Little Frustrations Cafe

Another post on Little Dragons Café. (Only partly because I haven’t exhausted bad wordplay in the headers yet.) This time, it’s more about my frustrations (get the title? GET IT?).

I had my wisdom teeth extracted Wednesday evening, so I took a few days off to make sure I’d go back to work fully recovered. Seems like it was an overcompensation, as I’ve felt great basically from the morning after, but it’s let me waste time on things like my little fantasy café. Unfortunately, the more time with the game, the thinner it feels.

My biggest complaint is that the game’s flow begins to feel repetitive, threadbare, and even tedious the more you engage in it. As my dragon remained a child and I continued to progress through the story, the day was a yawning void to be filled with café help during lunch and dinner rushes, broken by ingredient collection during the days. The game world had grown somewhat with my dragon’s new powers, but the extent of exploration was swiftly exhausted. There was not enough to do over the course of the day. It was beginning to feel boring.

Then my dragon grew. It’s an adolescent now. We can fly now. It should be great fun. But I’m beaten down by the new demands on my game time. The café reputation continues to increase alongside the story, so it keeps getting busier. Lunch rushes start earlier and end later, sometimes bleeding into the dinner block. Final diners are sometimes finishing their meals at almost ten at night. My character typically follows the staff to bed right after. I have to rush most of my ingredient collections into the morning hours.

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Ingredients now matter a lot more. With the influx of customers, certain heavily used ingredients can quickly run low or run out. I have to be prepared to scrounge far afield to collect adequate ingredients to scrimp by. Sometimes, I’ll just rotate out menu items, sometimes even putting in lower-rated meals just to cut back on ingredient demand. I always avoided using rarer ingredients, but now even fairly common ingredients like flour or salt can quickly run out. I have to think more about the menu composition, avoiding repetition of ingredients so that there is less drain on a particular ingredient across many dishes. This element actually suggests a level of business management and required strategic thinking that I didn’t recognize the game possessed, and I should like that apparent layer of depth, but it’s just another tedious challenge, another diversion in my increasingly limited time (that’s a slight exaggeration–player cooking and menu prep happen in paused game time, but the search for ingredients is, as I’ve said, something that eats up more and more of the mornings and sometimes late nights).

In short, I went from feeling bored to busy. Too busy. Now, there’s so much more to explore on the island, so many things to find and collect, so many interesting views to see. But I can’t take the time to do it without feeling like I’m abandoning my responsibilities.

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And when I don’t micromanage, bad things happen. If I’m not there, I know that my staff members will slack. Billy the laziest elf will play guitar in a corner. Ipanema the wild aggro-waitress  will sulk against a wall, overcome with rage. My character’s twin will sweep away slowly at the same spot to avoid work. Even the effervescent orc chef Luccola would suddenly be overcome with the need to sway with his inner music, rather than cook the piled-up orders. Customers seemed to become more irate and impatient, too, ready to storm off–sometimes even as I walked over, food in hand–if they felt they’d been kept too long. While out adventuring, I’d received urgent messages in yellow, indicating that the staff was slacking or that ingredients were running low. I could always hit the minus button to warp back to the café, ready to deposit my collected ingredients in the food storage and to chastise my staff into working alongside me. But then my day would be sucked into management mode, and even if I decided to head back out, I’d be starting back from my doorstep instead of whatever distant vista I’d reached.

There’s still no sign of failure in sight. Sure, whether I’m helping or not, I get more days with Okay ratings instead of Satisfactory or better. But it feels more like heaps of busywork to keep me distracted from what I really want to do–exploring the island, flying high, being buds with my dragon. What’s the point of a pet dragon if you keep him stashed by the hen-house most days and spend your bonding time in purely agricultural and foraging pursuits?

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The game is loaded with messages ideally suited for that 8-to-12-year-old, fantasy-loving crowd: welcome diversity, practice empathy, believe in yourself, don’t let biases get in the way of trying new experiences and meeting new friends. Each new visitor has a story that involves self-discovery and ends with a succinctly stated moral. Amid all that, I sort of suspect that the increasingly stressful gameplay is intended to instill a subtler moral: as we age and mature, we have increasing opportunities and increasing ability to follow our dreams, but often the constraints of adult responsibilities simultaneously limit our scope. We have the freedom to do anything, but our commitments to our loved ones and community can keep us pinned down.

This limitation is somewhat illusory in the game. If I can’t really fail, if my presence in the café only slightly improves performance, then why not just go exploring with my dragon bud? Sometimes, even for a couple nonstop game-days at a time, that’s what I’ll do: abandon responsibilities and romp. It’s easy to justify when I’m collecting plenty of ingredients while out. Even that, I suppose, offers a message: sometimes the restraints we place on ourselves are largely imagined, and the only thing holding us back from doing what we want is our own preconceived notions.

Is that what the game intends? Or is it just bad game design, replacing genuine flow with unceasing busywork? I’m inclined to go with the latter theory, for there are other design flaws in the game.

