When Aksys Games announced a collaboration with Yasuhiro Wada (Harvest Moon, Happy Birthdays), I was excited and a bit skeptical. While I love Wada’s own games for the most part, Happy Birthdays had some issues with polish. Little Dragons Cafe is a collaboration project between both Aksys and Toybox for the PS4 and Nintendo Switch. This review is based on the switch version but we have some footage of the PS4 version you can watch here.
The 3DS is home to some of my favourite games ever and it has one of the best libraries of all time when it comes to RPGs. Over the last few years I’ve gotten loads of enjoyment out of relaxing and management games on the system. Fantasy Life and Story of Seasons are great to unwind.
Little Dragons Cafe is more of a story driven experience that happens to have exploration and a routine you get into than just a Harvest Moon like simulation and management game. It draws inspiration from different games in interesting ways to create something that is perfect for bite sized sessions at home or on the go.
You play as one of two children who lives in a cafe with their mother. The world and aesthetic in general feels straight out of a story book. After a few days, the mother falls into a deep sleep and a weird white wizard appears who lets you things will only improve if you take care of a dragon egg. This eventually hatches and you now have a pet dragon who eventually becomes an extension of your protagonist in game mechanics. Once you’ve played a bit, the routine you have in game has you explore to find recipes or ingredients, return to the cafe and cook or store ingredients, manage your cafe in a simulation minigame, and repeat. It can get a bit mundane, but the way things open up as you progress manages to always make the routine feel good.
Your cafe has multiple visitors during lunch and dinner time (initially) and while you can let the colourful staff take care of things, they often don’t work as well unless you’re present to make sure they aren’t slacking off. This is where the cafe simulation minigame occurs. Your aim is to keep customers happy and make sure the staff is doing their work well. Getting good feedback from customers raises the reputation of the cafe which progresses the story. There are certain roadblocks that require certain dishes for specific NPCs. The main story is split up into chapters that revolve around new unique characters oozing with charm who happen to stumble into your cafe one by one as time goes by. I’m a bit surprised at how well written each of these are. Progression is dependent on you because you can delay things as you please and focus on just exploring, fishing, cooking, and more.
As you progress the story, your dragon slowly grows and this allows you to explore more through unlocked skills and abilities in the field. Since each day has a fixed timer before it becomes night time, you need to prioritise where to collect ingredients from and also remember which recipes are doing well in the cafe.
Gathering is a big part of what you do here and it is spread across multiple kinds of ingredient types. You can fish in a very simple mini game or even set your dragon to attack some of the more aggressive creatures. There are various bushes and some weird looking mishmashes of vegetables that let you collect all kinds of ingredients. Recipe fragments are spread across the world as well and collecting four of a single recipe lets you cook it in the cafe.
Aesthetically things are pretty simple with a hand drawn and pencil coloured look. The characters are well designed and I adore the food designs. The environment is pretty bland though. Shadows are erratic but the real downer is the performance and load times. Loading screens are far too frequent on Switch and they are long. While just walking, the frame rate and pacing seem to go haywire. If you’re exploring the world and you pan the camera while moving, things get really had. I almost got motion sickness from this. These issues are prevalent in both docked and handheld modes sadly.
I didn’t expect to be this impressed by the music but here we are. Exploration music is great but the cooking minigame music is filled with catchy songs that even have their own upgrades as you cook more complex dishes.
While the performance and load times are inexcusable, the other flaw here is how vague some of the requests can be. In a lot of cases you might find yourself at a standstill looking for one recipe fragment needed or an ingredient missing in a key story recipe. The environment design also sometimes makes it seem like an area cannot be reached right now when you need to get there for said recipe fragment of ingredient.
While the Switch port needs loads of optimisation work, this is definitely a return to form for Yasuhiro Wada. Little Dragons Cafe oozes charm and is one of the most relaxing games you will play. This feels like a golden age 3DS game. I hope patches address the Switch version because portable play definitely works best for these kinds of games. The PS4 version based on our time with it is a lot better in terms of visuals, performance, and load times.
Lovely characters and story
Frequent long loading screens