A dazzling desert with eye-catching visuals and a bland, tasteless flavor. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of Little Dragons Café. Yasuhiro Wada, the director of previous Harvest Moon titles, worked towards building an all-ages experience that is centered around character interaction and relationships. To some extent, he’s succeeded, as the cast is a diverse group of losers that grow alongside you as you play. The issue is that the core gameplay loop itself isn’t fun to experience past an hour or so.
Everything is gated and feels like busy-work. Exploration is stopped until you hit an arbitrary trigger in the story. Story progression can’t move forward until you’ve reached a certain level of customer satisfaction with the café. Customer satisfaction increases based upon what ingredients and recipes you’ve discovered and utilize, which requires further exploration (or spamming your co-workers hoping they have a new recipe for you at seemingly random intervals).
Walking around the same general area only to be greeted with “I shouldn’t wander too far…” should you try to advance out into a new area. The garden and fish hold both yield outputs after a certain amount of time, which can be sped up by using dragon fertilizer, likewise for random caves, bushes, critters and trees surrounding the café. Instead of being allowed to branch out and see more of the world, you’re instead told to consistently visit the same areas to build up a stock of rare prized ingredients.
Eventually, your café begins to flesh itself out with the aforementioned cast of eccentric characters: a young boy who dreams of being a great warrior, a flamboyant chef, a mysterious old wizard, a lazy good-for-nothing musician, and many more. Likewise, the game expands as your dragon comes closer to maturity, eventually allowing you to fly around and explore in much greater depth.
The key word here is eventually. My main problem with Little Dragons Café is that it has no short-term goals or challenges. There’s nothing to strive for beyond “keep playing the game and see what, if anything, happens tomorrow.” Sadly, that directly conflicts with the fact that the gameplay just isn’t interesting. Running around to various food nodes clicking one button has the same excitement as spending hours gathering herbs in World of Warcraft. Cooking involves a rhythm game that gets progressively more difficult as you acquire new recipes and rarer ingredients. You could make an argument that getting a perfect score would fit the bill as a short-term goal but doing this for every dish gets tedious fast.
There’s just not enough variety here to keep me vested in the story, which is a real shame, because that seems to be Yasuhiro Wada’s strength. I’ve loved journeying through his previous works throughout my entire childhood and adult career. I want to love Little Dragons Café as much as I’ve loved Harvest Moon, Story of Seasons, and other life sims.
Unfortunately, much like your little dragon amigo, the game doesn’t mature into anything noteworthy for quite a while. Mildly interesting stories and charming visuals alone can’t support bland gameplay.
Maybe if you actually enjoy gathering herbs in World of Warcraft (we promise not to judge), but Probably Not.
Main takeaway: A simple, easy-going game held back by frustrating pacing issues.