Summer in Mara

Summer in Mara balances farming and exploration in a game that is rich in both content and enjoyment.

Posted by Nate on 16 June 2020 at 2:45PM

In a year in which stress and isolation has been prevalent for me, it takes a rare thing to make me feel calm and relaxed once more. Summer in Mara is bright, colourful, and addictive to the point where I've lost entire afternoons to it. The size of the game, not just the quantity of activities and quests but the scale of it too is considerably larger than I was anticipating. In short, it's an experience I've enjoyed every minute of.

As a baby, Koa was shipwrecked but rescued by Yaya Haku who then raised her as one of her own. The tutorial section, the same as seen in the Summer of Mara prologue on Steam, shows Haku teaching Koa the basics of island life, farming, responsibility, and respecting nature. Things such as planting trees for every one you cut down is not only a necessity but a positive and important message. After a passage of time, Koa is on her own to keep up the maintenance of the island and look after herself.

After a chance encounter with a creature named Napopo, Koa decided to use her grandmother's boat to leave the island and explore the town of Qälis. There are numerous inhabitants for Koa to meet, all with some useful skills they can teach. The town is the main hub for quests and advancing within the game.

Farming is one of the main hooks of the game but it requires a surprising lack of attention. It's a joy to plant potatoes, peppers and many more seeds and watch them grow. They need watering once a day and a counter above each plot denotes how many days before they are ready to harvest. The system is clear, simple, addictive, and pretty fun. However, they take care of themselves if you spend days away from the island. Essentially, you can plant everything, water it once, and then set sail for the open seas and harvest everything upon your return.

You can transform the look of your island as well. I've got numerous items placed near my home, different types of colourful trees that I've planted, and animals roaming around. It's a really nice personal touch to help make it feel like home whenever you return to the island.

There is a day/night cycle and Koa has bars indicating hunger and daily stamina. Normally, I find games that limit what you can do within each day by using a stamina bar to be particularly stressful and Summer of Mara was no exception, at least in the beginning. Once I had my farm up and running and a handful of recipes to my name you can easily manage these bars without any real issue. I had several dozen oranges on my person so you can use those as a stamina top-up. This can be said about more general aspects of the game; it's a slow start but after a few hours you unlock plenty and everything becomes more manageable and less worrisome. Though I must say I find it inherently creepy that the sound that plays when you eat an orange is that of crunching into an apple.

Exploring and foraging is key and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. The menu system does a fantastic job of keeping you alert to which quests you have on the go, which are ready to turn in, the progress of those that aren't completed, and those that you are unable to begin. Occasionally you are given a quest you are literally unable to fulfil as that part of the game hasn't become available yet but once you work out how to spot those they are easy to recognize and ignore. Other activities include fishing or diving for sunken treasure. The latter is my least favourite and feels horrible. Thankfully, it's only been mandatory a handful of times for quests.

Speaking of quests, there are so very many. Do you like near-endless fetch quests? The vast majority of quests in this game equate to 'bring me five cabbages' or 'make me a pizza'. There are a lot of these. Frequently, I had been tending to my farm in my own time and already had the ingredients or items for the quests. It does feel pretty satisfying to zoom through successive quests from an individual and it results in unlocking a bunch of blueprints at once.

It did feel a little like the townsfolk were taking advantage of Koa. Growing up, she had been conditioned to help in whatever way she can and her ignorance in some common knowledge areas should alert some of the people she meets. In fact, there are a few lines of dialogue here and there that comment upon gaps in her skills but they then continue to ask her to perform tasks for them. You don't even get payment (or a reward) for many of these tasks! As you do more of these quests the townsfolk become more and more demanding. It's a really odd dynamic. Koa does finally say to herself that 'they should help each other and leave her alone' but this was about ten hours in and seems like a throwaway line.

There are a few gameplay mechanics that seem a bit odd. For one, you have to keep rebuilding wells. A standard well will fill a bucket three times. Once depleted, you have to either build a new one or wait for rainwater to refill it. I ended up having to build numerous wells around my crops. Once you have the bucket of water you have to move ever so slowly – Koa is in fact sliding along without moving her legs – otherwise so much water spills out you won't be able to water everything with one filled bucket. I assume this was a bug but it feels odd anyway. There are also numerous areas in town where you can get stuck on some of the scenery and have to find the pathing again to be able to release yourself.

The sense of scale is really admirable in Summer in Mara. Every few hours a new portion of the map becomes available, ready for exploration. The world you inhabit feels like it's constantly expanding. Exploring the new islands and open waters is exciting and constantly provides you with new items or things to make. There's a lot of content here and almost all of it is enjoyable and relaxing. The soundtrack perfectly matches the bright colours and breezy atmosphere of the islands and open waters that you explore.

While not that keen on open waters in reality, since Wind Waker I've been looking for a game that gave me the sense of exploration and joy in the same setting. While I was in my teenage years then and I don't feel quite a sense of wonder these days, I feel a generation could absolutely love Summer of Mara's waters and the secrets therein. It's an engrossing, cheerful, wholesome and genuinely fun way to spend time.

The good

  • Relaxing, engrossing, addictive and fun
  • Lovely visuals and soundtrack
  • A huge amount of content, most of it excellent
  • Runs perfectly on my ageing PC

The bad

  • The underwater diving activity is no fun at all
  • You can get stuck on scenery easily in town