Starting Starlink

I finally started Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I mostly just wanted to make that announcement. It was back in October that I claimed that Starlink would be my next game purchase, and that did not end up being true. But I’m really excited to finally get to the game, and I’m enjoying it so far! It’s like an all-ages Mass Effect 3 limited in scope to a single star system, with a very light version of the exploration and scanning of life forms on colorful planets demonstrated in No Man’s Sky (no, I never played it, but I did enjoy watching game footage for a while), and inhabited by a rich cast of humans, aliens, and anthropomorphic animals such that it feels a little like a teasing glimpse of Beyond Good and Evil 2 (which is, after all, another Ubisoft title).

I started it on normal, then restarted it on easy, I’m embarrassed to admit. Two factors impact the difficulty: (1) it’s actually important to explore and do a little bit of “grinding,” though it doesn’t really feel a grind, on each world to level your pilot and craft; and (2) the weight of the docked toy ship and the tiny analog sticks of the Joy-Cons have combined to finally yield a situation where the Switch’s default docked control scheme doesn’t feel very comfortable for me. Well, okay, there’s a third reason: I’m getting older and suckier at games. Still, if I’d realized the first factor before restarting, I imagine I would have found normal fairly manageable most of the time, and I’m coasting through easy. Which is nice, in a way! I could always start another save slot later to inch up the difficulty, and I can focus for now on exploration, story, and characters. And I enjoy all that!

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It’s also fun to play as Fox McCloud on easy because he just seems that much more of an ace pilot even in my incompetent hands, ever the true hero. Playing as Fox from the beginning, I’m experiencing Starlink more as a Star Fox game than an original property. While having the toy model of an Arwing is fun, and I actually enjoy the swapping out of weaponry, I doubt I’ll ever really buy into the purchase of other pilots, ships, and firepower. So far, besides encountering the occasional gravity-based power-up that I can’t unlock with my current set of weaponry, I haven’t really been prevented from doing anything in the game. The toys-to-life concept remains a gimmick, but at least there’s nothing here requiring it to become an expensive gimmick.

Where the game really shines for me is in its rewarding exploration, distinctive characters and setting, and great use of the Star Fox property. The Star Fox team feels fully integrated into the game, even though playing primarily as Star Fox leads to the sort of funny result that this mercenary band has become involved in actively fixing the core team’s problems even more so than the original protagonists. And while I like the new characters, I really love the Star Fox team’s depiction in the game; Ubisoft nailed the right tone and team dynamic here. It’s hard not to see the game as proof-of-concept for a pure Star Fox open-world game. The free-range starfighter combat works great, a natural extension from the arcade-style flight of the Star Fox series, and I could easily see a lot of the same design applied to exploring the Lylat system.

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Having had the gradually worsening experience of Little Dragons Café in recent memory, I don’t want to get overly excited too early on. I can see some things that could get boring. The local missions you can request are of a limited variety. There are only a few types of megafauna on each planet, and the body types seem moulded around only a half dozen builds. But on easy mode, I’ve yet to have to spend so much time on a planet preparing for the next world to get bored. On a higher difficulty, the game would offer more rewarding combat challenges, which might mean the recycled mission structures wouldn’t grow tired so quickly. It’s hard to say at this point.

I think, unless something really sours me on the game later on, that this probably deserves at least two play-throughs. Yes, my first time is devoted to Fox, but a second experience that gives the core cast time to shine is probably needed. Even scooting everywhere in an Arwing as part of Star Fox, I’m still enjoying the camaraderie shared by the Starlink Initiative team.

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I’m sure I’ll have more to say before long!

Abandoning Vampyr

Having wrapped up Little Dragons Café, I figured I’d finally make an effort to finish Vampyr. I overall liked the story, and I liked the game’s themes, even if I was frustrated with the gameplay and my own technical issues with the game.

Earlier this week, I booted up Vampyr. And the game immediately fell into a chugging pace. Even stepping forward caused substantial stuttering. It was a dreadful mess, a slog of choppy frame-rates just to get up the stairs of the protagonist’s hospital base. And I realized that it just wasn’t worth it for me to finish the game.

