Summer in Mara is a game about and filled with cycles. It’s less than subtle about its intentions, dropping you right into a narrative that emphasises the repeating loops of nature and the benefits of helping those who need it. It does this in an attempt to ground its own mechanical loops in emotionally satisfying ethos and that ambitious goal is the kind of earnest hook you might need from a game right about now.
Developed by Spanish team Chibig, Summer in Mara follows the journey of Koa, a human girl who was rescued from ship wreckage as an infant. Under the stern but caring guardianship of Yaya Haku (an elderly woman of another alien species), Koa grows up tending to the farm on her small but idyllic island.
Haku casts a long shadow over Summer in Mara, a brave but secretive woman whose kindness (and an adventurous spirit) paint an image that Koa is near-constantly chasing. So, when that time comes, as it does in all adventures, and Koa is left alone to chase her own dreams, it’s with Haku’s lessons as the emotional core.
The game’s prologue is refreshingly focused on not just the mechanics of Summer in Mara but also its core philosophy. First and foremost this is a farming sim so of course you’ll be asked to cut down a tree for wood or pick oranges for juicing but Haku reminds Koa that in nature all things must be held in balance. If you’re going to take from the land you need to give back – chop a tree down but be sure to plant a new one in its place.
Mara, the expansive ocean which you call home, is held in great spiritual regard by Haku and the tutorial drives this concept home beautifully.
It’s an intentionally spiritual lesson to frontload the game with and when paired with Haku’s other lessons (primarily that manners and being kind to others will get you what you need), Summer in Mara sets its sights slightly higher than the genre it occupies.
While we’ve seen other farming sims tackle the material nature of living off the land (Stardew Valley’s anti-corporate thesis comes to mind) it’s rare to see one so directly address that nature can be inherently spiritual and that your relationship to it should be considered.
All Work and No Play
Essentially, Summer in Mara has a heart as big as the ocean you’ll explore and that feels especially welcome right now. Lofty ambitions make the potential fall that much greater however and Summer in Mara takes a disappointing plummet from those initial highs. Genre standards are all present – prepare the land, plant crops, tend to crops, build farmland structures, sell the literal fruits of your labour ad infinitum.
While the loop is here the satisfaction of much of it has been stripped away by rudimentary design choices and a frustrating crafting system.
When trying to pull apart why a particular set of repetitive mechanics are or are not “satisfying” things get subjective real quick. The Animal Crossing series for some represents an inane loop but to others a cathartic meditation. The same goes for Stardew Valley’s system heavy farming cycle that asks a lot of players but yields great rewards for those willing to engage patiently with it.
Summer in Mara fails to satisfy either approach, opting for a collection of mechanics that require little engagement that also falters in providing any feedback or soothing audio ques.
Which wouldn’t be the end of the world if Summer in Mara’s other gameplay loop picked up the slack but Koa’s adventure through Mara is arguable even less mechanically engaging than the farming. In a deliciously blatant echo of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s boat traversal, Koa has a fully upgradable ship she can sail to distant lands in search of adventure and resources. Summer in Mara’s map is expansive, including a metropolitan hub island along with dozens of smaller ones with unique things to see on most of them. Each island occupies a section of the map but exploration between them is unfortunately hindered by loading screens between each portion of the ocean.
The Daily Grind
The bulk of the game will see you travelling back and forth between your home island and the largest city island, Qälis. This sizeable island serves as a quasi-hub for Koa’s adventures, housing the majority of quest giving NPCs and the most detailed locations in the game. I use the term “quest” lightly here however as, despite boatloads of charming art and writing attributed to each character, most of what you’ll be tasked with doing for them is endless fetching and crafting chores.
The residents of Qälis will always need something to be grown or crafted for them, both tasks which are only achievable on your home island. So, with Haku’s lessons about helping others firmly in mind, Koa sets out across the sea between islands over, and over, and over again. This constant back and forth is numbing and combined with quests that see you set out for an island only to arrive and be told that the thing you need is in fact back on the island you left from and Summer in Mara begins to fall apart.
