Little Dragons Cafe defies categorization. Despite being the latest endeavor from Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada, it's not a farming sim. While you have to manage your cafe, keeping the staff in line and adjusting the menu to fit your needs, it's also not really a management sim. You instead split your time between exploring with your dragon to hunt down recipes and ingredients and going hands-on at the cafe--and they combine to make a strangely satisfying loop. But Little Dragons Cafe is also held back by frustrating pacing problems in its story and progression, as well as technical hiccups that make it feel outdated.
In Little Dragons Cafe, you're one of a pair of twins whose mother has fallen into a deep sleep. You learn that she's part dragon, and in order to save her, you need to raise a dragon while also running the family cafe. You meet new cafe customers with problems of their own, and one by one, you help each of them through their struggles (mostly using food) to progress. There's a lot of silliness and cheerful platitudes throughout the story, and they're largely sweet, if a little corny; one customer, for example, is an angry young girl who learns to better understand her father through a comforting shrimp dish.
Each character's story is broken up into around a dozen short scenes, usually one per day. Early on, you'll only be able to explore the area immediately around the cafe; unlocking new areas is dependent on your dragon's size (two physically small stages and two stages that you can ride and fly on), which is in turn dependent on your progression through the story. The pace of the story lags behind that of exploration, and you'll find yourself ready to move on, having found every recipe and ingredient in the early areas, before the story structure will allow you to. The slowness feels forced and artificial, rather than a choice you make to fit the game's relaxed pastoral setting.
This early section is also dragged down by janky movement controls. You can jump, but it's clumsy, and you'll often have to tweak where you're standing slightly to actually get onto something. A hilly area in particular is filled with ledges you can jump down from but not back onto, forcing you to backtrack multiple times to reach everything on foot. Despite all that, though, you'll still outpace the story.
Little Dragons Cafe improves a lot once your dragon can fly. New regions, like a rocky cliffside set to upbeat music and a more subdued waterfall filled with rare ingredients, provide more variety in both your day-to-day exploration and in your cafe's menu. Flying eliminates all the problems with navigating on foot, and it becomes faster and easier to gather everything you need over the course of a day. Your cafe, too, becomes busier; you'll likely run out of ingredients faster than you can gather them, and you either have to consistently harvest what you need or plan your menu around what you have on hand. It's a satisfying balancing act that keeps you heading out day after day, even after you've thoroughly searched each area.
Creatively, cooking itself is a short rhythm minigame in which your accuracy helps determine the quality of the dish. The prompts often seem to be just off-beat, but the game is also forgiving, and creating high-quality dishes isn't difficult. The actual fun comes from coordinating your menu--in addition to regularly swapping out recipes as your ingredient stock fluctuates, you can check it to see which recipes are popular and which need to be swapped out for better ones. It's not a complex or deep system, and you don't have to try too hard to keep customers happy, but tinkering with it gives all that gathering a purpose.
You can also spend time on the actual operations of the cafe, including taking and serving orders, cleaning plates, and reining in the group of goofy weirdos that comprise the staff. While they're mostly likeable in cutscenes, the staff is not very helpful or efficient as employees and will frequently run into you and block your path as you try to complete tasks. They also slack off periodically, and while you can talk to them to get them back in line, the cafe won't suffer much for their poor performance. Generally, helping out in the cafe is busywork--the only incentive to do it is the guilt trip you might get from your sibling for shirking your responsibilities.
Little Dragons Cafe is heartwarming overall, with cute character designs and joyful music to accompany each colorful region. The dragon in particular is adorable as a baby, encouraging you to bond with (and feed) it as it grows. Unfortunately, texture shimmer, lag before cutscenes load, and limited lighting effects make it feel like a much older game than it is. The technical problems aren't obtrusive, but combined with the control and pacing issues, they do make Little Dragons Cafe feel like a much older game.
In many ways, Little Dragons Cafe doesn't really fit a modern mold. It's conservative with the goals it gives you, spacing out progression so much that it's easy to get impatient with it. None of your individual tasks are very complex or challenging, either. But when the right parts come together, it can be fun to succeed in its charming world, and it's easy to lose track of time hunting for hidden recipes or rare ingredients to make the best dishes possible. If anything, it's a lovely game to relax to--even if you're forced into a slow pace.