risk that each dish would come out lower quality if I messed up the rhythm game.
I genuinely enjoyed my time with Little Dragon’s Café, finishing up the main story in around 35 hours–though that time was extended a little due to my inability to find one particular ingredient early on in the game. Even after all that time, I had only collected 131 of the game’s 160 ingredients, and 80 of the 100 recipes available in the game. My café’s reputation may be maxed out, but there’s still lots of ingredients to find, areas to explore, and even a new mechanic to try out in the post-game. I’m looking forward to spending many more hours wandering this magical little island and enjoying the company of my dragon friend, who isn’t that little anymore.
Little Dragons Cafe
Little Dragon's Café is a causal sim/exploration game which is simply overflowing with charm. It's easy to get drawn in by the game's forgiving gameplay, great music, heartwarming stories, and dramatic day-night changes, and hard to put down, given all there is to do post-game. While its sim mechanics aren't especially deep, LDC provides a delightful way to escape the woes of the real world alongside your own, adorable pet dragon.