Coming from Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada, Little Dragons Café has a rich pedigree. The long-running farming simulators may not have always been well received, but they certainly never lacked in content and have provided many hours of agricultural (and romantic) distractions for fans over the years. Having watched the trailer for Wada’s latest game with my children, I was intrigued by its promise of café management and dragon raising. With reports that Wada is intending to produce a sequel already, the signs were that this would be the beginning of a new and interesting franchise and with some excitement that I opened the doors of my café for the first time.
Little Dragons Café eases the player in with a leisurely opening. Introducing the basic mechanics of gathering, cooking and serving customers at an almost glacial pace, the warning signs of a surprising dearth of gameplay soon became apparent. Visually, everything is nicely stylised, but outside of the character designs the overly basic graphics are less than impressive. Environments have an extremely dated look and are differentiated by little more than palette changes. I wouldn’t expect the excessive detail of Monster Hunter World, but it’s all just a some attempt to challenge current gen hardware from a full price title seems fair.
This would be easily overlooked if the game mechanics were sound, so it’s even more of a shame that Little Dragons Café falls short here as well. Gathering materials is an extremely basic affair, involving nothing more than approaching bushes, trees or fishing points and pressing a button, where other games might require you to have the right equipment or engage in fishing minigames. The actual ingredients collected are oddly random too. The same spot can provide fruit, vegetables, and condiments in a single day, while in the early game, bacon is gathered from small caves. This bizarre lack of any kind of consistency makes a boring job unpredictable and tiresome. Late on in the game when ingredients are quickly used up by increased customer numbers, the random nature becomes frustrating to the extreme.
The game seems aware of this annoying aspect, as outside of one key ingredient, recipes allow you to replace almost all the other parts. This has the unfortunate effect of making the recipes merge into one another. When you can put shellfish in fruit jelly or chocolate sauce in a salad with no penalty, the whole cooking aspect falls apart.
Cooking itself involves a rhythm action minigame that starts off simple and continues much the same way for the game’s entire length. I was reminded of the terrible Cooking Mama games from the Wii and DS, although even they had more variety and consequence for failure. Who can forget the nightmarish vision of a disappointed Mama’s fiery eyes? As the game progresses, recipes do get more complicated and so require more ingredients and a slightly longer minigame ensues, but never gets challenging or indeed interesting.
There is little need to make new dishes except when customers or quests require you to and my café’s menu changed very little throughout the game. In fact the main reason for changing dishes at all was the discrepancy between how fast you can gather ingredients and the number of customers you have late in the game. All gathering points are limited and although your garden can provide you with a random selection of any ingredients you have gathered before, you will soon struggle to keep up with demand. This is easily dealt with, as you can end the day by sleeping after serving several customers and still reap the rewards of positive reactions to your food.
With gathering, preparing, and cooking being so disappointing, it is particularly galling that managing the café is equally dull. You recruit staff through the story in a completely linear fashion, but they often slack off and do not take orders or clear plates. When the need for ingredients means you must explore during the day, having such a useless set of helpers seems designed to annoy you. I soon began to ignore the messages that the staff were slacking as the penalties were so slight. When you do stay in the café, the process of taking orders, serving, and tidying plates is even more simplistic than gathering ingredients, as you simply move around the café whilst you mash a button.
Technically and mechanically Little Dragons Café is hugely underwhelming. The storyline is workable but devoid of surprise – your character’s mother is taken ill so you must take over the café and raise a dragon whose fate is mysteriously connected to hers. The dragon’s growth is entirely dependent on progressing the story, with the only customisable aspect being its colour, which is changed by the food that you give it. The game soon descends into a boring cycle of activating a conversation, sleeping, continuing the conversation, discovering a recipe that will help the character in each chapter, finding the right ingredients and then making it. By the end this became so repetitive, and the lack of ingredients so awkward, that I resorted to serving one customer before sleeping through from the morning, and then continuing the pattern the next day. I’m not proud of gaming the system so shamelessly, but in truth it was pretty much all Little Dragons Café deserved.
There is almost nothing here to recommend. The whole game is simultaneously dull and simplistic; the gathering ill-matched to the amounts required, the minigames lacking any enjoyment, the story development laughably linear and the whole package feeling short of polish. The characters are the only redeeming feature of the game but they are stranded in a joyless game that would be disappointing were it a budget download title. It is therefore unforgivable that Little Dragons Café is a full price release. This café needs to be closed down. The dragon is cute though.
Version tested: PS4 version tested
Also available on Switch