There’s a huge market for games that double as both an escape and pure relaxation right now. With the world being in kind of a bad place right now, it’s frankly never been easier to lose yourself in the world of a video game.
So why not make that journey one of bright colours and pleasant music?
It’s the reason Animal Crossing: New Horizons has done so well for Nintendo, largely because I suspect that if it was released in a more docile year it wouldn’t have reached franchise-breaking numbers. It’s similar energy that Summer in Mara wants to capture, presenting players with an idyllic and low-stakes adventure that aims to be both engaging, cathartic and calming all in one go. It’s the sort of game that I utterly adore; at this point I feel like I don’t need to delve into my unashamed passion for Stardew Valley and the good Animal Crossing games.
Yet while I initially found myself taken in by the presentation and tranquillity of Summer in Mara, the good times very quickly faded when I realised that the game doesn’t really have much to offer outside of repetitive quests, clunky traversal and sheer boredom.
Starting with a gorgeously illustrated cutscene which explains the very simple premise of Summer in Mara, the game’s narrative focuses on Koa, a child that was found floating in the mysterious oceans of Mara. Adopted by something that is very clearly inhuman, you learn the basics of sustaining your life on the island before being unceremoniously abandoned when your guardian ventures out one day to never return.
The rest of the story…well, it just sort of happens.
Unlike most games that wish to present the player with a sandbox of satisfying chores focused around building and managing a piece of land, Summer in Mara does it’s best to not only contextualise the scenario but weave a story, the latter failing dismally due to how free-form the game’s structure is. There’s seemingly very little continuity within the game’s narrative, with little consideration giving to the timing of events or plot points which makes it very difficult to actually care. I’d rather just look after a homestead on a peaceful little island than run around and complete chores for everyone else in the area.
Which basically sums up the game’s quest system, little more than an over-blown “fetch and grow” simulator. You’ll run into plenty of quirky characters that can be fun to chat to (if you can overlook some dodgy localisation) yet whenever the actual “quest” part of conversation comes up, I would roll my eyes as I was tasking with fetching another random item or growing an arbitrary crop and dropping it off. It’s not exactly engaging, especially considering that’s nearly all you’ll be doing to progress the game forward not only in terms of narrative but upgrades too.
The joy of life-simulator games is at least having some variety in how one goes about their virtual living with the emphasis on energy and money playing such a significant role because it’s satisfying to acquire and distribute those resources effectively. There’s nothing appealing about being told someone needs a pumpkin only to sail back to your island, fast forward a bunch of days until the pumpkins grow and then returning with a small yield to be rewarded with very little, oftentimes nothing at all. It’s just…so unfulfilling.
Which is a real pity because there are so many things that Summer in Mara does right. It looks utterly gorgeous, bar some of the more janky animations, yet when one arrives at a more built-up area it’s very apparent how hollow it all is. NPCs don’t move around and their speech texts never change yet that’s not a huge problem as most of the time you’re on idyllic little islands and they’re lovely. The soft, warm colour palette serves the game’s themes fantastically, helped along by a calming soundtrack I could easily listen to when not playing the game. Summer in Mara sells itself on presentation, trying to smoosh the traversal, style and vibe of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker with the gameplay of Harvest Moon and it unfortunately only really nails half of that equation. There’s been a recent update when enables fast-travel between the islands, eliminating some of the tedious sailing segments but that only solves one aspect of the game’s overall boredom problem.
You want a game that doubles as a form of escapism to be teeming with life and energy, with all kinds of warm and welcoming characters and loads to keep you busy. Yet Summer in Mara feels strangely barren, like some part of the world is frozen and devoid of any and all life. It’s there, visibly, but they’re hollow stand-ins for any kind of personality. Which is a real disappointment because there’s so much potential within the beautifully realised world of the game. Yet after all the hours I plugged into the game, the only thing it reminded me of was one of those fancy show houses real estate agents use to show off a complex: Seemingly pleasing to the eye when you fleetingly glance at it yet upon closer inspection, it’s just empty of all the components you’d need to live a comfortable life.
Last Updated: July 6, 2020