What is it? A nautical adventure with some light farming
Expect to pay $25/£19.49
Reviewed on: Windows 10, intel i7 8700k, 16GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 Super
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
I've slept for five days straight while I wait for corn to grow because I don't have anything better to do in the meantime, which tells you almost everything you need to know about Summer In Mara. As much as a pleasant new gardening and sailing adventure sounds great right now, you're better off just starting a new Stardew Valley farm.
Summer In Mara's protagonist, Koa, was raised on a small, otherwise uninhabited island by her grandmother Haku, one of the gelatinous-looking Qüido species. (Are they jellyfish? Or maybe catfish?) I learn the ropes of planting crops and trees through Koa's childhood, during which Haku drills in the lesson that what we take from the island we should always replace. Cut a tree and you should plant a new one, got it.
After the tutorial is over, though, it's peanuts to that. We flash forward a few years and brash young Koa is all alone, kept company by Haku's gravestone at the center of the island. Apparently those childhood lessons didn't stick, because she's let the entire island fall into disrepair, from the chicken coop to Haku's boat.
As a child, granny Haku never let Koa leave their island. Now that she's gone, Koa's only motivation to finally do so is a small alien who can't speak and an old letter of her grandmother's that doesn't say anything interesting. It has the name of the person Haku was writing to on it, which I guess is a reason to get out of bed. So Koa and her new pink friend Napopo fix up granny's old boat and sail to the nearby island city Qälis mostly, so far as I can tell, because Koa has nothing better to do.
Curse of the quest
Sailing was my first serious sign of trouble in Mara. Navigating is just like walking. All it takes is moving forward and steering. There's no wind to manage, no random encounters at sea, nothing that makes sailing an adventure. There's a fuel gauge, but fuel is free. Eventually, there are barrels I can plough through to get crafting materials. Still, I found myself checking my phone while pointing my boat straight north or south between Koa's island and the hub city Qälis, wishing for a rubber band to hold my trigger down.
The second sign of trouble was the prescriptive line of quests occupying my first four or so hours in Qälis. The few NPCs I initially meet each have the same request: take this handful of seeds and grow them. So I sail Koa's boat back to her island, wishing that I felt any joy in the act of sailing itself, and plant the seeds in her garden.
They take several days to grow, of course. I could water them, but my well has run dry and I don't know when it will rain. I could go do some other quest in the meantime, but I often only have access to one at a time. I look around at my island, knowing there's nothing to explore here. I could pick oranges to eat, though I'm not hungry yet. I could plant more trees, though I don't see any particular reason to. So I decide to sleep for the four days it will take for my carrots to mature. After I harvest, another of the Qälis locals is willing to give me a quest. They would like me to plant cotton seeds. There are still no other tasks. Sow, sleep, and repeat.
This persists for a few more hours as I wander around Qälis begging for more to see. The NPCs don't walk around. Trees don't blow in the breeze. The buildings don't have interiors for me to explore. Aside from a few stray dogs who I can feed apples to (and yes, pet), it's a lifeless city despite its colorful seaside architecture.
Even after Summer In Mara opens up, letting me pursue multiple sidequests at a time, it is frictionless. I have no overarching goal aside from Koa's vague desire to explore the ocean. I have no motivation to plant any particular crops as I rarely find myself in need of money. Exhausting Koa's energy simply pushes me to the next day, none of which are numbered. Koa's hunger meter is never an issue as I've always got the orange trees and berry bushes native to her island.
Eventually, the locals on Qälis become my motivation. One needs a scarf, so I plant some cotton seeds. Another needs help creating a new recipe, so I plant lettuce and onions. A Cat-child adventurer named Onzo has never seen a pumpkin before, so I plant one to show him. Their portraits are lovely, from the rainbow spectrum of aquatic Qüido to the blue alien Elit to the outgoing, fluffy Cat-children. Their quirks and quests aren't gripping, but they're better than sleeping while my wheat grows.
After several hours of planting and picking by directive, I'm finally able to travel to new islands. The first set of newly accessible territories are a disappointment. A few have evidence of visitors, but no one to speak with. Like Qälis, they're lifeless. Others are nice to look at but exploring them yields no interesting secrets or side quests or any other reward for my curiosity. Some have an abundance of metals to mine, but I rarely find myself in need of those either.
The second set of new islands, which I unlocked around ten hours into Mara, are mostly bigger and more interesting to look at. One is a spooky island surrounded by storms with a haunted-looking tree at the top. Another is a colorful volcano inhabited by bipedal beetles. Like the first islands though, these don't have anything that would compel me to explore or return after I've ambled around and said "ah, neat".
I have nothing to look forward to or struggle against because there's no pressure in Mara. No calendar is ticking away threatening to wither my crops. No debts are looming. No impending doom needs to be staved off. The biggest threat are a couple aliens called Elit, but their story doesn't turn out particularly climactic either. Not every game needs imminent catastrophe to motivate me, but Mara is lacking even small threats. All I've got are a fistful of everyone else's errands to run.
Summer In Mara lured me in with colorful characters and inviting seaside towns. I hoped to find in it the thrill of sailing through The Legend Of Zelda: The Windwaker or the excitement of earning a new cutscene with the locals in Stardew Valley. But neither of those things are present. There's a particularly rousing song in the soundtrack with rollicking drums that gives me goosebumps and an urge to hit the waves, if only sailing weren't just another chore.
Summer In Mara has the basic elements of farming and town simulation—crops and crafting and fishing and townsfolk—but lacks the tension of competing priorities, or any tension at all, that might have hooked me.