HIGH Relaxing vibe, catchy tunes.
LOW TOO. MUCH. BACKTRACKING.
WTF How does an orange tree only have ONE orange on it?
Summer in Mara was a difficult game to review. There are exhilarating moments of discovery coupled with interesting characters and enjoyable quests that made time seem to fly by. These were often immediately followed by waves of tedious backtracking or long stretches where I had to wait for “something fascinating” to happen “soon.” The sum of the experience is less than its parts, and ultimately it results in disappointment.
When 11-year-old Koa was an infant, she was nearly lost at sea. Fortunately, she came under the care of Yaya Haku who raised her as her own granddaughter. Koa learned how to till, plant, and harvest, and also how to respect the land for the bounty she receives from it. Koa may also hold the secret to saving the islands of Mara from unknown dangers, and there’s a mysterious door can only be unlocked with four sacred orbs…
As an adventure/farming hybrid, players control Koa from a third-person perspective, guiding her to various locations in order to interact with characters, explore the world in her ship, and tend to her fields and livestock. Most activities are tied to one or two simple button presses, which makes performing complex actions fairly simple and intuitive.
Unfortunately, Koa spends too much time traveling from place to place instead of doing interesting things. Charming characters send Koa on merry chases all over the game’s many islands to acquire and return various MacGuffins, both mystical and mundane, but most of these fetchquests require little more than going back and forth between the same few characters with pit stops for supplies or crafting items/tending to crops so she can sell them for currency, and so on.
A poorly-implemented map ‘helpfully’ points out the locations of characters and will tell players (in general) on which island an item can be found, but won’t provide any kind of ‘you are here’ marker as a frame of reference. Eventually, I got the hang of the islands and where things were located, but it’s a frustrating struggle early on.
Additionally, on the seas, the camera moves independently of the ship. If I turn to port, for instance, the camera will show a side view of my ship rather than automatically adjusting to a behind-the-ship view, making navigation trickier than it needs to be. Again, I got used to it, but it feels sloppy.
At least the agricultural part should be enjoyable, right? Planting and harvesting crops is satisfying, but many resources are extremely limited, meaning I had to wait several in-game days to be able to progress my farming and complete some sidequests.
Speaking of waiting, one does a lot of it in Summer in Mara. A day/night cycle means that characters are only available at certain times, so if Koa is too early or late, she has to go do something else, even if the interaction is plot-dependent. One of the worst examples is when I needed to catch three specific fish, but I could only get one piece of bait at a time, and this bait was available only on a specific island every few days. Then, when my line snapped during fishing, I had to plant more cotton seeds to make more rope to make a new fishing line. After suffering through it, I realized this way madness lay.
Adding to the frustration are hunger and stamina meters which can cause Koa to collapse in exhaustion, requiring her to sleep at night to regain stamina. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t randomly respawn Koa somewhere on the map rather than leaving her where she fell asleep.
Getting back to the story, it’s meant to be inspirational — and it is to a degree — but it’s also convoluted and told in a series of flashbacks that don’t quite explain the passage of time between the prologue/tutorial when Koa is a young child, and the game proper when Koa is older and on her own.
Later narrative comes in dribs and drabs between seemingly-unrelated side quests and exploration. This causes Mara to feel like it indulges in a lot of filler between story beats, and this feeling is only exacerbated by quest markers that literally say “Something fascinating will happen soon.” It’s clear that Summer in Mara is trying to emphasize patience and a laid-back attitude towards play, but there’s no reason why the plot, nor the entire experience, couldn’t be more streamlined.
When it works and the quests follow a natural flow, Summer in Mara can be wonderful. At its best moments, I found it to be relaxing and effortlessly charming. Sadly, the horrendous backtracking, time-wasting filler content and frustrating resource management make it less of a vacation and more of a job.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Chibig. It is currently available on the Switch, PC, XBO and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains Fantasy Violence. The ESRB must be referring to the realistic depiction of fishing? Or perhaps the cutting down of trees? I can’t remember any other instances of any kind of violence. The game is a farming simulation where the heroine also performs a number of tasks for a wide variety of characters. Crops are raised and harvested, and locations are visited.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is conveyed via subtitles, with occasional grunts, giggles, etc. vocalized for an attempt at atmosphere. The character portraits during these sections are more than adequate to provide context. There are few sound effects in the game, and they all have a visual component that clearly conveys the message. Subtitles cannot be resized, however, nor are there font choices available in the options.
Remappable Controls: Certain functions are remappable. The X and Y axis can both be inverted as necessary. This game does not offer a controller map diagram, but movement is on the left stick. Camera is the right stick. B is used to jump on the main screen or cancel out of dialogue or menu selections. Interacting with characters is either X to initiate trade or Y to chat. Y also is the action button (for planting, harvesting, collecting, etc.) A advances dialogue on the main screen and selects menu items when shopping or using inventory items. Plus brings up the map and inventory screens. Switch between the subscreens with L and R bumpers. ZR dashes on the main screen or moves the ship forward on water. ZL moves the ship in reverse.