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‘Little Dragon Cafe’ is the ‘Harvest Moon’ successor we needed: Review

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What defines the heart-warming yet addictive bliss of Harvest Moon?

Some might point to its farming sim element, which bore new and improved iterations in later games like Stardew Valley and Battle Chef Brigade. Or maybe it was more the long-term attachment you develop to townspeople by building a community, which you can now get in Animal Crossing.

But Little Dragon Cafe, the first new IP from one of the original creators of Harvest Moon, Yasuhiro Wada, brings something else to the table that only the OG life simulator can: a sense of pure love and friendship.

Sure, Animal Crossing is sold on the notion of friendship. But the actual mechanics of those games feel pretty cynical, with a transactional view of how relationships are built and maintained. It almost exclusively revolves around you doing errands and giving material gifts to each other.

But there is an unadulterated sincerity to the relationships embedded into both the story and gameplay of Little Dragon Cafe. You play as one of two twins who must run the family cafe by themselves for the first time after their mother falls mysteriously ill one day. 

An odd old man by the name of “Pappy,” the first of many delightfully bizarre characters in the game, inexplicably shows up. He explains it’s because your mom is half dragon and half human (surprise!), so something about her two different blood types isn’t jiving together. 

The only way to save her is to raise a baby dragon, while juggling the responsibilities of running a cafe as a literal child.

You know, life stuff.

This weird juxtaposition between everyday problems, people, relationships and wholly unexplained supernatural silliness is precisely what gives Little Dragon Cafe its undeniable charm. 

A pattern develops throughout your in-game days as a cafe owner/freelance dragon mother. The basic loop of the day/night cycle has you splitting time between gathering ingredients by exploring the world (often with the help of your dragon), and then helping your staff serve the town grub during its busiest hours.

The dragon grows as the story progresses, gaining you access to different parts of the environment and new ingredients and recipes. The most you can do in terms of influencing the dragon, though, is giving it certain foods to change the color of their scales. 

At the cafe, your chef prepares meals ranked in deliciousness based on how successful you are at the rhythm game. Then there’s a Diner Dash element of taking orders, serving, and cleaning up after the customers. 

While both mini-game elements are fun enough in themselves, the comparison to Diner Dash is probably a little too generous. This is a much more shallow approach to those mechanics. Instead of juggling customers needs through careful time management, Little Dragon Cafe is just kind of open-ended chaos, with no indication of how they’re doing on the satisfaction meter. 

I found most of my failures to serve customers came down to getting stuck behind furniture and trying not to run into my staff, too. By the end, I realized it didn’t even really matter if I started neglecting my customer satisfaction rating. The game naturally progressed to the next chapter anyway.

There’s a lot of these nit picky annoyances throughout Little Dragon Cafe. While the whole of it is undoubtedly worth your time, you can tell it’s the first iteration on a great idea. It certainly lacks the resources of an established IP like Harvest Moon

Despite the townspeople being the focal point of the story, the town itself is empty. No houses, no one walking around (unless their going to the cafe), no other shops. There’s also much less of a sense of shared time as a result, which would have been helped by something like an addition of seasons.

Yet these complaints feel trite in the grand scheme of what the game offers.

Like most of its equivalents (Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing), the grind of this daily pattern can get a bit tedious. But not nearly as fast as the others since, unlike them, Little Dragon Cafe actually connects labor you do to meaningful stories with satisfying conclusions.

Each daily grind is propelled by the arcs of characters who, on top of being the wildest people imaginable, transform through the power of friendship and food. Talk about relatable.

These characters, who all come into your cafe/inn with some sort of core issue (again, each wilder than the last), are the heart and soul of Little Dragon Cafe. They’re unlike any other NPCs you’ve ever met before, with problems ranging from repressed vampire childhood memories to depression from having lost your mother to illness.

Each character’s chapter entails cutscenes where you get to know them better, learn their preferred meals, and eventually end with you hunting down a new recipe tied to their emotional issues. You’d think this would get old after a few times. But you’d need to be dead inside to not find them all weirdly touching.

In summary: Little Dragon Cafe is like if Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, Cooking Mama, and Diner Dash all took LSD together before hugging it out. 

I mean, what’s not to love in a game where you can fly around on a dragon, collecting miso soup from bushes for the uppity witch who hates humans and sleeps in the bedroom above your cafe?

Little Dragon Cafe ultimately teaches you to respect the power of nurturing the people around you, building a family that’s all about acceptance, and confronting your toughest problems together.

It’s everything you’d want to fill the Harvest Moon-shaped hole in your heart.

You can play Little Dragon Cafe now on either Nintendo Switch or PS4.

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