Bree somehow managed to weasel her way into a game design degree, hasn't stopped playing Skyrim since it first came out and is unrelentingly thirsty for Nagito Komaeda.
Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
June 16, 2020
Summer In Mara has come to us at almost the perfect time. With everyone still stuck inside and looking for any way to escape to the great outdoors, this seafaring farming sim was at the top of my games to play list. The game started its life as a successful Kickstarter project before its arrival on Steam and the Nintendo Switch in June of 2020. I myself have been following the game for a while, as a fan of any farming sim on the market, it piqued my interest right away with its promise of farming, crafting, and sailing between islands in a gorgeous tropical world. I also loved all of the art I had seen of the game and all interesting characters that would be featured, some of Mara’s inhabitants appearing almost alien where others were a more familiar race of cat people. I was excited to see how all of these characters fit into the world and the young protagonist of the game looked to be such a darling.
When I first started the game, I was happy to see some of the beautiful hand-drawn animations that I recognised from when I first discovered the Kickstarter, though when the tutorial started properly I was a little disappointed. The game looks a lot like Windwaker or Breath of the Wild with bright cel-shaded graphics and lush foliage, but it looks a lot more primitive than both of those games do. Being an indie title, of course, it’s never going to look as polished as a AAA experience, but it was still unimpressive. The draw distance on the world is very low and some of the animations on the main character feel stiff and awkward. Her running animation is bouncy and adorable, but the second I break into a run all of the character and vibrancy is gone. Her body wiggles back and forth while her head and shoulders stay completely still in a very bizarre way.
After the tutorial though, and right before the meat of the game begins, I was delighted by an animated cutscene showing all of the characters and adventures I had to look forward to. It was both beautiful and intriguing. I was stunned by the animation and also found myself wanting to know more about the world that was out beyond the small island I had been stuck on so far. So what was out there? Let’s find out.
The game’s tutorial also functions as a prologue. This is where the player will first take control of their protagonist Koa, at the time she is a spritely seven or eight. She lives on an island with a kind woman named Haku. She fills a parental role for Koa, spending the prologue teaching you how everything from farming, cooking, and planting trees. Summer in Mara actually begins with Haku finding a Koa as a baby by a shipwreck, deciding to adopt her and raise her as her own. It also turns out that the island that Haku and Koa live on also has a certain spiritual importance that Haku is preparing Koa to take responsibility for in the near future.
“Conversations with other people in the world are the best part of the game, hands down”
Conversations with other people in the world are the best part of the game, hands down. The dialogue is fluid and fun, with Koa providing vibrancy to every conversation she has. The character portraits are also beautiful and show a lot of personality – which is unfortunately lost in the stiff 3D gameplay models. While the first few hours felt like little more than a mission to force a grumpy fish lady into even letting me inside her house, the rest of the game is largely spent talking with other characters. The story did do a good job keeping me interested, and whenever I felt myself falling off or getting bored it managed to pull me back in. The main plot ebbs and flows a little, with big breaks full of fetch quests that put a hold on the story, but it always seems to get back on track right when it needs to.
Throughout her journey, Koa learns the plot of a sinister group of aliens named the Elits, who wish to exploit Mara for profit. The first mention of aliens in the game is a bit of a tonal shift, but it managed to ease me into it enough that by the time the Elits became an issue I was already prepared for it. Summer In Mara is at its core a story about the connection between the residents of Mara and their environment, as well as the struggle between technological progress while also making sure that protection of nature does not fall by the wayside.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘equivalent exchange’, about always planting a new tree after you’ve cut one down. I did actually find myself enjoying this as a mechanic, and it meant that my island always looked just as beautiful as it had when I started. Trees don’t grow on their own like they do in Stardew Valley, so if you cut down all your trees to build a pier or what have you, your island will be without trees until you plant and grow new ones. While I did like it, I had a lot of trouble thinking about anything other than Full Metal Alchemist every time someone mentioned equivalent exchange, but that’s really just a personal problem.
At first, the game feels very much like a traditional farming simulator. Koa and Haku live on their own island where you can build barns and coops, plant trees and grow crops. Though I came to notice very quickly that there aren’t really any consequences for doing a poor job taking care of the island. you don’t have to water crops or feed your animals. Crops take less time to grow when watered, and your animals give you items when fed. But sometimes it’s just quicker to take 20 naps until the crops grow on their own. The game doesn’t have a calendar system like most farming sims so doing this doesn’t affect anything at all. Sometimes I felt like the game wanted me to do this, especially when I needed to do something like picking mushrooms. Mushrooms only grow when it’s raining and it doesn’t rain very often. This was the one big mission I had to accomplish at the time so I just went to sleep over and over again until it started raining. During this time I was also able to grow three sets of crops. I understand that the game is meant to be easy-breezy, but it started to feel like nothing really meant anything.
The core gameplay loop of Summer in Mara revolves around little more than fetch quests, though technically you do a little more than just fetching. Most of the time the item you need to bring to someone will be a crop or construction item that you’ll need to grow or make yourself. Crops can only be grown, and things can only be crafted, back at your home island. So you’ll find yourself travelling back and forth just to squeeze yourself some orange juice quite often. This would be less infuriating if the sailing felt a little more intuitive, at first it very much feels like Windwaker, but then you quickly realise that each grid of the map is a separate instance. This means every grid has its own loading screen. It makes it feel like a much longer trip than it really is.
Every fetch quest leads to another and another, and it gets grating very fast. Even though all the characters you talk to are vibrant and fun, it starts getting to the point where you’re just begging them to hurry up and tell you what kind of vegetable they want so you can be on your way.
There are a few things in the game I loved though, the first of which being the crab mail system. Throughout Mara you can find crabs walking or swimming around with notes attached to their backs, and many of the notes are heartfelt love letters addressed to people I will never meet and all of them warmed my soul. There’s something so emotional about finding a letter out in the ocean and knowing that the person it was meant for may one day find it. This does not tie into gameplay or anything, but it’s a detail that provides major insight into the love put into the game.
I got the same feeling from Puni Cave, one of the islands you are able to visit after completing the first few of the main quests. I must have stayed in here for ages, it’s lit with candles and very quiet, I came in at sunset so the orange of the sun was seeping in through the entrance of the cave. There are bottles hanging from the ceiling all around and again they contain notes of love. I took the time to read every note in here and then just sit down with the other NPCs by the fire until the sun fell. Its parts like this that make me sad that the game isn’t more enjoyable overall, there are so many glimpses of brilliance and deep emotion that I want so desperately to like the game more than I do.
Overall, Summer in Mara is a game that I want to like. It has great characters, fun dialogue and stunning hand-drawn character portraits, but that isn’t enough to save the grating gameplay loop. It’s hard to say that I don’t recommend Summer in Mara, but I really don’t. It’s a game that is so clearly full of love that it saddens me to see it didn’t turn out as good as I’d hoped. I’m sure that younger audiences would be able to find enjoyment in the game, but it just wasn’t meaty enough for me. I can see talent in this team and this project, and even though Summer in Mara disappointed me, I still look forward to other projects by the team and hope they don’t stop creating.