In February of last year, a promising project called Summer in Mara was released on Kickstarter. Appearing as something of a cross between The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and the Harvest Moon games, many fans were quickly enamoured by the cute art style and seemingly wholesome story. A little over a year later, Summer in Mara has finally released on digital storefronts and the final product is… disappointing. Though it certainly delivers on the ‘wholesome’ vibes that it sold itself on, critical failures in both the storytelling and gameplay mechanics mean that Summer in Mara simply isn’t an enjoyable game to play.
The story follows Koa, a young girl who was involved in a shipwreck as a baby and now lives on a tropical island with her ‘grandmother’, a fish lady named Yaya Haku who saved Koa from the wreck. The two live a peaceful life on their island, which clearly has a much grander, supernatural purpose, and the proper narrative soon kicks into gear when a mysterious sea creature named Napopo washes up on their island. What follows over the next dozen or so hours can only be summed up as one lengthy, arduous fetch quest that comes up with increasingly contrived reasons for Koa to get back on her boat and go find another island.
For example, an early quest sees you needing to talk to a woman on a busy island not far from Koa’s. Upon reaching the island, you can’t talk to the woman directly but must first wait to talk to fishermen running a store that isn’t open yet. Once the fishermen tell you where she is (which you already know), you then get to run all the way to the other side of the island to finally talk to her, only to discover that she doesn’t want to talk to you. To get her to talk to you, you have to go back to the fishermen’s shop, where you’re told you have to talk to other people in town to figure out how to talk to this woman. You’re not told who would have this information, so you have to talk to everyone until you find the correct people, who each have their own tiresome errands you have to do before they’ll tell you what you need to know.
It would be bad enough if this meandering wild goose chase meant something, but it turns out that the entire game is predicated on this almost comical focus on wasting your time. There are times where you’ll be given a quest to advance the story that requires an item you’ve neither seen nor heard about up to that point. The only way to obtain the item, then, requires you to put in a few more hours into a side questline that didn’t previously seem to have any importance at all. You might put in that time only to realize that it actually didn’t have any importance. As a result, any legitimate emotional investment or interest in the story is quickly torched by the sheer frustration of making simple progress – a sentiment that unfortunately extends to gameplay, as well.
The core gameplay is centred around a mixture between a Zelda-like grand adventure and a Stardew Valley-style farming sim. The vast ocean is host to a litany of islands to visit with their own items and unique topography, while Koa’s island has all the land you need for crops and farming animals alongside activities like fishing or crafting new tools. The fruits of your agricultural efforts here ultimately drive your progression, but this is where the main sticking point comes in. Koa can only farm or craft on her island alone, meaning that any amount of exploration or interaction with NPCs will inevitably end in you having to clamber back on the boat and sail through a mostly featureless ocean and a few loading screens just to perform a basic action.
Summer in Mara prides itself on being a relaxed and calm experience, but it does so at the expense of there being any meaningful stakes to anything you do. Take farming, for example. Planted crops will have a number above their plot that indicates how many days it’ll take until you can harvest it. Watering the crops will drop that number by a day for each day that you do it, but if you choose not to water your crops, nothing will happen other than you having to wait a little longer to harvest. You won’t even have to wait, however, because you can choose to sleep in your bed at any time and pass the current day. There are no months or seasons to speak of here, so it’s in the player’s best interest to simply plant the crop, then jump in and out of bed for however many ‘days’ it takes to reach harvest day.
The issue here is that the complete lack of any meaningful difficulty robs the entire experience of being anything more than a rote exercise in testing one’s patience. When there is fundamentally no way you can ‘lose’, the whole concept of winning holds no meaning at all. This, in turn, leads to a bizarrely protracted experience that’s neither enjoyable nor satisfying. For example, Koa has a stamina meter that governs all the actions she can perform, and if it empties, she passes out and immediately begins her next day with only a partially-filled stamina meter.
Now, this would mean something if her absence caused her crops to die, or her animals to starve, or some other consequence to result. Such a thing would incentivize the player to play in a way that optimized their efforts and carefully balanced the costs of actions against their benefits. In reality, however, it doesn’t matter whether Koa passes out or not. The crops will continue to grow regardless of whether they’ve tasted a single drop of water, the quest givers will wait until the heat death of the universe for you to complete their chores, and the only drawback of a blackout will be the inconvenience of having to refresh your stamina by eating some food and getting some good sleep.
So, the core gameplay loop of Summer in Mara is fundamentally broken, and the story has no pacing or emotional resonance whatsoever – but what about the presentation? Well, this is where this release somewhat redeems itself, if only somewhat. The world that exists on the Ocean of Mara is delightfully well-designed, and it has a way of lulling you into a sense of calmness that calls to mind the chilled locales of Super Mario Sunshine. The tropical environments you explore are bright, serene, and filled with a kind of friendly atmosphere that, despite all the other shortcomings present in Summer in Mara’s design, makes you want to keep exploring.
Couple that world design with some well-drawn character portraits (not to mention that impressively-animated opening cutscene) and it’s almost criminal that the rest of Summer in Mara is so unremarkable and lacklustre. This sentiment extends to the music, too, which mixes together ukuleles, accordions, flutes, and other light instruments to provide a soothing and pleasant soundtrack to the monotony of the actual game experience. Like the art direction, this sound design deserves to be in a much better game.
We won’t mince words here, Summer in Mara has absolutely nothing to offer that hasn’t been done much better in other games that are easily available right now. If you want a cozy farm sim with a pleasant atmosphere, get Stardew Valley or Rune Factory 4. If you want a thrilling adventure you can take at your own pace, get Minecraft or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Even if you’ve played those and are looking for something new, please don’t waste your time or money here. This is not a 'hidden gem'; the alluring presentation of Summer in Mara only acts as a pretty mask for a much uglier game beneath the surface – one that’s keen on wasting your time with no meaningful payoff.