Summer in Mara‘s has an aesthetic that makes it seem instantly inviting. Character portraits are gorgeous, detailed, and full of color. The game even has a lovely, yet brief animated video shortly after the prologue. Whenever character portraits and dialogue are on screen, there’s plenty to like. The dialogue is witty and fun and the characters are often interesting. Unfortunately, everything else the game does is middling at best, and downright tedious and obnoxious at worst.
Summer in Mara begins with a fish lady finding a human baby in the water by a shipwreck. She decides to adopt the child to raise as her own. The game’s prologue functions as a tutorial where the woman, named Yaya Haku, teaches the girl, Koa, the basics of the game. Haku is the caretaker of a small island with a certain spiritual importance — it becomes clearer later on.
The storytelling in Summer of Mara is mostly pleasant, though ordinary. About two-thirds of the main questline is spent trying to get two other fish ladies to talk to Koa, which requires her to run back and forth between a small handful of places over and over again. The game mostly just focuses on Koa interacting with the people of Qalis, which is a small island North of her even smaller island home. And by “interacting with,” I naturally mean “running boring errands for.”
There are themes on display, of course. Once you get deeper into the main storyline, Summer in Mara starts to randomly inject commentary on environmentalism. But it feels like it comes out of nowhere, with a race of aliens who buy up land and pollute the oceans. However, these beings are barely mentioned for a large portion of the narrative. While the dialogue and characters are fine, the plotting is haphazard and not particularly compelling.
Back and forth
But why should that matter? This is a game, after all. Well, it’s because there isn’t much in the way of gameplay in Summer of Mara. There are things to do, sure. Farming, harvesting, crafting, sailing, but it’s all rudimentary. There’s a small field directly outside Koa’s house where you can clear and prepare the land and then plant crops. Afterward, a number shows up above them that tells you how many days they’ll take to grow.
Each day a crop is watered, a single day is removed from the total. Unfortunately, Koa can generally only water the crops a few times after it rains. Summer in Mara has you build a well early on, but it’s not really a well at all. It’s more of a bucket that collects rainwater. Meaning that, if it doesn’t rain, you can’t water your crops. But it doesn’t rain often and, even though Koa can buy water, she can’t use it on them. Strangely, Koa doesn’t need to water the crops, as they’ll grow regardless.
However, there is no calendar system. If you want to focus on growing and crafting with no real goal in mind, you can just sleep a bunch of days in a row with no consequences and load up your inventory for whatever you feel like. You can also mine for ore and smelt it into bars (despite having nothing that would allow you to do so), which will also be used to improve all of Koa’s tools. The main ones are a hammer for mining and an ax for chopping down trees.
An exhausting day
Koa has a stamina meter tied to all of those actions. She also has a hunger meter underneath it. If it drops, she starts using up more stamina. It’s easy to keep this up via cooking, which is made easier by collecting the oranges and berries on her island. You can also go fishing via a simple, dull minigame provided you have the correct type of bait and a cotton thread in your inventory. If Koa uses up too much stamina, she passes out and wakes up with hardly any at all. Similarly, if she’s up too late, she’ll pass out and wake up with that same low amount of stamina, even if it was full when the game forces her to sleep.
That means that Koa needs to sleep every night, which is understandable. She can sleep in her bed at home, in her boat, or in a sleeping bag or tent. Sleeping in her home or a tent will fill her stamina all the way, but using the boat or sleeping bag will start her with much less. Strangely, sleeping bags and tents are treated as one-time-use consumables. It would be really handy to be able to sleep whenever, but nope, these are magical sleeping bags that vanish as soon as Koa wakes up.
The other negative side of this is that it means that you’ll often have to stop what you’re doing once Koa’s stamina is low or when it gets dark and sail back to her island. The sailing is unfortunately boring. You just point in a direction, wait at loading screens, and keep pointing. It hurts the game massively that each island is in a grid that you have to travel out of which will let you load into another grid as opposed to just giving you an open ocean to travel. It doesn’t help that you can only travel these in four directions, despite the fact that others should be easily accessible via corners.
What year is it?
None of that is surprising when taken with the rest of Summer in Mara‘s visuals. It’s a simple, unpolished look with a short draw distance, dated geometry, and janky animations. Koa’s running animation is simply awful. Her head barely moves and her body movements are strange and unnatural. They never stopped looking weird to me. NPCs also don’t move, and stand motionlessly in the same spots for the entire game. Due to this, the world feels lifeless and frozen. A mother stands in a park and watches her children whether it’s day or night.
Daytime cycles also switch suddenly at set intervals — it’s not gradual. You can be staring at a sunset one moment, only for the night sky to come rolling in the next. Summer in Mara would have been dated on the Gamecube. Even then, all of this would be more understandable if the game was fun, but it isn’t. You have a bunch of questlines tied to characters that generally task you with going and talking to a character or bringing them items.
Most of the time this just means that, when you want to accomplish something, you wake up, sail to town, walk to the character you need to talk to, and then talk to them for a moment. Then you’ll often walk to a different character and then walk back to where you started. Even worse are the quests that require you to acquire an item you’ve never seen before, as the game doesn’t tell you where to get them. You just need to switch to another task and hope you stumble upon it via a different questline. The majority of my playtime was simply spent walking back and forth or sailing between two points. You unlock more islands as you progress through the story, but almost none of them have anything of interest on them beyond a first visit.
Don’t you stray
To be clear, I don’t hate Summer in Mara. I wouldn’t even call it a bad game, as it can be somewhat relaxing and cute. But it doesn’t do much well and all of its components outside of the character portraits and dialogue are basic and dull. Add all of that to the constant moving from point A to point B and then back to point A, and it makes for a game I can’t recommend to anyone who doesn’t find tedious fetch quests to be enjoyable.