"For all its simplicity, there is an odd sort of magic hidden in the truths eventually revealed, and I encourage anyone to really look to themselves when these characters speak."
What could an orc, a catgirl idol and a cyborg possibly have in common? In Aksys and TOYBOX Inc.'s Little Dragons Café players will assuredly find out. A whole mashup of cute and goofy characters clamour for a table at the hottest spot in this simple adventure game that hopes to steal the hearts of players with each tale told.
Twins Rin and Ren live with their mom in the Little Dragon Café (LDC), nestled on the cliffs of a fantastical island, home to rolling plains and plateaus, lush forests, and a towering mountain spire. Players choose either the boy or girl twin and whether to rename them. An introduction to basic concepts of the game follows as they run about helping mom get the café ready before the big lunch rush. After a seemingly typical day at the LDC, mom falls ill and slips into a coma, leaving her children at a loss. Enter Pappy, a plucky old man who is DEFINITELY NOT A WIZARD (is totally a wizard) bearing a poop-topped staff to guide them! Revealing the true nature of their mother's illness, he presents them with a dragon egg that is supposed to help provide a solution if they work hard enough together. In true JRPG fashion, it is now up to the kids, their dragon, and the staff to save their mother.
Little Dragons Café progresses through its simple Saturday morning cartoon tale over the course of 12 chapters, the first of which focuses on building the team at the café. Enter Billy, the elvish wannabe musician rebel without a cause; Ipanema, the rash but soft-hearted and hard-working aspiring restaurateur; and Luccola, the fabulous orc who decides to become head chef on a whim. Beyond the first, subsequent chapters focus on a single guest like Rosetta, who is grieving the loss of her mother while acting out against her father because he was never around until now. Players may find these character types fairly obvious initially, but as the staff work to deconstruct the tropes — pointing out unhealthy behaviours while offering understanding — the guests change their perspectives, perhaps arguably for the better. While the writing is not terribly sophisticated, targeting younger players, it is clear the development team have some strong, healthy messages they wish to convey. I am surprised how this resonated with me. Whether child or adult, anyone can benefit from Luccola's brand of positivity and acceptance. That being said, come chapter 4, a character is introduced, along with some questionable language, that really skews the sensitivity of this title as well as the target age. With my eight-year-old eager to dive in, writing like this gives me pause and is something parent gamers may wish to consider.
Inner growth aside, working though each storyline is a straightforward routine of building the LDC's reputation to a certain point, then going to bed. Most every day starts with an event which moves the story progress bar for that guest. If you are really stumped by the odd change to the routine, or are rushing, selecting Story will offer obvious hints to help unlock the next sequence. As the chapter wraps up, the player will need to cook a particularly nostalgic dish for their current guest before they leave, having transformed (often in palette or outfit as well), and the whole process is repeated. It is a basic formula that can get fairly repetitive depending on how quickly players meet each chapter's goals. For all its simplicity, there is an odd sort of magic hidden in the truths eventually revealed, and I encourage anyone to really look to themselves when these characters speak.
The game hits its rhythm pretty fast after the Prologue introduces the basic gameplay elements. Gatekeeping via obstacles maintains a slow trickle of concepts and mechanics for players to grasp through repetition. Very clear tutorials pop up with each new skill, from gardening to café management, all of which can be accessed from the Main Menu. Gameplay itself can largely be broken down into 4 different parts: cooking, running the café, exploring, and gathering, which seems like a lot, but all are quite simple, if a challenge to master.
Exploring this wondrous island is straightforward to start. Players can jump smaller obstacles with minimal difficulty in the limited play area. As falling to one's death is not an option, the only threat to players are zucchidons, snarling beasts that charge players and eat whatever prepared dishes are on hand. Eventually, the dragon's growth offers exciting ways to explore the island anew. New abilities allow for moving rocks and smashing barriers, opening previously closed paths. Then, with flight, most of the island is at one's command and the true magic of owning a dragon becomes apparent. Each area of the island is very distinct looking, so players can easily navigate despite having no map to reference. While a map would be nice, players will quickly grasp the island layout, as the repetitive task of hunting ingredients takes them to familiar haunts. While out, players get notifications about the conditions at the café; at any point players can fast-travel back to help out. Unfortunately, this is the only means of fast travel, which makes for grueling extra journeys. Also, it is odd the island seems so sparsely populated. Though offering a certain modicum of peace, it seems rather lifeless, especially seeing how full the café can get at the dinner rush!
The true struggle of cooking and maintaining the café is keeping a healthy store of ingredients. Early on, players have only the simplest of foods, thus it is easy to keep the pantry full. However, with new areas, new edible delights present themselves, which can be overwhelming. Myriad gathering points house a variety of set ingredients that can appear in random amounts and be gathered once per day. When salt is the main ingredient needed to keep the best recipe on the menu, and the deposit keeps giving up sugar, it can quickly get tedious. In an effort to mitigate this, the game offers a garden and fish nursery near the café that produce random amounts of any ingredient players have found. Production in each spot is slow and can be enhanced with dragon manure fertilizer. Players can also fertilize gathering points to cultivate higher quality versions of the ingredients there, but the limited supply gets used far too quickly to be useful late in the game.