Yes, I gave five minutes or less and abandoned the whole project. But I just wasn’t willing to keep pushing through. I played through a substantial portion of the game. I had unlocked 50% of the game’s achievements. I had mostly found my time in the game rewarding. And I would like to see the end of the story. But it just seemed too painful and frustrating to push on through.

From the reviews I’ve seen, it would seem that I’m not alone in encountering technical issues with the game. I’d say that my experience has been in the minority and on the extreme end, though. It’s hard to say where the game’s issues end and where my own computer’s issues pick up. I’d say my computer still runs most things great, but I do spend most of my PC gaming time playing older titles. I built this rig in 2010, so it’s not quite a decade old yet–but that’s a fairly long time for a computer. I’ve upgraded parts occasionally, but the last significant improvement was probably four years ago.

The computer does what I need it to do. And I’m rather fond of it. I’m not going to build another one soon. I’m not going to buy another one soon. So I might finally be reaching the point where my days as a primarily PC-focused gamer are at an end, outside of exploring older titles that I missed or returning to my favorites. That’s fine. Even with my most recent lackluster Switch gaming experience, I’ve still at least somewhat enjoyed everything I’ve played on the console. Some of my favorite games ever have been on that console already. And I like the console itself rather a lot.

Maybe eventually I’ll get a more powerful console or a newer PC. But right now I’ll just allow myself to complete this pivot to Switch-focused gaming. There’s already quite the backlog of games on the console that I want to try out. And it just so happens that Vampyr is making an appearance on the Switch sometime in the second half of the year…Maybe I’ll pick it up for the console and give the game another try with some distance (and the hope that it will be optimized for the platform).

For now, I find that my thoughts after 36 hours in the game remain much the same as they did when I wrote my initial impressions: it’s fun, it’s flawed, and–if you don’t encounter frustrating technical impediments–it’s worth your time.

Closing the Book on Little Dragons Cafe

I did not write a blog post on Sunday because I was on a mission for much of that day. My mission, unfortunately, was to finish Little Dragons Café. While I have a feeling of relief at having finally closed the chapter on this game, I’m mostly disappointed by what could have been and frustrated with the tedious grind of the final third of the story. (If you haven’t already, please check out my initial charmed reaction to the early sections of the game and my reflection on my eventual disillusionment.)

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I was actually engaged for a good portion of the game. Even when I didn’t want to care for some of the characters, either because they start out as such unrepentant jerks or because they seemed like simple anime stereotypes at first glance, I ultimately found almost everyone who came through the cafe doors to be endearing. I loved Billy, Ipanema, and Luccola, and I loved the playful, teasing, sometimes mean yet ultimately loving dynamic between them. Poncho the cowardly child warrior is adorable and incredibly sweet once you get his whole story. Celis has a great arc, moving beyond her witch-supremacist, anti-human bigotry. Huey’s hilarious and energetic; Chou Chou, despite being a pop idol, deals with a lot of guilt and insecurity in the wake of achieving stardom when her other companions did not; Ginji is a badass master thief questioning his life choices. The runaway Rosetta was somewhat annoying to me, but her story had a nice resolution that left her in a better place after forcing her to reconsider past events–in fact, most characters are left in a better place after being forced to reconsider past events, typically through the combination of compassionate prodding by the cafe staff and one really good meal.

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But the final few characters were unappealing to me. Miere is a famed fortune teller whose fortunes are all obviously garbage. She believes the world’s ending. The most amusing and interesting thing about her is that she has supreme confidence in her fortune-telling ability because she predicted when she was young that all her predictions would be true. Miere doesn’t really have a resolution, though; she never really recognizes her flaws. She just decides that maybe she can change fate with enough good luck, and she decides to continue her fortune-telling. Lanche is a child vampire, a trope that’s been done to death and is always a little disturbing to me; rather than focus on how disturbing it is to be stuck as a child forever, her story is about coming to terms with her pre-vampire memories. In this way, Lanche is just like Maurice, a ghost from earlier in the story who must come to terms with the memories of his own departed past life. I didn’t like Maurice (his main character trait is being annoying), so to see the character type return didn’t improve things for me. And it meant that we’d had a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire show up. Finally, Dr. Zeff is a mad scientist who must be convinced of the value of his own humanity, and of humankind in general; in this way, he’s just a freakish and grumpy repeat of Celis’s arc.