It isn’t just the crafting itself that can only be done on your island but even the ability to read a crafting recipe is locked to your home. There were multiple other instances where items I needed to give an NPC were sold by that very same NPC. It’s a maddening loop of busywork that fails to consider the user’s end experience.
The frustrations begin to compound as Summer in Mara also requires you to use the same pool of resources for your hunger and stamina bars as for crafting quest items. This survival system is simultaneously underdeveloped and wholly unwelcome, providing an arbitrary limit on a day’s collection rates and activities. The constant backtracking across islands is made easier by a speedy sprint and superhuman jump but these actions, along with farming, drain your stamina far too quickly.
Lost in Translation
All of these small inconveniences and shortcomings eventually merge into one unavoidable problem – Summer in Mara isn’t all that fun. There is merit in methodical experiences; deliberately paced games don’t need to prioritise fun at all times to be effective. While Summer in Mara is designed with patient gameplay in mind it is also attempting to be, well, a summer adventure, the kind filled with fun and in this sense it only ever offers glimpses of the sunshine.
I’m also at a loss for how muddled and obfuscated the emotional lessons of the prologue become as the game wears on. Mara is a beautiful landscape and we are taught that nature should be respected and preserved but the endless cycle of quests given to Koa will see her strip-mine entire islands for resources. You are actively encouraged to engage in an economy which prioritises capitalist efficiency as the game’s narrative attempts to drive home how an invading capitalist force is wrong for wanting to use Mara in the same way you are.
Never mind the constant reminders that youth must show respect to their elders, even when asked by bankers and malicious parties to pollute and blackmail. It’s a thematic mess of mechanics and philosophy that fails to incorporate the strengths of the adventure genre or the potential of a farming game that truly tackles your relationship with the land.
The Scenic Route
To its credit though, what a land Summer in Mara lays out before you. Mara is gorgeous, packed full of whimsical creatures and brightly coloured locales to explore. Some of these islands lack the visual flair that makes the others as interesting but there is a primal joy to discovering each one. The larger locations are genuinely inventive bits of visual storytelling, complete with alien architecture and geographical formations that beg to be explored (or mined for resources).
It’s a level of quality that extends to the impeccable character designs too as, at least aesthetically, Summer in Mara is flawless. Expressive, uniquely designed creatures inhabit Mara and each one feels distinct and personal. There are also a handful of animated cutscenes that are more mood setters than anything else but are a welcome bit of levity from the mechanical grind. It’s a shame then to see this great artwork compressed down to lower resolutions and hitching framerates on the Switch when in handheld mode. Docked solves most of these problems but again it just feels like a missed opportunity for a vibrant handheld experience.
The score, unfortunately, oscillates between sweeping, adventure driving melodies and repetitive simplistic tunes. When it’s good it rivals the best in the field with a variety of swashbuckling upbeats and soothing, almost melancholic, piano riffs for ocean-faring. But when it’s bad, or simply stops playing altogether (which happens far too often) it grates somewhat, giving the game a far cheaper tone than it deserves. Those bizarre gaps in the score occur when the game fails to transition from one piece to another and leaves players with an almost void of silence. There is minimal work done on the ambient island sounds and had this been patched over with some organic atmosphere work then it would be far less noticeable than it is.
Which is ultimately the crux of Summer in Mara’s issues – the bones of a great game are present but it feels woefully unpolished. The core narrative and its surrounding cast of characters is intriguing but unengaging quest design means it loses steam far faster than it ought to. While the daily running of your own island farm paradise becomes a grind for resources almost immediately and the back and forth between locations an exercise in tedium.
Chibig seems clued into its community of players and has already discussed patches to improve certain quests. Hopefully, in time the team can tweak the game with quality of life improvements that allow it to fully flourish the way it should. But as it stands though, Summer in Mara is a day at the beach with far too many clouds blocking out the sun.
Summer in Mara was reviewed using a digital copy provided by the publisher.