Managing the café is a basic game of chasing down icons. Players can take orders, run food, and clean the tables as they bustle around. Each of the front of house (FOH) employees have a specialty, focusing on one of three jobs while Luccola tends the kitchen. While each FOH member has a task on the surface, it can often become a nuisance working around them. The NPCs all seem to have an odd priority over the player, as they can push them aside, often causing guests to leave disgruntled when a dish cannot be delivered in time. FOH members also have a random tendency to get distracted, and players need to chase them down. While I appreciate the personality this brings to the characters and how it breaks up the monotony early on, when the lunch and dinner rushes get bananas later, it would make sense for their self-management to increase. Also, the camera is fixed in a sideview following the PC, making it hard to see the full scope of the restaurant. Coupled with the need to micromanage the staff, this whole affair can become quite stressful. That being said, when reputation is graded at day's end, it is quite forgiving. Players are presented with the day's results, tracking reputation as it runs towards a target to trigger the next story beat. Even with a subpar rating of "OK," players will see decent progress in their Reputation. Beyond stalling progress towards a target reputation, there is little negative impact in the grand scheme of things.
Cooking challenges players to a simple rhythm game while they tap along to one of six recipe-dependent songs as arrows slide towards the input, with each ingredient assigned a direction. Each recipe allows from one to four ingredients and fifth "Secret" one, with higher ranks requiring 2 or even 3 minimum, all of which adds to the difficulty. Each creation is allotted a star rating based on the recipe's rank, quality of ingredients, and player performance. Aside from being integral to story beats and maintaining the café's menu and reputation, it is also vital to feeding the dragon! As players explore, dragon stamina will decrease: feeding him replenishes a significant amount. Additionally, most foods have a colour associated with them and feeding enough of the same coloured dish will change this scaly friend's hue. It is a simple game that makes the core cooking mechanic interesting, and having a variety of songs ensures that it will not become too grating.
With so much to do in this simple adventure, accomplishing each goal efficiently can be a struggle with the controls. Early exploration with the jump command leaves a lot to be desired, as button presses often go unprocessed or the PC gets stuck on walls. Also, with every interaction mapped to one button, it is easy to accidentally wing aloft when intending to pick up some ingredient. The flying mechanics are fairly well-realized, but again, button presses go unrecognized at times, which can thwart a carefully timed flightpath. Interacting with the dragon itself becomes a chore as well, since players need to "order" the dragon to do specific tasks like attacking enemies or cutting grass, which often falls on deaf ears instead of PC and dragon acting as one while in flight. With such a fun little world to explore, it is a shame more polish was not applied to the controls.
The game's graphics also leave something to be desired, especially once flight is introduced. Put simply, Aksys and TOYBOX have put together a vibrant quilt, but it is easy to see the seams. Colours delight the eye on this magical island, but the modelling of the landscape itself looks dated. This becomes evident when soaring overland and seeing the small loop of textures mapped in repetition. It makes the map seem sparse, which is exacerbated by the short draw distance as the game struggles to load assets like trees, bushes or rocks in a timely manner and becomes problematic when combing the scenery for café items. Meanwhile, the textures akin to pencil are a delight in the café itself, seemingly pulled right from a pop-up book. The character models of the core cast also show a lot of care in each design. Cutscenes take place in-engine and highlight each expressive face, which do a lot of the heavy lifting in the storytelling, since model animation is sparse. While the generic customers lack some of the finer detail, the variety of patrons is impressive. Thankfully, the team also nailed the design of their dragon, a rather key component. As a newborn, the little thing is endearing as it toddles along behind you and only gets more interesting as it grows to its fully antlered and spiny adult majesty. So much of Little Dragon Café's art direction makes it very appealing, but when framerates struggle in lighting transitions, assets pop into existence, and shadows shudder in odd 3D placements, it is hard to forgive.
Adequate would best describe the sound design, especially with the simple and light soundtrack. It is clear when the "funny song" or "sad song" play in tandem with the appropriate scene, though transitions from piece to piece are clunky. In the field, the music shines a bit brighter, transitioning smoothly and attempting to capture the energy of each different region. The forest is suitably calm, while the heights of the volcano are wondrous and mystical. In the effects department, it is important that they nailed the cues in the kitchen given its level of chaos. Each task has a different sound, as do each of the employees when they get distracted, which goes a long way towards keeping things manageable. What's more, the detail of the ground squelching underfoot in the rain was a touch I would not have expected, and it is the quality of the sound effects that had me turning down the music volume to better hear environmental sounds.
Little Dragons Café has definite shortcomings, but the right audience may not find them as obvious. A lot of concepts are crammed in and seem like half-measures, but these "lite" versions make a good introduction. The tale may be better served as a storybook that bypasses all the tedium of constant fetching, though again, this repetition makes the mechanics and patterns stick. The game looks pretty yet cheap in places, but the simple presentation is easy to digest, especially with the sometimes-deeper concepts addressed in the story. I may not be the right audience for this, but as I watch my daughter delight in playing, it is easy to take a page from the story and appreciate the title for what it is instead of what it is not. Despite all of its issues, it is oddly delightful to spend a day playing in the old LDC helping friends, cooking new recipes, or exploring with a dragon!
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.