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I’ve talked about the characters a lot, and even the weaker, redundant character stories toward the end of the game will probably stick with me for a while. In a way, each character story was like an episode or small arc in an anime, representing side adventures that are only loosely connected to the larger story. That larger story never really built to anything here. For all the talk of draconic bloodlines, the game fizzles out in the end. The final chapter, in which you now have a fully matured dragon that can take you all about the island, is an incredibly boring series of fetch quests.

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The failings of the plot are really on display by the last section. Your journal tells you how to trigger plot developments, but it’s frustrating that the plot can only be advanced one day at a time, basically by being in the right place at the right time (augmented only by the collection of a recipe and preparation of a special dish for each of the visiting characters). By the end of the game, with my cafe reputation maxed out and all my attention on concluding the story, the plot was still advanced at a slow trickle. The story advice was basically a perpetual recommendation to go to sleep. I quickly gave up on the cafe entirely at the end, choosing to just sleep as soon as the day’s cinematic or island scavenger hunt concluded.

It’s not as though I really cared about the cafe by the end. You never really get much better at what you’re doing. Your staff doesn’t improve. Despite the magical growth of the inn, the cafe itself stays small and cramped. The controls remain frustrating (in all things, the controls remained frustrating, with substantial lag for tasks like flying or jumping). Your success and increased reputation is just marked by more customers, such that if you stay to help the staff, you can devote the entire day to the most tedious of grinding as you hop between taking orders, serving, and cleaning up. There’s very little strategy to it all; there’s no true management. You just hop in and develop a system for yourself and hope that you don’t have to interrupt your coworkers’ slacking all too much. In the final third of the game, my time in the cafe was a mind-numbing repetition of the thought cycle, Take Order – Place Order – Serve. It worked for me, and on days that I was there for the majority of the time, the customer base would often be satisfied or happy. On days I helped a little, customers would often be okay. If I skipped out entirely, to focus on the other mind-crushing reality of ingredient gathering, I’d often get reports that the customers were outright disappointed.

And I should emphasize that ingredient gathering never gets better or more interesting. You remain a perpetual forager. I developed a routine of hitting up spots that most consistently yielded needed ingredients, hoping for a good randomized production. Occasionally disrupting the routine to check for any newly washed-up recipe boxes was hardly all that refreshing.

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By the time my dragon was fully mature, I knew most of the areas with debris that couldn’t be destroyed earlier. I knew the one tall section on the mountain that I still couldn’t fly to. And I knew the one bridge I still couldn’t cross. I tried to do all the things I couldn’t do earlier, and it took me about a day in-game (I still couldn’t cross that final bridge). I had this powerful dragon with this amazing ability to engage in high-soaring flight, and there was very little for me to do with it.

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Closing out the game at the very end was anticlimactic. There was a lot of speechifying about the power of friendship and love–although there was still a lot of dry humor, with Billy in particular really lampshading the campy tropes and ridiculous coincidences used to reach an ending. The credits rolled (with game stills that reemphasized the canonical dragon of the game to be red, in contrast to my adorable blue boy). A handful of lovely storybook images showed the revival of the mother. Then you’re dumped back in the game with the ability to change the dragon at will between its sizes, by way of some new recipes. I tried the final bridge once more, and I still wasn’t allowed to cross it. I was burnt out on the cafe and the ingredient collection. I’d explored everything–well, if not everything, all that I wanted to see. There were presumably lots more recipes to gather (especially by way of combining dragon forms to get to tiny hiding holes in far-out places) and to then practice, but there was no driving reason to engage with any of that. I cannot foresee any reason to return to the game now. And while I mostly liked the story, I know that its final third is simply not worth revisiting again, and the rest is probably best just left as fond memories.

As I prepared to write this review, I tried to look into the mystery of the final bridge. Best theory seems to be that this bridge just symbolizes the mainland where everyone comes from to eat at the cafe. Given that the island across the bridge seems fairly small and the world around the island is mostly covered in water, this purely aesthetic insertion is mostly annoying to me and felt misleading. It’s the promise of more where there is none. That’s the whole game, really: the promise of more, and the failure to deliver.

