Summer In Mara fits an ever-growing niche that a lot of gamers have turned to over the last couple of years. From one-man passion project Stardew Valley, to the cutesy flair of Animal Crossing, there is just something lovely about getting away to the country and tending to your land – a natural escapist response to the hustle and bustle of industry. Sometimes it’s nice to thrive, sometimes it’s nice just to exist. The freedom to live your life as you like is a tempting one but Summer in Mara is marred by its unwillingness to truly give you that. The helping hands of its fairly basic systems go from a safety net to a crushing weight that slows down any real fun you’ll have. As a prelude to something more Summer in Mara could work, but by itself it’s far too simple and constrained to offer a truly heartwarming experience.
In Summer In Mara, you play the role of Koa – a young human child raised by a blue woman named Yaya. She takes you in and looks after you on a small island with all the necessities to live a comfortable – if rather boring – life. You help her tend to her crops, plant some seeds and do a couple of menial tasks around the island, developing the relationship between the two of you. You start to piece together who the two of you are and how life on the Island works. Yaya disappears every so often to get supplies and whatever else whilst you do what is needed to keep the island going. This is until one day when Yaya doesn’t come back. You have to get to work repairing a boat so you and a kind stranger who washes up on the shore can get to the bottom of this mystery.
You follow in their footsteps, meet new people and adventure to new islands, discovering magic and conspiracies along the way. Unfortunately, there seems to be this central clash between ideas and gameplay styles in Summer In Mara. For a good explanation of this, one need only look at the difference between gameplay and the opening cutscene. After Yaya disappears, you are treated to this beautiful animation, briefly showing some of the characters you will meet and the lands you will travel to. This is the game I want to play – one filled with adventure, intricate characters and lovely music. Unfortunately, the farming aspect is far too barebones and the story travels at too slow a pace to really feel filled with adventure. Summer in Mara feels like a tutorial to something much bigger, never really letting you roam free.
As you arrive on a boat to the land of Qälis, you are greeted by a few residents on the dock who give you tasks to complete in order to get certain upgrades or progress the main story. Unfortunately, the majority of side quests have you complete inane things like talking to a certain person or growing a certain crop. You aren’t left to figure things out for yourself and most of the difficulty comes from going back to your own island, growing seeds and bringing them back. Progression is almost entirely locked behind this. If you want to grow a better crop or access more of an area, you’ll need to complete an easy but long-winded quest to get slightly better.
Summer in Mara’s progression is very slow and this progression is often invisible. Take the best crafting or farming games and the reason why that progression works is you can see it. Although I may just have a wooden pick in Minecraft, I understand that if I keep working, I can eventually get a diamond one. If i keep earning money in Stardew Valley, eventually I can upgrade my gear. There are no big signs of progression in Summer in Mara; you work only to get fractionally more gear. A side quest might unlock a single recipe, or sometimes nothing at all.
Throughout the entirety of Summer In Mara, you will likely feel those tutorial wheels most crafting ideas start with. That sense is rarely lost in any one part. Adventuring is locked behind quests, recipes are unlocked one at a time and you can never get equipment you don’t need just yet. Although there are side quests, they rarely feel like a choice. It just holds your hand far too much.
This being said, there are plenty of good aspects to Summer In Mara. The characters are often lovely and vibrant, islands are nice to visit and there is some real, honest charm to it. There is a lot to like here but it fails to live up to what it could be. Its gameplay functions like most survival crafting games but it fits into this nebulous space between being child-friendly and appealing to fans of the crafting genre. It’s perhaps a little too hard and a little too long-winded for a child to get enjoyment out of and it’s far too basic to really compare to the farming/crafting greats.
As a natural conclusion to an ever-expanding and ever-growing world, the draw of primitivism made its way into gaming with force. Farming games and small simulators offer the experience of running away from it all to feel the true freedom of a new world. This freedom always comes at a price and the tutorial-focused hands of Summer in Mara on Xbox are where things stumble, offering a game that is unwilling to let you go outside of the strict parameters set before you. Like Koa herself, you are dealt with kid gloves and never really allowed to see the wondrous world in front of you.