Thanks to Aksys Games for the review code
Title: Little Dragon’s Cafe
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 08/24/2018
In this adventure/sim hybrid, you take control of one of two children, who discover that their mother’s dragon blood has awakened and put her in a comatose state. When a strange old man shows up with a dragon egg, explaining that a fully grown dragon is the key to awakening their mother, the children must run the family business and learn more about the dragon to keep the family together!
Having some involvement from the creator of the Harvest Moon franchise, Little Dragon’s Cafe goes for a lighthearted look that looks consistent with some of the modern entries from the Story of Seasons branch of the series, with expressive characters and a colorful world thanks to some great cel shading. The soundtrack is pretty good as well, with a score that fits both the serious tone of the main story, and the more lighthearted nature of exploration and a typical work day at the cafe.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t always look as nice in motion. As colorful as this game can be, Little Dragon’s Cafe absolutely loves to go all in on the pop-in and draw distance, with background elements popping in and out of existence as you approach them in levels I haven’t seen for quite some time now. Combine that with a framerate that absolutely loves to chug while outside of the cafe, and this game feels like a technical and sluggish mess to look at in those situations, which is a real shame since this game looks very gorgeous otherwise.
In the introductory bits of the game, you’ll learn the basics on how to control your character and complete tasks for your mother, which can be done by going outside and exploring the area around the cafe to find ingredients to put into storage. Eventually, you’ll also be tasked with finding pieces to the recipes you need to put together certain dishes, although most dishes give you some leeway on what materials you can use, since one that may require a vegetable will allow you to choose between whatever type of vegetable you have in your pantry. When more of the world opens up, the game does introduce some enemies that you’ll have to avoid, but all they do when you come into contact with them is steal an ingredient, while you can do the same to weaker ones that can’t fight back, leaving the “combat” in this game to be laughable at best, although its clear how that wasn’t the game’s intent.
Once the prologue ends and the dragon is introduced, the game gets in a routine as it slowly opens up more of the area outside of the cafe for exploration, with your dragon companion following you around. He doesn’t do too much at first though, only being able to enter tunnels that you are too big to fit inside, before slowly growing over time to open up new areas to explore. In fact, gaining access to more of the outside world is the only major thing that you can do once things get going, with you being able to catch up on the next major event for the story in the submenu.
This means that unfortunately, Little Dragon’s Cafe turns into a very boring loop of waking up for the day, checking on your employees, hunting for recipes and ingredients outside of the cafe, harvesting your crops before finally heading back into the cafe to make dishes for a customer or handing over completed recipes to the old man. Starting from the second chapter, maintaining a good reputation for your cafe is also a major element to advancing to the next part of the story, which is done by making sure that customers get high quality meals instead of low quality rushjobs that’ll make customers unhappy.
You don’t have to worry about standing inside the cafe all day either, since your employees will take care of things while you’re out searching for recipes, although they will need to be checked on now and then and taught how to make new dishes to satisfy everyone. Using the completed recipes to cook on your own is simple, since you can choose from a list of the ones you have completed in order to decide which meal to fix for a customer. Once you choose the right ingredients, cooking the meal in done through a very simple rhythm minigame. Thankfully, despite the technical issues that plague this game, the rhythm game still runs smooth enough and I was able to get the hang of it with my inputs registering perfectly.
In conclusion, Little Dragon’s Cafe is a cute adventure/sim hybrid, where the exploration elements can be a lot of fun when they last. Unfortunately, they don’t tend to last long, with the game’s outside areas containing a lot of roadblocks that only gradually open up over the course of the game, making the whole experience very linear and more repetitive than it had any right to be. Luckily, returning to the cafe is as easy as pressing the minus button, but that still doesn’t excuse the boring nature of the game, nor does it excuse the strange technical issues that plague the game, or at least in the Switch version.
From annoying framerate dips when outside, an insane amount of pop-in, to long loading times, this game doesn’t run as good as it should, and it makes an already repetitive experience even more boring to play, to the point I lost interest a good way through the second chapter of the adventure. It’s a shame too, since this game sports a gorgeous artstyle with cute character designs and the whole concept is cute. If the exploration elements were fleshed out to be a lot more open and allowed you to hunt down most of the recipes in any order you desire, then that portion would be significantly more enjoyable, instead of just having the dragon or plot serve as the means to open up the next area to explore, instead of letting the player have the freedom to discover things on their own. I can see an open gate right there, but my character thinks it’s too dangerous to wander far from the cafe, even though they’ll go that route sooner or later regardless.
Combine that with a $60 pricetag for a game that really isn’t anything special come the end of the day, and it’s really tough to recommend this game to anyone at the current price, or even the Switch port. I don’t know if the PS4 version fixes the framerate and pop-in errors that plagued the Switch version, but I do know a patch released after launch greatly improved the framerate from what it was before launch, which was even worse than its current state. A lot of missed potential here, but it at least has a cute artstyle nevertheless. I give Little Dragon’s Cafe a 5 out of 10.