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It turns out, I discovered, that the game probably feels emptier than it should be precisely because it is: many elements that would have given a fuller experience were cut. Lead designer Yasuhiro Wada told IGN that about seventy percent of what he had originally planned for the game was cut from the final version, adding that “there are parts that were cut out that feel like a waste to cut out from the game.” Those features include much greater customization of your cafe, your protagonist, and your dragon (including, it would seem, features that would have allowed the dragon to specialize in certain activities, which certainly would have made it more useful to me); a fuller experience for the cooking rhythm game; and additional characters and plot points. That last one really sticks with me: the story feels incomplete and rushed toward the end as-is. Wada wants a sequel that incorporates many of the above elements (and presumably even more); as much as I was disappointed by this game, I’d love to see a follow-up that more fully delivered on its potential.

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Hey, if nothing else, the return to the dragon-pal simulator got me in the mood for more dragon-pal fantasy, and The Dragon Prince Season Two is right around the corner!

Starting to be a Vampyr

I watched a lot of movies over the holidays, as is my custom, but I also started a new game: Vampyr. I like Dontnod Entertainment’s games, I’d had my eye on this title for a while, a good friend had been strongly recommending it since its release, and it was on sale over the holiday, so it was easy motivation to purchase at that point. (And I wanted to play something other than Little Dragons Cafe for a while.)

I’m still fairly early in the game, but I like it. It’s flawed, but it has a strong sense of purpose, and it’s clear what the developers wanted to do with it. In many ways, it reminds me of Remember Me: it’s a game overflowing with ideas and intentionally crafted themes, a game that promises openness but doesn’t fully deliver, a game with a satisfying but maybe over-developed combat system. The dialogue system in the game is especially interesting; there are often robust dialogue trees, but it always feels investigative rather than interpersonal. Even when you unlock a secret and probe to learn more, the game presents this as using vampiric power to coax the user into speaking; you’re not getting closer to the speaker, but instead you’re stripping more valuable information away from a target. It’s lonely being a vampire, and that dialogue system adds to the loneliness–you’re isolated and poorly understood, even when surrounded by others.

So far, my biggest complaint is that I’m experiencing long loading times and a fair amount of lag when passing through area transitions (and sometimes in combat), despite substantially lowering the graphics settings. To be fair, that’s likely just an issue on my end; my computer’s getting close to a decade old, with only fairly minor upgrades since I originally built it. Still, while I don’t have the technical expertise to assess how this compares to other games, it does seem like even fairly recent games of comparable size and appearance have played more smoothly for me.

Interestingly, the game echoes certain plot elements and themes of Interview with the Vampire. I suppose some of that comes with the nature of a pseudo-historical fiction starring vampires, but a lot of the same motivations and goals drive the protagonists in both works. That’s the sort of thing I might want to write about more later–given sufficient motivation, and after completing at least one ending of the game.

For now, I’m just enjoying my time as an angst-filled vampire.

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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Little Dragons Time

I’m currently playing Little Dragons Café on the Switch. It’s a cute, peaceful game–a great game for a relaxing weeknight hour or for whiling away a lazy weekend afternoon. The premise is straight out of a children’s fairy tale: the mother of twin children falls into a mysterious coma, and a strange old wizard arrives to watch over them, providing the kids a dragon’s egg. He says they must raise the dragon, while tending to their mother’s café, as doing so will restore her to health. Over the course of the game, the children draw a crowd of eccentric staff members, gruff regulars, and bizarre outcasts who stay briefly in the upstairs inn.

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The game feels like a mashup of Studio Ghibli films, the Pokémon RPGs, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, and Stardew Valley. That last reference is of course actually to the Harvest Moon games, as Harvest Moon designer Yasuhiro Wada was director of the Little Dragons Café team, and Stardew Valley was influenced by Harvest Moon as well. But I never played any of the Harvest Moon games. It’s interesting to realize, as an adult, that I could have have enjoyed that series. Maybe the slow pace of a farm-life simulator would have bored me as a kid, or seemed obviously trivial, but the genre’s become as much a form of escapism for me now as sci-fi shooters or fantasy RPGs ever were.

