Harvest Moon is such a well-loved series based on people who have legitimately never played all of them. I’m not trying to throw shade or be a contrarian: there are more than 30 Harvest Moon games out there, including the Rune Factory series and that one weird PSP game that was like Harvest Moon After Earth. Most of the populous out there either played the original SNES version, the N64 version, the arguably greatest GBA version (Friends of Mineral Town!) or the comparatively recent and decent 3DS versions. But, like, there are a ton of these games, and the supersaturation of the IP is why Stardew Valley got so much acclaim last year by capturing the good elements of the series while discarding the insane and repetitive ones. So to find out the game’s original producer, Yasuhiro Wada, latched onto a new title and idea, fans were excited but probably needed to pump their brakes a bit. As it stands, Little Dragon’s Cafe, the pretty interesting cafe simulation, is good, not great, and definitely not a Harvest Moon.
Little Dragon’s Cafe is the story of a set of twins, one boy and one girl (you can decide which one is you!) who run a cafe in the middle of nowhere with their mother. One day mom falls into a coma because she’s half dragon, two things that don’t make sense and you definitely didn’t know about prior to the second she didn’t wake up to make breakfast. An old dude named Pappy appears to drop this knowledge on you, along with a dragon’s egg that hatches immediately. You’re now yoked with the following three tasks. First, raise the dragon to adulthood so that you can use it to heal your mother (don’t worry, you don’t have to slaughter it, but that isn’t made clear at first). Second, you have to keep the cafe running and even expand it for your mom, because you’ve got a massive guilt trip about not letting the place fall destitute just because she’s in a coma and you’re visibly like 13. Third, get ready to help every single person who comes through those doors like you’re Sam Malone, only you cook instead of serve drinks, because this ain’t V411-HALL A, this is Little Dragon’s Cafe.
So, right off the bat, you get the lay of the land and figure out a bit about this game. Your time is divided into multiple sections and you’ve got a ton of balls in the air by the time things are done, but the game does start off slowly. Firstly, you gotta make sure to get as many ingredients from around the 3D landscape as possible. Usually this involves picking random stuff off bushes and grabbing eggs from birds, but soon you’ll be taking care of your crops, fishing out the lakes, getting meat from inside holes and headbutting flying birds to turn them into breasts. You’ll grab a ton of stuff and automatically put it into Food Storage, something I didn’t know because my mother nagged me about it so much at the beginning I figured it would be something I would need to consciously do. Nope, it’s automatic, and that’s just the first of the confusing issues. The food you get will be used to cook recipes, which you’ll find scattered around your land as well as occasionally being offered up by NPCs.
Cooking the food is probably the easiest thing in the whole game, and that’s saying something. Little Dragon’s Cafe makes cooking an interactive session by turning it into a rhythm game that requires hitting directions or buttons as the icons line up. Honestly, if you’ve spent any amount of time with literally any rhythm game, you’re going to be a master chef from day one. Even when you get to incredibly complex recipes later on, it’s simply a matter of hitting a few directions in a span of less than 30 seconds, and you’ll almost certainly end up with a “supreme” ranking on the dish you’re preparing. Interestingly, the food dishes that you create are the most important part of the whole game: divided into approximately ten chapters, most of the storyline moving forward, character development and ultimately moving towards the final goal of bringing your mother back to the living world hinge on being good at making food. You can only have a fixed number of recipes on your menu at one time, but you’ll often figure out which are integral to your cafe’s reputation (which attracts more customers and moves the story along) and which simply bode well with guests, who may ask for second helpings to take home (and then will give you raw ingredients or special recipes as a reward).
Gathering ingredients and raising the dragon go hand-in-hand for Little Dragon’s Cafe, as both seem to require the base understanding that they’re necessary for the game’s progression, and both take a mind-numbingly long amount of time. At the beginning, you simply gather from directly around your cafe, which limits the amount of variety that you can grab. In the same swing, your dragon is quite small, barely bigger than a dog, and will fetch stuff from inside holes and generally prance about for you. You gotta keep the dragon’s HP up, which you do by feeding it, but you can only feed it gourmet meals, which, what the hell, dragon, I’ve got this perfectly good raw slab of bacon, just eat that. Oh, and you can pet the dragon, which keeps its HP up when you’re out in the field and supposedly bonds you better. The meals that you decide upon will cause the dragon to occasionally change color and grow larger, and bigger dragon means better access to stuff. You become more bold and brazen in your explorations with a bigger lizard, and you go from small holes to knocking over larger structures and eventually flying to different locations on dragon back. The raising of the dragon is really quite interesting and creative, and I wish the game had been more focused on that, since it’s in the title of the game, but, no, I gotta spend 75% of the time making my house bigger and figuring out what meal to cook a vagrant so they can connect to their childhood and get the hell out of my cafe.
The issues of Little Dragon’s Cafe come in two-fold. Firstly, on a personal note, I abhor games that feel like they’re drawn out simply to increase the length of the game. You literally will spend a full game’s day out, gathering ingredients, watching the sun rise and fall and puttering around because the game hasn’t decided it’s time for you to do the next thing. You MUST sleep to keep the storyline moving forward, something that an NPC even comments on later in the game that “I have a feeling someone will come and give us direction tomorrow.” But that’s not meta or clever: that was just a further twisting of the knife when I was wasting my time out on the landscape. When you’re in the flow of the game and things make sense, it can be relaxing and fulfilling to be harvesting crops, fertilizing them with dragon manure (made by your dragon), fishing, knocking things over, and flying back home close to midnight in-game time. But when you are itching to do the next thing and get the story moving but you have to wait for your chef to finish having a personal crisis or for the vampire to decide she is ready to try a garlic based meal, you pull out your hair in tufts. I’ll admit I’m personally not geared towards this type of game, but I recognize good content when I see it, and I give it a chance.
The second issue, however, is performance. I’ve seen this game running on the PS4, and no one will doubt that the lovely art styling (in an almost colored pencils sort of way) combined with the soothing and atmospheric soundtrack are wonderful to behold. And, when you have the game up on a still shot on the Switch, you get to hear that same music and see that same beautiful art. But the second you get moving, even in cutscenes, the whole facade falls apart. The game is a stuttering, jumpy mess in handheld mode, with the movements of my character and the world around me lagging and dashing ahead nonstop. The draw distance is medium length, so to have parts of the landscape spring into life at a moment’s notice is borderline jarring. Things perform a bit better when docked, but, for a game from such a big name (and such a grand price tag), you’d anticipate everything to run smooth as butter. It simply wasn’t my experience, and it just felt like it became more noticable the more the world opened up and I was spending more time in the overworld, trying to get the stuff I need to make my customers want to live again.
Little Dragon’s Cafe is such an ambitiously delightful project that should, without too many problems, fill in the gaps that people have in their hearts for a game where you’ll be dumping hours upon hours in to make sure whimsy is well taken care of. But this isn’t a massive, endless sort of time that you once spent down on the ranch: this is a limited engagement that takes longer than you’d think but less than you’d prefer. It’s unapologetically formulaic, and that works on some levels and utterly bums me out on others. Given that Switch owners are prone to getting some performance patches, there’s a good chance that the stuttering I mentioned before might be dealt with rather soon. But that’s not going to fix the time that you need to cool your heels, which makes it less exciting for my play style. It’s a one and done: once you see what the game has to offer, start to finish, I doubt I’ll reopen the Cafe again in the future.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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