Affectionately known as the 'father of Harvest Moon', video game producer Yasuhiro Wada is well-known for his cutesy life/chore simulators, having first made farming fun in the 90s with his less than serious take on a farming sim. However, after splitting from Marvelous Interactive, the company behind Harvest Moon in 2010, Wada-san has struck out on his own, making several other little games under the name of his new company, Toybox. Branching out a bit from his familiar farming shtick, we had bizarre dino evolution God game Birthdays: The Beginning last year - and now comes his latest adventure, Little Dragons Cafe, a game which is probably the first ever dual cafe management/dragon raising simulator, and which has been infused with the same light-hearted Wada charm we've come to know and love.
The game begins like any other normal day, with twins Ren and Rin helping out their mother in their family cafe, fetching eggs, helping serve tables and tidying up. The day ends like any other day too, with the trio trotting off to bed come nightfall. However, come morning, the twins awake to find their mom has slipped into a coma of sorts and can't wake up. A mysterious old guy by the name of 'Pappy' then appears, telling the kids it's all down to the fact that their mother is half dragon, and the only way to wake her is to raise this dragon egg he conveniently has stashed about his person. And so, while undoubtedly questioning their parentage, the youngsters end up juggling the dual responsibilities of running the cafe, and playing surrogate mother to a cute little dragon with a humongous appetite.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, it turns out young dragons don't need a great deal of looking after - the occasional meal and a stroke, and it's all good, with the little guy more than happy to trot around at your heels all day. As such, most of your time here is instead devoted to running your little cafe, collecting ingredients, discovering new recipes and serving customers. Set in a vast expanse of beaches, forests and fields, every day you'll go out and forage for bits and pieces to feed your customers, from eggs and oranges, to fish and bacon - and even a strange plant that gives out soy sauce. Your cafe has a small vegetable patch too, and while you don't 'farm' it in the same way you would in a Harvest Moon game, you can harvest its produce every few days, and get a rather eclectic mix of ingredients which include meat and eggs alongside the more usual vegetables. Different areas in the world of Little Dragons Cafe contain different harvestables, so you'll want to vary your route from day to day so as to stock up on anything you're running low on.
Scattered around the world, you'll sometimes come across crates containing new recipes, which can be used to expand your café's menu. Each requires a different combination of ingredients, and to 'cook' dishes, you'll need to complete a short rhythm action musical mini-game, pressing directions on the d-pad in time with the music. The better you hit the notes, the better the final dish will turn out, and the better it'll look when added to your menu. As there's no real currency in the game, the only real purpose of making better dishes is to try and earn greater approval from your customers, increasing your cafe's reputation and furthering the story in the process.
Dishes also come in handy for feeding up your little dragon companion, with some even going so far as to change his colour if you feed him enough of them. When you're out and about exploring the wilderness, your little dragon chum can lend you a hand foraging for new ingredients - for example, sending him into random caves can reward you with some bacon, while his tail is perfect for mowing through bushes to reveal rare fruit and veg. He's also handy for destroying obstacles, or pushing boulders into place to give you a leg up to a previously inaccessible platform. Once he's bigger, he can even 'hunt' various animals too, dashing into them to turn them into bacon and such - he's not just a cute pet, he's a handy travel companion too. All these actions cost a certain amount of stamina, however, which can only be recovered by feeding him dishes you've cooked, whether it's a wobbly fruit jelly or a hearty steak bowl. As your dragon grows, through feeding and progressing the story, you'll be able to get past more and more obstacles, expanding the area around the cafe you can explore.
Twice a day or so, around midday and in the evening, customers will descend on your cafe looking for a bite to eat - although, as there's no civilisation for miles around, exactly where they come from, we don't know. Once they've parked their bums at a table, you'll need to go and take their order, log it into the till, and wait for the chef to cook it, before delivering their chosen dish, and cleaning up their empty plate when they're done. It may sound like a lot of work on paper, but it's mostly handled just by walking around and pressing X when prompted. Within the first few hours of the game, you'll have recruited a few extra staff members to lend a hand when things get busy, and, aside from having a word with them when they decide to slack off, the cafe can mostly run itself from here-on in, although you'll get better marks at the end of each day if you muck in and help too.
That's not to say day to day life in the titular Little Dragons Cafe is even remotely ordinary - and that's not even including the fact you have a fire-breathing pet. From the staff you recruit to the clientele that pass through your doors, few could be described as normal - a fabulously eccentric orcish chef, a child-warrior armed with an oversized spoon, and a racist witch who's lost her magic are just a few of the weirdos you'll meet over the course of the game. There's also the constant bickering between lazy musician Billy and cafe super-fan Ipanema, with the latter having one heck of an explosive temper when riled. Almost everyone is over the top and funny, and their little stories become entwined with the daily running of the cafe, as almost everyone has a particular dish they want you to cook for them, and potential problems to solve.
The only real issues you'll come across with Little Dragons Cafe are technical ones - namely, the loading times, which can be fairly long and frequent. Whenever your character steps into or out of the cafe, which you'll do at least several times a day, you have to sit through a loading time - and whenever a cutscene plays, it needs to load first. Thankfully, they're not excruciatingly long, but it can make the game, especially during story segments, feel a bit stop/start. There's also a degree of graphics popping in and slowdown in busier areas, which, while not exactly a game-breaking deal, does make it feel like the game was perhaps a little rushed.
However, it's hard to be annoyed with the adorable Little Dragons Cafe for long. It's slow pace and easygoing gameplay are a nice change, and it's got plenty of endearing and kooky characters thrown in to keep things interesting. The basic loop of exploring and foraging, then working at the cafe, can feel a bit repetitive at times, but for those who enjoy Wada's previous games like Harvest Moon, it's a repetitiveness that will feel both familiar and rewarding, as the story moves along. And really, who hasn't fancied themselves as a bit of a Daenerys Targaryen and wanted a pet dragon at some point?