Summer in Mara is out at the perfect time, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Video game sales blew up as stores and communities closed down, especially of certain kinds of games. Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Ring Fit Adventure are major examples in our space, both of them about relaxing, personal growth, peaceful solitude, so on and so forth. Summer in Mara fits right in that space too; it’s a life sim that borrows elements from games like Animal Crossing and Story of Seasons. It’s a much smaller scale of course, being a Kickstarter graduate, but that’s used to its benefit, focusing on a tighter loop and simpler progression. The result is a “one of those” that produces much less stress, even for its already low-stress genre. But it also suffers a bit for its lackadaisical vibe, falling victim to tedium before the credits roll.
The story starts with Koa, a little human girl who is discovered by a whimsical sort of creature, a purple-skinned grandmotherly type with tentacles instead of hair. Koa’s new caretaker teaches her about Mara, a small island that seems to be a spiritual keystone of the world at large. Koa learns about gratitude for the land’s produce, how to take care of herself, and that Mara must be protected and cared for. Koa eventually grows up a bit and finds herself venturing out into the ocean horizon to help a new friend and learn more about what life has to offer. But she knows to always come back to Mara, a responsibility also held by the player.
The joys of summer
Crafting and farming are just as important as exploring in Summer in Mara, but a crucial detail is where you can craft. Only at Koa’s home on Mara can you actually put your materials and ingredients together into tools, food, and new structures. No matter what other island you end up on or what your quest is, everything goes back to Mara. It’s an effective metaphor, in that the player is led by the text here to consider Mara not just as home base, but as a powerful and important presence. You aren’t just customizing your space or hopping back and forth to refresh yourself — you’re surviving because of what Mara provides, and at the same time you’re keeping Mara healthy.
Summer in Mara does have elements you’d expect to see in survival or farm/life sim games. Koa gets hungry and tired; she can’t go too far out without having some food on hand or money in her pocket to stay in a hotel. In a pinch she can sleep on her boat or grab fruit from trees. But Summer in Mara wants you to relax as much as it wants you to care. The survival stuff is more of a genre aesthetic touch than a threat; Koa will simply retire back to the boat (or home) on her own, and she’ll emerge with enough rest to give you a chance to eat something. It’s important to pay attention, but there’s no need to stress.
Speak for the trees
Once you realize that, it ends up coloring the whole experience. There’s only a little bit of farm soil in front of Koa’s house, and you can’t cut down trees indefinitely unless you replenish the supply by planting more. You aren’t building an empire; you’re just taking your time to gather stuff, take care of Koa and the island, and tackle quests and experience the story at your leisure. At first I was stressed out just from seeing the hunger and fatigue meters, but once everything clicked and I knew there was no actual pressure, I was able to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. It’s amazing how much the vibe changes in these games when the clock isn’t staring you down across the aisle.
The downside is Summer in Mara struggles to find unique ways to drive the story forward. Things like time limits or fail states are stressful, but they help move more open-ended games along. Summer in Mara doesn’t need those things to be good, but it does feel like it needs more to do… or maybe less! What the gameplay loop boils down to is delivery fetch quests. You sail away from Mara, find a few quests, go back to Mara and build what you need, then sail back out to finish. Fast travel is kind of limited, and sailing when you have to is near-completely uneventful.
Summer in Mara is an adorable, thoughtful game that approaches spaces we’re very used to from a different angle. Animal Crossing thinks it’s a chill game, but it buries you under tasks, goals, and timely events. Harvest Moon slaps you with a time limit to make a great, booming farm. Dragon Quest Builders will freakin’ kill you. Summer in Mara just wants you to take care of yourself, be thankful to nature, and have a good time exploring. But it also wants you to accomplish a million tasks along the way, and that gets tedious. A shorter runtime or more variation in questlines would have done this game wonders, but as it is, it’s still a fun, relaxing adventure propelled by an endearing message.
Release Date: June 16, 2020
No. of Players: 1 player
A review code was provided by the publisher.