When Little Dragons Café was first announced back in February, it felt like a soft tease that was likely still a ways off from release. It ended up quickly picking up steam and surprisingly spread itself wide as a new title from the mind behind the Harvest Moon series which was planned to launch in the summer. As new information began to trickle out more people got a taste of this new take on the simulation genre featuring café and dragons, but it was hard to tell if it’s rooted in a familiar scenario or something entirely new.
The tale begins with a pair of twins who work alongside their mother in a small café. They assist with everything from doing a little cooking to tending to visitors. Unfortunately this happy lifestyle comes to an abrupt halt when their mother falls into a deep slumber. The frantic twins are unsure what to do, but fortunately a mysterious old man appears to help them out. He informs the two that their mother is half dragon and due to her disconnect from her dragon side is stuck asleep unless the two twins can work together and raise a real dragon. They are given an egg which before long hatches into their newest little companion who they must work to raise together. That’s not the end of their troubles though, as the old man says they will have to take up the duty of tending to the café in their mother’s place.
The basic gameplay revolves around the twin that is chosen at the beginning. Every day they can go outside and explore along with their dragon companion, and choose to come back to help with the café alongside their twin. Although running a café alone might initially seem like a hefty task, this is quickly eased with the addition of other workers. Three characters who visit the café one after the other join up in order to help. Two will assist in taking care of customers, while the third is the chef who will cook customer orders. The most basic cycle is taking an order, sending it in, delivering the food and then washing the dishes which can all be done by these additional characters. This makes the player able to explore while they work, but they are still usually needed during the two busy hours of the day. All of these helpers will occasionally slack off or get distracted, which can be fixed by simply talking to them or waiting until they get back to it. It can feel a bit frustrating when they slack off during busy hours, but fortunately there’s no real punishment for unsatisfied customers.
The most important part of taking care of the café and everyone else is gathering ingredients for food. This is done by heading out and finding all manner of goods. Plants give a variety of ingredients, while fishing and hunting offer meat options. Once enough of these have been gathered it’s time to start cooking. Cooking doesn’t require any actual kitchen skills, but food is instead made by completing a short rhythm sequence. The accuracy of button presses determines the quality of the dish, which can then be added to the café menu or fed to the dragon. Better dishes can be made by progressing and finding higher quality ingredients to add while exploring. The exploration can feel a bit limited at first, but the pacing ends up moving at the perfect speed to keep from being overwhelmed by all there is to find.
Of course, aside from tending to the café the twins must also care for their dragon companion. Out on the field the dragon is able to help find ingredients and as it grows assist even further in exploration. The dragon’s growth is tied to the story in order to slowly introduce each new ability it can use. One thing that can be manipulated is the color of the dragon, which is determined by the food it’s fed. There are twenty different colors the dragon can transition to, making it fun to experiment and see how it will turn out. Once large enough the dragon can carry the player and fly in order to reach reach new places. Flying is easily one of the best ways to get around and it’s easy to get swept up in exploration and lose track of time while soaring free.
Once the café reaches a certain rank, an event will occur featuring a brand new visitor. These visitors all have their own stories and are helped by all the workers of the café. These act more or less as story missions and end with that particular visitor needing a certain food made for them by finding the recipe and ingredients. While they follow the same pattern, each character is unique and interesting to learn about. While things around the café are mostly lighthearted, their stories are surprisingly touching and manages to build a quick close connection with these characters. Once they have been helped they will go on their way, but will still come back to enjoy a dish at their favorite café.
The art style of Little Dragons Café has a lovely storybook feel to it. The backgrounds are all reminiscent of colorful 2D drawings in a 3D environment and the unique texture on character models make them all seem like paintings. The music is also extremely enjoyable, with each area having its own theme and atmosphere that creates a sense of wonder in the world. The world is surprisingly larger than it seems at first and with there being no combat, danger or any sort of time limits, it creates an extremely unique setting that manages to be laid back without ever having a lull in its gameplay. One of the most noticeable issues on the Switch version is the jittery framerate when moving the camera on the field. While it is easy to get used to after playing for a while, it’s a persistent issue that stands out even more when playing in handheld mode. There are also quite a few loading screens when there are a lot of cutscenes going on which makes things feel slowed down. Fortunately outside of cutscenes, the only loading screen is when going in and out of the café. It can feel a bit long at first when things start going, but quickly becomes an easy transition.
Little Dragons Café first appears as though it requires constant attention to every little detail, but actually makes for a relaxing time. Exploration is well paced with each step further getting more creative and exiting, and managing the café is simple without feeling overly stressful. It’s a laid back title that is easy to get absorbed in and focus for long hours, but also makes for a wonderful time to pop into every once in a while and just explore what it has to offer. Little Dragons Café makes for a memorable, sweet journey that any person can pick up and enjoy without worry.