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The game looks lovely, like a hand-drawn storybook. That extends from the brush-stroke aesthetics on the character models to the clumpy trees and the whimsical designs of the animals. That whimsical design element extends to the characters and even the resources (for instance, you harvest chocolate and cream sauces directly from certain shrubs in the woods).

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The Switch tells me that I first played this title 8 days ago; it hasn’t yet estimated the hours, and if I were to ballpark it, I’d say I’m a dozen or so hours in. There’s still a lot of things to do in the game, and I appear to still be quite early in the story. My dragon’s hatched its egg and grown from baby to child; it can still search small holes, but it can also mow down shrubs with its tail, bash through small debris piles, tackle aggressive animals, and push boulders. My ability to explore the island is still somewhat limited by a text reminder that I should not stray so far from home, but the dragon’s abilities have allowed a lot more vertical creep into the interior. It’s clear that further growth will result in even better exploration options.

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Exploration remains appealing, even over a small island range. It’s also vital; one must return to old spots to continue to collect more ingredients, and there’s also the possibility of finding fragments of a recipe washed up on a beach or hidden behind a debris pile in the woods. The game is almost completely nonviolent. So far, there are three exceptions to this (besides the harmless and exaggerated interactions of some of the staff members): there is a type of goofy, bulbous bird on tiny wings that barely keep it aloft that, when you “tackle” (i.e., touch-tag) it, disappears in a poof and leaves behind meat; there is a type of aggressive, pudgy wolf-like creature that will steal one of the meals in your inventory if it “tackles” you; and the aggressive creature can be poofed into meat in turn if you get it to run into a rock, or if you command your dragon to hunt (and “tackle”) it. But there’s no actual violence committed, the concepts of fighting and biting and killing instead becoming abstracted to the point of near-non-existence. Even worrying about those aggressive Zucchidons is never more than a low-level stress; at worst, you lose a meal.

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The story has actually been the most engaging element for me so far. The characters are goofy and flawed, and the plot (after the initial life-saving-dragon bit that sets everything into motion) is largely focused on those characters over epic fantasy tropes. They just happen to be people who inhabit a fantasy world. Besides the twins, the café swiftly becomes staffed by a lazy dreamer who left his town with music career ambitions, a talented waitress who is regularly overcome by anger, and a fabulous orc who intends to become a famous chef. The story is broken into chapters that reflect the dragon’s growth and the rotating cast of characters who stay at the inn. By that metric, I’m probably three chapters in, having made it through the prologue of the dragon’s early years, then the stay of an anxious boy who claimed to be a warrior, and most recently the stay of a bigoted witch who found herself suddenly without magic powers. Each chapter has a mini character arc for the visitor, as the staff members are given room to grow themselves–along with the dragon, who is often referred to as a sort of glue between the disparate personalities and an influence for good. The fantasy world as of yet does not have a very cohesive vision, as it largely seems to draw from scattered fantasy cliches to fill its lore, usually to humorous effect (the game is often funny, typically in rather subtle, ironic ways–if you play it, make sure you watch how the names given to different visitors change in dialogue blocks).

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This game would probably be perfect for the 8-to-12-year-old range. A fairly literate and imaginative child with a fondness for fantasy could get a lot out of the game. It’s also an easy, forgiving game that would require effort to fail. The most challenging sections are the rhythm-based cooking mini-games, which are largely optional, and even those would require you to deliberately ignore multiple queues to do too badly, I would think. There’s a story section in your menu so you can see where you’re at and to give you rather clear hints about what to do to progress it further (especially helpful when the trigger is time-and-location-based). Each day, you get a summary of the café’s performance, and during the rush hours the game will give you a notification if the business requires closer attention (ingredients running low or staff slacking off). There’s a lot to micro-manage if you want, but very few user interfaces or menus or statistics to have to interact with. And if you’d rather just wander the countryside all day, you can do that too. It’s engaging, but not exactly challenging.

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Let me make it clear: I’m having a lot of fun with the game, and as it drops more and more of its training wheels and lets me do more, there’s more than just the story to keep me occupied. It’s still really early on, but I’m enjoying my time so far, and the game seems content to let me progress at my own pace. It’s casual fun for fantasy and sim fans of any age.