For better or worse, almost anything that Yasuhiro Wada creates is destined for comparison with the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons series. It’s a franchise that’s spurred twenty-five sequels, a quartet of spin-offs, and inspired titles like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. Across a legacy of over two decades, the farming/life simulation has earned a legion of fans, who undoubtedly became enamored by the engrossing reproduction of agrarian life.
Delve into Wada’s latest effort, Little Dragons Café, and you’ll certainly find a number of elements rooted in the pastoral pleasures of Harvest Moon. Set in a decidedly European-esque countryside, the title’s focus is on a quint restaurant situated on a seaside settlement. Here, customers are served downstairs in an open dinning area next to a kitchen, while the proprietors live upstairs. Run by a hardworking mother along with her twin children, the context immediately conveys an earnest sense of rural charm. Rendered in painterly brushstrokes, the café and its surrounding areas embody a sense tranquility. Although things can get busy, there’s a lot of charm found in this cottage café. While separated by numerous, albeit brief, load screens, this is a context you’ll likely enjoy spending hours in. Especially, given all the feel-good vibes produced across the storyline’s duration.
At the beginning on the game, you’ll select either the brother or sister as the main protagonist. The sibling you don’t choose will accompany you on your daily duties and serve as a confidant through your journey. Being twins, both siblings are at a pivotal age, where life is steadily prodding them into adulthood. As such, the siblings are learning the assortment of duties that are required for the day to day operation of the café.
But when their mother becomes mysteriously bedridden, responsibility escalates. Much like My Neighbor Totoro, the matriarch’s ailment is the stimulus for a journey of self-discovery. When an eccentric old man named Poppy appears, he explains the illness is a symptom of having both human and dragon blood. It’s a surprisingly justification but when the visitor produces a large dragon egg on the cusp of hatching, there’s little time to dwell on incredulousness.
When the egg cracks, the adorable creature emerges and starts following the player around like a puppy. Soon, Wada’s ambitions become evident. While Little Dragons Café has the oddly addictive routines of Harvest Moon, it also wants to balance your daily errands with uplifting characterization. Without revealing details of the game’s greatest charm, watching the little dragon grow up, and be able to tackle more tasks is poised to generate heartfelt satisfaction. After years of playing games where your pet is little more than a stagnant tool, witnessing your dragon mature sparks those deep-seated needs for nurturing and compassion.
But it’s not just your scaly companion who receives a gratifying character arc. Gradually, a trio of eccentrics make their way to the café and become part of the restaurants staff. You’ll first meet Billy, who resembles The Legend of Zelda’s Link going through a rough patch. He’s in a starved state when he first wanders into your café. After providing him with a healthy beef bowl, he attempts to leave without paying, until he’s intercepted by your dragon.
Little Dragons Café repeatedly demonstrates that offering the needy a helping hand is often the best remedy. Unsurprisingly, a job at the restaurant reveals the amount of dedication and work that goes into meals, and Billy slowly experiences a change in perspective. Largely, that’s the same type of uplifting approach that applied to Ipanema, a migrant who’s prone to throwing plates when angered and Luccola, an orc chef who sees the restaurant as a place to refine his skills to world-famous levels. Gradually, they contribute their talents to the café and in return grow as individuals. To a lesser extent, the customers that come into the restaurant searching for a meal bring their own issues. And much like a situation comedy, problems are resolved in a tidy and often uplifting manner.
But plot is only one part of what’s on Little Dragons Café menu. There are also the regular duties like gathering items, finding new recipes, upholding the reputation of the restaurant, feeding, and even recycling the ‘output’ of your dragon. Like Harvest Moon, there’s almost always more chores than there are hours in the day, which is a good technique to keep players motivated.
Typically, you’ll want to go resource gathering in the morning or evening, since lunch and dinners hours are when the bulk of customers visit. To collect ingredients, you’ll scour the landscape for resource points marked with yellow butterflies or air bubbles and even send a diminutive dragon into a cavity. While there’s no mapping feature, you’ll progressively learn the landscape, and periodically find new recipe fragments which permit a new dish to prepared. While there’s the occasional foe, you’ll run from enemies, at least until your dragon becomes big enough to turn an interloper into an ingredient.
Since your coworkers have the tendency to slack off, you’ll periodically receive a warning from the café. Mercifully, fast travel is available, allowing you to quickly quell the issue before it can damage the reputation of your restaurant. As your standing improves, so does the number of patrons, and you’ll often finding yourself doing the tasks of your coworkers, from clearing plates, carrying food out to tables, and even taking orders. Although Luccola is the head cook, you’ll have to demonstrate how dishes are made, using select ingredients and mixing them in time to a rhythm game, at least once.
But you will periodically want to revisit your menu. Customers will grow tired of a stagnant list of options and also have to deal with specific palettes, with patrons preferring spicy, sweet, or crispy main courses. Although doing poorly on the Yelp-like customer review system won’t end the game or even have much of an effect on things, you’ll likely feel an obligation to do your best. Largely, it’s an upside that reviews aren’t significant, since Little Dragons Café doesn’t do a great job when imparting what are your worst performing menu items.
Woefully, that’s not the only issue you’ll discover. Although the game repeatedly asks you to put gathered food into storage, the process is done for you. While instructions are typically explicit, the first time you need to feed your dragon you might think that it’s accomplished by walking up to him. Instead, you’ll have to navigate through the game’s menu system for the first time. Visually, the game delights with lighting that changes with the time of day, but occasionally you’ll notice a jarring bit of pop-in.
With a heap of come-spun charm and a crew of intriguing personalities, a play-though of Little Dragons Café feels like finding a wonderfully niche restaurant. The game might not have the budget or polish of franchised eatery, but it more than makes up for these attributes by supplying a heart-warming ambiance that you’ll want to spend your spare-time in.
Little Dragons Café was played on the PC with
review code provided by the publisher.