Review: Little Dragons Café (Switch)

Does Harvest Moon-creator Yasuhiro Wada’s latest game live up to fan expectations?

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 09/12/2018 13:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
1-Up Mushroom for...
Pleasing mix of different game types like simulation, rhythm, RPG, and more; delightful cast, especially the kids and Draco the dragon; beautiful art direction; large overworld to explore
Poison Mushroom for...
Technical problems can't be ignored, including texture pop-in, framerate dips, and a sometimes wonky camera; forgettable soundtrack is a wasted opportunity

Little Dragons Café has finally come to Switch, fulfilling most of the promise that it held during the preview session I was lucky enough to experience. Yasuhiro Wada, the mind behind franchises like Harvest Moon and Happy Birthdays, worked with Aksys Games to produce his newest adventure. It might be tempting to peg Little Dragons Café as Harvest Moon with a dragon, but that would be selling it very short as the game does so much to differentiate itself. There are some flaws here, but despite them, Little Dragons Café has delivered a heartwarming story joined with a unique blend of video game genres.

Rin and Ren are the sister/brother duo at the center of Little Dragons Café. They’re confronted early on with the dilemma of a mother that has succumbed to an endless slumber, with seemingly no help in sight. Well, for about a minute they’re helpless, until the mysterious Pappy quickly arrives and lets the kids know that only they can save their mom by running her café (which is also their home) and raising the baby dragon he has in tow. So, no pressure! It’s not like they’re children or anything!

It might sound zany, but that’s part of the fun, here. Little Dragons Café doesn’t take itself too seriously, instead delivering the quirky charm that Wada’s games are known for. There are numerous characters who weave into the light-but-enjoyable fantasy narrative, and they’re all very fun to interact with. Little Dragons Café plants its focus equally on its characters and their stories as much as the gameplay, and with the careful guidance of someone like Wada, the result is a whole host of different memorable interactions.

Some have called Little Dragons Café a sim, but it’s definitely on the lighter end of the spectrum. Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way— there’s no farming here. Not in the traditional sense, at least. There is produce that springs up in the little garden behind the café, but the player doesn’t have to actively cultivate the land. Instead, the crops replenish on their own, as do all of the other ingredients that can be found in the game world. These ingredients are essential, as Rin and Ren must use them to cook the different dishes that their customers come to the café to eat.

It’s here that Little Dragons Café introduces one of its two secondary mechanics, which is a rhythm minigame. Cooking revolves around selecting the necessary ingredients and then following the scrolling button prompts in time with the music. It’s not the most challenging of gameplay segments, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. Plus, the more accurately the player hits the notes, the better the dish will be, so there’s incentive to do well. There are a number of different meals that can be prepared, with their recipes scattered all over the place waiting to be found.

Beyond running the shop, exploration is another element of Little Dragons Café that will take up a huge chunk of play time. At first, the game has some pretty serious restrictions on how far Rin and Ren can travel. However, even within the more limited confines of the outset of the game there’s a lot to see and learn. The kids can fish, forage for ingredients, seek out recipe fragments, and more. As the story progresses, entire new regions unlock and provide more to do. That said, there’s another way that the terrain opens up, which is through the baby dragon, Draco.

Draco is small at first, but he quickly becomes a useful ally. For instance, he… well, he defecates in his dragon bed regularly (hey, who doesn’t, right?) which yields manure that can speed up crop regeneration in the café garden. As Draco grows, he gains new abilities and will even grant Rin and Ren access to whole new chunks of the overworld. This is the other primary secondary mechanic and it’s quite rewarding. There are different ways of interacting with Draco, including giving him a nice pat on the head, but he also can be fed. These dishes replenish his stamina so he can continue to help out during exploration segments, and certain foods will even change his color!

For all the things Little Dragons Café does well, there are performance issues that are too unpleasant to go unmentioned. Pop-in of textures and things like background elements is frequent, to the point that it’s quite distracting. Draw distance is also limited, which is further emphasized and exacerbated by a combative camera. It’s never quite willing to follow along the way the player wants, which can cause disorientation while trying to traverse the game world. This problem thankfully doesn’t extend to the segments within the café, but whether indoors or outside, there’s one issue to be found everywhere in Little Dragons Café: excessively long load times.

Whether docked or not, the Switch just can’t quite keep up with the demands of Little Dragons Café. Note that even the PlayStation 4 version of Little Dragons Café has similar technical issues, so it’s not just a Switch thing. That’s a cold comfort at best, but thankfully the game does enough to warrant fighting through these annoyances. It doesn’t hurt that Little Dragons Café is a looker, visually. Everything is rendered in a scratchy, hand drawn style that perfectly complements the fantasy elements of the game. The soundtrack is stock— neither memorable nor offensive. It gets the job done, but I’d have liked something more creative. Overall, despite the soundtrack being blasé, the presentation here really works. That is, when the game isn’t battling to get it all on-screen.

Admittedly, Little Dragons Café is a harder sell because of its tech problems, but it honestly does enough interesting things with its gameplay and narrative to warrant sticking through to the end. It’s rife with Wada’s requisite unique design flourishes and sensibilities. In Little Dragons Café, he’s produced a game that is full of heart. Rin and Ren are both easy people to sympathize with and pull for. Draco is similarly compelling, along with the rest of the cast. Watching the shop grow and working towards the end goal of reviving the kids’ mother is absolutely worthy of your time. It’s just a matter of how patient you can be towards Little Dragons Café’s hiccups and blemishes.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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