There’s been a special place in my heart for management sims ever since I played Dungeon Keeper as a young lad. These days they’re a popular subgenre. There’s plenty to check out based on numerous concepts, ranging from running your own Jurrasic Park to a new, modern take on Dungeon Keeper in War for the Overworld, so you can pick and choose what sounds good. If you’re a fan of the kawaii aesthetic, you might look at Little Dragons Cafe and think you’ve found the perfect blend of cuteness and management complexity…but, well, you’re mostly getting the former and not nearly enough of the latter.
When a mysterious ailment strikes their mother, twins Ren and Rin end up inheriting their family’s cafe a little sooner than expected. That’s not their only new responsibility, though – a mysterious old man named Pappy bring them a dragon egg, informing them that properly raising the dragon inside is key to saving their mother. Balancing dragon parenthood, running the cafe and ensuring that all the crazy customers who show up for a drink or snack might be too much to handle, though!
Well, that’s the idea anyway. In practice, Little Dragons Cafe is light on the tension and heavy on plot, to the point where it’s more like a visual novel than anything. Running your cafe involves pleasing customers to increase a reputation meter (which only goes one way, so you can only fail to gain reputation rather than losing any) while raising the dragon involves…well, running the cafe. Pleasing customers, then, is all about collecting ingredients and filling out the cafe’s menu with tasty treats.
Gathering ingredients is the majority of what you’ll be doing throughout Little Dragon’s Cafe. You’ll run around outside, mash the collect button on gathering points, bring your harvest back and repeat until you’re satisfied. Your dragon comes along and can help with various tasks, including crawling into caves to collect items and destroying debris. The range of help the dragon can provide changes somewhat as it grows, but that growth is incredibly time-consuming and the range you can explore is extremely limited. Tedium quickly becomes the name of the game. What’s more, exploration can prove to be a pain in the butt thanks to the waffly controls; they fight you every step of the way, especially when it comes to the struggle that is jumping.
Further, you’re in no danger here. Don’t get me wrong, there are enemies – namely giant, delicious beasts called Zucchidon that your dragon will help you murder for meat – but taking hits only costs you prepared meals from your inventory. Much like your cafe can only become more popular and not less, there’s not much on the line when you’re out exploring the world.
With the ingredients you find, you can cook up some meals to serve your customers. This involves selecting ingredients to fill out a recipe (you find new ones by exploring and talking to characters) then completing a simple minigame. Success at the minigame results in tastier food and higher reputation gains. You’ll note I’ve only talked about reputation and not any sort of profit or revenue – that’s because there’s no currency in Little Dragon’s Cafe. That’s a bit of a bizarre decision for a game about running a restaurant, but, well…
Meanwhile, you’ve got a staff of goofballs running the cafe in your absence while you’re out exploring. They’re absolutely terrible at their jobs and will gleefully slack off without you present to yell at them, so you’ll need to come back and do so for the lunch and dinner rushes if you want to build a positive reputation. This, of course, cuts into your gathering and exploration time, though you’ll rapidly explore the entirety of your tiny island-shaped cage and collect more ingredients than you’ll need.
That’s the game, really. You’ll do all of this over…and over…and over again, continuing for hours as you strive to build that reputation meter a few pixels at a time. As you do so, you’ll meet crazy new characters, experience their stories and help with their problems by cooking specific dishes for them. That, of course, means more exploration, more aggravating jumping, and more trips around your tiny prison. Recipe fragments tend to respawn in places where you’ve already found them, by the way, so you can look forward to exploring the entire island not just once, but many, many times as the game progresses. Little Dragons Cafe’s one mercy is the “Story” menu, which helpfully tells you where pretty much everything you’re searching for might be.
It’s cute at least! It’s very cute, in fact, with a sort of hand-drawn filter and crayon shading applied to most things. Your dragon is the star of the show here with its adorable sound effects and cutomizable color, though other characters can be just as endearing. Little Dragon’s Cafe looks fantastic, all in all, though some bizarre shadow glitches are common during exploration and detract from the aesthetic somewhat.
This is an idea that can work, as we’ve seen numerous times over the years with indie titles like Recettear. Little Dragon’s Cafe misses the mark, though, by eliminating much of your investment in the proceedings. You need to be able to lose for winning to matter; items need to be rare to have value; success needs to be an accomplishment rather than a given if you want it to feel good when you manage to succeed. With all that in mind, one wonders why Little Dragon’s Cafe even pretends to be a management game at all. There’s nothing wrong with visual novels, but that’s what Little Dragons Cafe really is – and I think honesty would have been the best policy here.