Even with just an hour or so of learning the loop of Little Dragons Cafe, I felt right at home. It's warm, pulling from the management simulations director Yasuhiro Wada is known for. From Harvest Moon to the niche ecosystem sim Birthdays the Beginning, Wada's explored everything from quiet idyllic lifestyles to learning to be eco-conscious. With Little Dragons Cafe though, he's embarking on something familiar, but new.
"I've always focused on management style, the system first, versus this time it was the opposite," director Wada tells me during a demo event late last week, translated by Aksys Games founder and CEO Akibo Shieh. "In the past, like for instance in Harvest Moon, I would make the system and then the artists would come in afterwards. Because I'm good friends with the artist for Little Dragons Cafe [who was the original artist for the first Harvest Moon], we started working together from the very beginning. So that's why this time it was natural for us to come up with the story and the art style and the characters first."
Before I'm let in on any cafe management action, I'm eased into it through a lengthy prologue. I choose my character (the twin sister), learn how to cook through its simple rhythm game, forage for supplies for the cafe. And then their mom mysteriously falls into a deep slumber. A magical little man appears and tells the twins that their mother is part dragon (*gasp*), and for some reason, they have to raise a baby dragon to help her wake up safely. In the meantime, the twins are also thrust into the world of customer service and cafe management, running the teensy establishment while the mother is ill.
It's a strange set-up, but it's central to what makes Little Dragons Cafe stand apart from Wada's other well-known games. It puts story first, systems second. And for Wada, it's a more personal game than he's helmed in the past. "It's about human relationships, relationships in general. It's about the characters, like a heart to heart connection and trust, and one of the big characteristics of the characters is everybody has sort of a weakness," Wada says. "So even players probably have very similar issues or problems that they can associate with the characters in game. All the characters you see with issues and weaknesses and problems are basically a part of me. So rather than be sad or upset or disappointed with your own weaknesses, [as] that would be for me, it's a matter of how to overcome that."
Weaknesses that Wada points out include the two stars of Little Dragons Cafe: The twins saddled with grief and newfound responsibility in the same turn. In the early goings of the game, I also saw the introduction of the character Billy, a disheveled young man who attempts to dine and dash—that is, leave without paying for his meal. He doesn't get away with it, kudos to your pesky pet dragon, and is tasked with helping out the cafe as a sort of repayment. Jumping ahead in a debugged Nintendo Switch version (the prologue I played on PlayStation 4), I found Billy again in the cafe. Only now, some hours ahead, he was a diligent server. Then while I was flying around on the back of my dragon, who ages up with the story and eventually gets the ability to fly, I was pinged with a notification about my cafe staff slacking off. I hurried back and chit-chatted the idling workers into shape—including Billy, who was slacking off in the background.
This part of Little Dragons Cafe—managing employees in a service setting and helping out regular customers with their life problems—is giving me a lot of flashbacks to working in the food service industry. I still remember my regulars; the ones who came in almost daily and would loiter by where we made drinks, being friendly and chatting with us all along the way. I remember the rude customers clearly too, who were often unavoidable. I can't figure out if Little Dragons Cafe is a good or bad sort of reminder of this time in my life, but the fact that it evokes it at all is a shock to me, given how many restaurant management sims are usually scant on the personal side of things.
Little Dragons Cafe, contrary to past Wada-led games, is focusing hard on the theme of rehabilitation. Wada believes that all people deserve second chances, as seen in the prominent focus on not just keeping customers and employees happy, but helping them solve issues in their personal lives too. It's a heartwarming sort of message buried in the simplistic-embracing management sim. The belief trickles down all the way, and is not squarely narrowed on human beings either.
After a long time spent with both the PS4 and Switch versions of Little Dragons Cafe, there was one question left lingering in my mind. Why dragons? I ask Wada this question towards the end of our short chat, and he chuckles immediately. "I love it," he says in perfect English. He's a big fan of dragons, his translator Shieh reaffirms. It's the extra dose of fantasy in a game saturated with recognizable notions—cooking, customer service, foraging for ingredients (which might be familiar if you're like that one Danish chef from Noma)—that it sorely needs. But for Wada, it's not just because he adores the mythical creatures. He wants to redefine them too.
"Dragons usually are portrayed as evil things, bad things. They are usually enemies in games, and I wanted to make this dragon more of a partner or a buddy," Wada says. It adds to the overall nice tone of Little Dragons Cafe. Even in the face of hardship and weakness, its characters overcome it to form a sweet little community. Through food and helping customers and employees, Wada hopes that players don't just see a little bit of himself in there, but see themselves too. Little Dragons Cafe will be out on PS4 and Switch later this summer on August 24.