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One of my other big gripes: the controls are rather unresponsive. They don’t always do what I want. Sometimes I’ll mash the jump button over and over and over before my character actually leaps that fence. Same with taking and sustaining flight. Even more routine tasks seem to have a slightly laggy, imprecise feeling. This isn’t an issue with the Switch controller, I think. I’ve had some experiences with other games where distance from the console has resulted in lag or unresponsiveness with a Joy-Con, but in general, I’ve felt that controls have been tight and precise with other games. The lag excuse doesn’t work here, either, since I almost exclusively play Little Dragons Café in handheld mode.

The issue seems largest with exploration features, as though everything about exploration was considered an afterthought (instead of, you know, a core and essential element of the game). My dragon seems either occasionally dull or defiant, too, ignoring my commands until a few button presses have passed. This is especially troublesome when the command is something urgent–like, say, hunting a monster that’s about to tackle me and steal one of the dragon’s prepared meals.

This leads into another issue: the AI is just plain dumb. When unmounted, the dragon loosely trots behind me, sometimes taking initiative to do some task like shaking a tree or mowing some grasses. The action it chooses is almost never something I really want. It does not seem concerned about my character or its meals; unless I explicitly command it, it will do nothing to stop monsters that are attacking me. This resulted in one of the most frustrating experiences in the game, in which a pack of Zucchidons cornered me, repeatedly tackling me until I was without any meals, and because I was trapped, their attacks eventually pushed me up onto their backs. They couldn’t tackle me anymore, but I couldn’t get down. Most of the time during this experience, I didn’t have any context-sensitive button options, but when I did, it was to attempt to fertilize a bush next to us. Not helpful. All the while, my dragon simply stood nearby, watching, doing nothing. My own controls were useless. I couldn’t pause; I couldn’t order the dragon to hunt; I couldn’t warp back to the café. Going to the Switch home screen and then resuming the game didn’t help. This was after a day-and-a-half of adventuring, and I wasn’t looking forward to restarting the game and losing my progress (you only save at the end of the day, after you have gone to bed; if you skip going to bed, no save). After a couple minutes, I somehow just fell off and sent my dragon to work headbutting the punks. But it was infuriating. Shouldn’t my dragon be a little motivated to help out on its own?

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Stuck.

The staff is similarly worthless. I’ve been cornered by a character as they attempt to take an order or collect a plate, pinning me between chairs as I wait to carry out my own action. They’ll pass through each other, but they’ll push me back if they run into me. And they will run into me, their pathfinding so very limited, pushing me back as I attempt to drop off a dirty dish or deliver a meal. They’ll slam into me even if I had the right of way, even if they just rose from a seat to go charge off and finally start working. Luccola is spared my ire here because, as the cook, he just stands by the stove. And Luccola only has the task of cooking. But the other characters will tackle chores and tables at random. This results in delays, as they’ll just randomly assign themselves a task. I can move a little faster than them, as my character always runs everywhere, but if I get to a task before them, they’ll stand around dumbly or even move to a corner to wait, even while there are orders to take and meals to deliver and dishes to clear. Worse, I’ll take time to talk to them, only to sometimes find passive-aggressive remarks, like my twin complaining that I should help in the café now that I’m done with collecting ingredients–even if I’d been working alongside her, doing more than her, covering for her as she fell into some time-wasting activity. Even the most harmless of comments can easily be read as passive-aggressive when supported with audiovisual queues indicating grumpiness, and as this is a pretty anime-influenced game, those queues are not subtle.

There are two easy solutions for a lot of the café troubles.

First, I should have a party management system, like in an RPG. I understand that the staff aren’t great at their jobs, that they often waste time, that they’re still growing as people–that’s part of the story. But the story also emphasizes that we’re a found family, that we care about each other. Being pushed around, and watching customers storm out because orders just weren’t being collected and food just wasn’t being delivered as my staff chased after dirty dishes, is antithetical to that message. If I could just assign a general task list, the characters could then focus on particular jobs. Ipanema could take orders, the twin could deliver meals, and Billy could clean dishes–or whatever combination I settled on. Then my character could focus on making sure they were working and dart in to help wherever there was a pile-up.

Second, there should be a separate “talk” button. Executing talk commands through the context-sensitive button results in a lot of frustrating situations. Instead of taking an order, I end up talking to a nearby loafing server or served patron. Instead of getting Luccola back to work, I enter the cooking minigame. Instead of convincing my twin to stop sweeping, I end up walking outside (through yet another loading screen). The Switch has plenty of buttons. Some of them aren’t getting used. Dividing talk from everything else would make things a lot easier and cleaner.

My final complaint for now is that the cooking system is underdeveloped. The meals have cute little descriptions, and the artwork makes every meal look delicious. But meal prep is wasted with the simple mini-game, especially when you can just throw a bunch of random ingredients into a dish so long as they fit a broad class. I know that the cooking ultimately is a fairly small portion of the game, but it would be fun to have recipes that you could almost follow in real life (like Cooking Mama), or at least to have a codex of all unlocked recipes, with an actual, real-world recipe that you could follow for each dish. It’s not a major flaw, and I don’t spend a lot of time cooking in the game, but it’s a missed opportunity, especially where cooking has such an integral role in the plot.

I believe that I’m over halfway through the story, and at this point, the chapters of characters coming and going from the inn are admittedly feeling overly formulaic, but I’m still enjoying the characters (when the game mechanics aren’t fighting against their characterizations), and I honestly want to see where things go with my dragon and our protagonists’ mother and new found family.

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