These have been some dark days. 2020 has been, for a lot of us, a pretty crappy year. I think that’s why games like Animal Crossing have been so popular. People just want to escape from their self-isolation, and from all of the negative news. Sometimes it’s best to just get away to your own island, away from all the negativity, and just pick some fruit.
Summer in Mara is an escape into paradise. You can fish, grow crops, and explore the archipelago in which you live. At first, you’re stuck on your home island—but as you learn the ropes, more of Mara is opened up to you. Eventually you’ll be able to fish on shore and in the ocean, dive, plant crops and trees, and build structures. Eventually you’ll have a full farm with crops and animals. Your tools will need upgrades as you go, as well as your boat, so you can get to the far reaches of Mara.
If it sounds like a warm blanket of wholesome comfort, that’s because it is. Koa is adorable, and even though some of the people she meets along the way can be jerks to her, Summer in Mara is generally a pleasant, wholesome experience.
Summer in Mara has great presentation. Its music is phenomenal, and infectiously happy and catchy—it makes me feel warm and fuzzy just listening to it. The game’s art style is gorgeous, even though the graphics are mostly just okay—but it all comes together and ends up looking pretty good. The animated sequences are phenomenal, and the drawn character portraits are some of my favorite parts of the game. They represent the characters very well, and you can get a sense of the precociousness oozing out of Koa, and the condescension you get from almost every adult. But its controls suffer a little.
As great as the rest of the presentation is, Summer in Mara ends up having less than satisfactory controls. Moving as Koa feels light, and floaty—and not because she’s small, but almost like she has no mass. Driving the boat feels similarly weightless, and there’s no collision damage or even feedback. But that’s okay, because Summer in Mara doesn’t really have a “game over”—it’s entirely stress free.
You can’t really “lose” at any point, nor can Koa die—which is great, for a stress free time. There’s no fall damage for Koa if she jumps off the side of a cliff. Strangely, though, despite the inability to perish, there’s a food and stamina gauge. Koa has to eat and sleep, and even though I accepted this at first, as time went out, it made less sense to me. If you get exhausted, you’ll fall asleep and wake up near where you passed out, and if you’re hungry Koa complains until she eats. Rest is easy to come by, and food is literally on the ground as you run past.
And that’s where Summer in Mara started to unravel for me mechanically. Money is necessary to complete some quests, but time really has no meaning beyond making Koa hungry. Food is plentiful, and you just have to “cook” some juice or another small meal to replenish your health—or just eat the fruit you can find on trees. If you want your plants to grow faster, just sleep—there doesn’t seem to be a penalty to it. It feels like most of the “survival” mechanics that are present are more of an inconvenience than anything that adds to the gameplay.
What’s more is that most of what you’ll be doing in Summer in Mara are tasks for various people you meet. While I appreciate the myriad of characters, and really enjoy the narrative, you are never put on a task any more interesting than “bring me this item” or sometimes, for a surprise, you can pick up an item from someone else and bring it back. I’m not kidding. As you meet more people, eventually you’ll be running errands for all of them.
And that’s when something else started to become apparent. The people you meet will pop up as you go exploring. You might see someone from the big town on another island. But the thing is, no one moves in Summer in Mara. That might sound strange, but NPCs don’t path around. Everyone stands still, and except for the few NPCs that give quests, every other NPC is like a breathing statue that gives a small dialogue that pops up in a box above their head.
Despite its quirks, I still found myself wanting to keep playing. The story is extremely compelling, and the characters are all interesting. But interacting with the world feels more like something I have to do to get to the interesting parts.
I mean, sure, you can fish—and fishing is an interesting minigame, but it’s not very fun. You can dive into the ocean at certain locations, but diving is clunky and horrible. You’re stuck in a 2D perspective, an the only button you have is “dive.” It’s a real missed opportunity—or it feels like it was rushed out to be “finished.”
Koa has her own island that you can build structures on, plant crops, etc—but as with everything else, nothing feels like it has any weight to it. And therefore, no real consequences—you don’t have to water crops, or feed your animals, but if you do, you’re rewarded for it. Crops take less time to grow, and your animals give you items. But again, you can always just advance time with no consequence to achieve the same affect.
You’ll be spending a lot of time traveling in Summer of Mara, too. You’ll have to, of course, literally run around to deliver items to folks. But you’ll also have a chance to go exploring on your boat in gameplay that looks and feels so close to Windwaker, but in the best way. I could almost smell the ocean, and feel the warm sun as I took my boat on the open water, travelling from island to island. Sadly, there really isn’t much to find on these islands—though careful exploration can yield some interesting things. But travelling starts to quickly become tedium.
Summer in Mara is stress free. It might not be mechanically perfect, but Koa’s island paradise feels like the escape I needed. I enjoyed parts of Summer in Mara, but such a beautiful game could have been treated better than being constructed of fetch quests and half-baked mechanics. I still enjoyed it, and recommend it to those who want to escape into a summer paradise.
Summer in Mara will be available tomorrow on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Windows.
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