Take me down to the paradise city
Summer in Mara captured my imagination right away with its promise of farming, crafting, and island hopping in a tropical archipelago setting. Talk about a fun idea for a game. Its alien-looking inhabitants caught my eye, as did its kid-hero protagonist. Their illustrated portraits are downright gorgeous.
I think a lot of us are in a frayed state of mind right now. We’re seeking games that can let us unwind and give our worried brains a rest, if only for an afternoon. Summer in Mara is that kind of chill game.
You can pet the dogs. You can feed the pigs. The wholesome vibes run deep.
Summer in Mara (Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Released: June 16, 2020 (Switch, PC), TBA 2020 (PS4, Xbox One)
Summer in Mara is the story of Koa, a shipwrecked young girl who was rescued as a baby and raised by a blue-skinned woman named Haku on an island of great importance. Koa is restless, and shortly into the game, she has the opportunity she’s been waiting for: a shot at adventure across the open sea.
That’s not to say she won’t return to her home island. Far from it. Even though Koa will eventually be able to upgrade her boat enough to reach far-off islands – around 30, by the end – she’ll still need to regularly come back home to harvest crops, cook dishes, and craft quest-related items from her house. (She can’t craft anywhere else.) On her island base, Koa can grow crops in specially-designated plots, plant fruit trees wherever she pleases, and raise adorable critters that she finds lost at sea.
The highlight of the whole easygoing experience is undoubtedly the citizens of Mara and, to a lesser extent, the main storyline (it goes a bit cold midway through before picking back up). There are something like 20 quest-giving characters, and the majority of them are fleshed-out, fun to chat with, and memorable. Summer in Mara is a mix of small-scale errands (helping a rising chef), personal growth on Koa’s journey, and big-picture problems (stopping a “Progress”-loving baron from another world).
Again, the 2D character art during dialogue is fantastic. There’s a lot of talking, and on the whole, the writers did a fantastic job bringing this island community to life. The characterizations make this game.
I came in expecting a sailing adventure with light 3D platformer exploration. It is, but only to a point.
The biggest disappointment of Summer in Mara is that it’s just not deep enough, mechanically speaking. This is a winning structure – and I think there are ways the developers can improve it over time – but right now, for better or worse, the game primarily plays like a never-ending fetch quest. The first several hours, I didn’t mind at all. I liked it, even! But eventually, the repetition caught up. Mara is stretched thin.
I can’t tell you how many times I sailed back and forth between Koa’s island and the nearby city of Qüalis – one of the few other genuinely lively locales in the game – to fetch an item for an NPC. It was definitely in the hundreds, no exaggeration. And I say that as someone who likes to keep as much “crafting stuff” on-hand as possible and juggle multiple quests to cut down on excess mundane travel.
Like other crafting-centric games, many of the subplots overlap in such a way that you can’t make progress in the main story without first learning a recipe or a tool blueprint from an ongoing side-quest. At one point, I was worried I’d missed a basic concept – I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get flour bags that multiple NPCs needed – but it turns out I was hours away from unlocking a mill. Silly me!
I’d be more forgiving if the sailing was enjoyable (you’ll play on auto-pilot until you see a fishing spot or treasure-diving zone); or the fast-travel options were more extensive (you can pay a small fee to hitch a ride to the city); or the farming was in-depth (it’s about as simple as could be). On the bright side, if you dislike Stardew Valley‘s strict daily schedule and stamina meter, you’ll feel like you’re on vacation here.
If it sounds like I’m hyper-focused on the negatives, well, I kinda am. I don’t mean to scare you off from playing Summer in Mara. I enjoyed a good chunk of my time with it – just not all 20 hours. (The last six or so were focused mostly on mopping up optional questlines, a few of which ended anticlimactically.)
As soon as my sense of curiosity began to deflate and it felt like I knew what to expect from every trip to every island, Summer in Mara lost its sheen. It became a chore. Too many of the islands exist semi-lifelessly. Some have more of a visual or story-based hook, but even they aren’t dynamic enough.
This is truly a game to play while you’re listening to podcasts or half-watching something on another screen. It has its place – especially for a younger audience – but it leaves a lot to be desired.
There are a few small ways the developers could make great strides – full fast-travel, please! – and many more improvements that aren’t quick fixes. I hope it gets there, though. As a farming simulation, Summer in Mara falls short, but dang if its sunny world and characters aren’t pleasant to be around.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]