Summer in Mara is such an interesting idea for a game, and a charming one to boot. The premise from its Kickstarter campaign promised us farming, crafting, and exploring in a tropical archipelago with a colorful style and a strong narrative. Well, they definitely kept their promise, but how well did they execute this adventure? Is Summer in Mara pleasant, or should I reserve a vacation at another location?
Summer in Mara is the story of a girl named Koa, a shipwrecked youngster who was rescued as a baby and raised by an alien-like woman named Haku. She lives on an island that serves as her home, but there are also deep secrets about the land and its importance to the archipelago. Koa is a feisty young girl, and although she was raised by Haku, she did not learn good manners or how to do many things.
Shortly into the story, Koa grows a little, and we find that Haku has been gone for a very long time. This excites our young protagonist, and she ceases the opportunity, sets sail, and goes on an adventure to find Haku, grow up, and learn of the many mysteries of Mara.
It is a lighthearted and often times fun little story that tries its best to keep you engaged. The various characters you will run into throughout your gameplay will bring a smile to your face and have you appreciate this little world.
There are a couple dozen characters that you regularly engage with and accept missions and tasks from. This system allows you to connect more deeply with the inhabitants of Mara and see the relational development that happens naturally through repeated visitations. As you get your map and upgrade your boat, you will have access to more islands and learn even more about the people and history of Mara.
The story as a whole is pretty good, but I found the connections with the many citizens to be the highlight of the game. The main story took a bit of a backseat, because it honestly drags at times. Koa often becomes an errand girl, and many of her “adventures” are just her gathering goods and bringing them back to the appropriate party.
This is not to downgrade the actual story, which is quite nice and contains a lovely message, but I found myself often forgetting why I was doing something because the amount of time lost between segments was quite grand.
So how does the game play?
Summer in Mara is a strange combination of games. On the one hand, you have a game similar to Animal Crossing: New Horizons where you focus on beautifying your island, collecting materials and crafting, and building structures that will bring more life and purpose to your home island. On the other hand, you have a light farming simulator that tasks you with getting seeds, cultivating certain areas for planting, and watering your plants over days to harvest things like sunflowers, corn, carrots, and cotton. But on the other other hand (Three hands?), Summer in Mara is also a story-driven adventure that has you sailing the ocean searching for people, clues, items, and discoveries.
It is a lot to tackle, and unfortunately, it does not do any of them very well.
Your home island serves as a hub, and it is the only place in Mara where you can farm and craft. This is especially jarring when you are many islands away and need to craft a specific item or harvest a particular plant. The amount of times I had to go back to the home island was easily over 200 times, and each passing time got more annoying than the previous.
Koa is asked over and over and over again to get/make/find something and bring it back. It makes for a daunting experience and truly hurts the flow of the game, which is really unfortunate because the interactions with the various characters is the highlight. It is just everything I have to do in between that has me grinding my teeth.
Oftentimes certain objectives are locked behind advancements that are not communicated clearly, which can lead you to wander aimlessly trying to find the right people to talk to. It is a bit messy in regards to gameplay, and I am afraid it does not get any better.
You see, the sailing is simply dull. I wanted this to be like Windwaker, but sadly it lacks so much. There is barely anything to keep your interest while on your boat outside the occasional questline task or fishing spot, so you feel like a lot of your trips are just long waits to get to the next island (Which is mostly back to your home island). There is a fast-travel option, but it is only to the city and it costs a decent amount of money, making it something you avoid more than anything else.
Farming is also as simple as it can get. There are no real restrictions, and all farming can be spammed easily by sleeping numerous days in a row. This takes the engagement out of the process and makes farming feel more like a chore than a fun in-game task.
And for whatever reason, Summer in Mara has both a stamina meter and a hunger meter to try and force eating and resting, but there is literally no consequence for neglecting these things outside of it becoming an annoyance. I often found myself ignoring these needs when I was in the middle of a questline, and it did not stop me from doing so. It just simply slowed me down.
Because none of the activities require any real attention or care, the game does come off as super-casual and a much easier and lighter Stardew Valley.
One last nitpicky thing, but why in the world does Koa jump higher than Master Chief?! I mean, it was nice to jump over trees, on top of houses, and fly up mountains with ease, but what is this girl smoking?
The music in Summer in Mara is quite pleasant when it is actually playing. It is weird that the music randomly drops in and out, so I was a little confused by this. However, when it is playing, it sets the tone for each area really well and gives a bit more life to the different islands and areas of Mara.
There is no voice acting in the game, but there are vocal sound effects to help give the dialog screens a bit more character. I loved this, because it felt like the right amount to give these conversations with the NPCs more depth. The writing is really well done and quite witty at times, but the sounds used make them even better.
I only wish the game did a bit more with its world and the possible sound effects that could have given it more substance. More wind sounds, playful children in the park, echoes in the caves. This kind of attention to detail gives the world so much more life and makes the player connect more deeply with everything that is happening in it.
The world and characters of Mara are a cluster of graphical hits and misses for me. Some areas look great while others look lazy. It is wild to me that one character in the city has so much detail and expression and the next character will look as bland as bland can be and lack so much. I honestly do not understand the decision in this, but I can only assume it was to quicken the development process.
The game controls well most of the time, but there are some oversights that do not look great at all. A light touch of the control stick, and Koa can simply glide without moving her legs. Koa can also wall jump on certain structures like she is Spider-Man or something, which is a lot of fun, but it does look strange.
I actually experienced a lot of problems with the game, too. Not only did I face a game-breaking bug early on that prevented me from progressing, but it also crashed multiple times in my many hours of play. Thankfully, sailing to places is relatively smooth, and load times are pretty quick.
At $25 USD, Summer in Mara does provide a ton of gameplay for a very reasonable price. I am having a difficult time, however, recommending the game. Although it does have its highlights in regards to its wonderful characters and pretty engaging story, the gameplay and other issues are hard to look past. It is a game that you can play while trying to simply pass time, but I personally think there are plenty of other titles out there that can provide the same type of entertainment in a much better way.
I definitely do not want to communicate that this is a terrible game, because it is not. The problem is that it is not a great game either. This is very much a down-the-middle kind of game, and it will be a purchase that is much easier to swallow at a discounted price.
It does have one more strong point, though, and I had to save it for last. You can feed and pet doggies, which makes me so happy. If that alone is worth $25 to you, then I can understand. Enjoy your dog-petting simulator!
Amazing characters and good story
Too many freakin' errands
Some technical issues
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My name is Jason Capp. I am a husband, father, son, and brother, and I am a gamer, a writer, and a wannabe pro wrestler. It is hard to erase the smile on this simple man.