When I first saw the Kickstarter for Summer In Mara back in February of 2019, it looked like the kind of thing that was right up my alley. A Harvest Moon styled game, set in what looked like an alternate universe The Wind Waker? How could I not love that? I excitedly followed the game’s development, anxiously awaiting the day I could water my crops, and sail the high seas.
And now that it’s here, and I’ve finally had a chance to play it, it’s kind of bittersweet. Summer in Mara is a game with a lot of heart, and a lot of good ideas that all feel somewhat underdeveloped. Such is the double-edged sword of the Indie game…
Summer in Mara tells the story of Koa; a young, human girl who is found after a shipwreck by Yaya Haku—a woman from the fish-like race known as the Qüido, who becomes Koa’s adoptive grandmother. After a montage cutscene—which plays like the game’s opening cutscene, but I think, also delivers key plot information—the game picks up with Koa, now a bit older and living on the island herself. After meeting a strange shell person named Napopo, she sets out on an adventure to restore the ocean of Mara, and discover the whereabouts of Yaya Haku.
This is the first example of the game’s main problem. The story is good, with a lot of big ideas, but almost immediately, crucial plot details are left out, or left up to the player to figure out. The transition from the prologue, to the main game is so jarring I honestly wondered where I had missed the huge leap in time, with the preceding cutscene playing out in a fun, “intro to our world,” kind of way.
These problems continue into the gameplay. As I stated above, Summer in Mara is somewhat of a mix of Harvest Moon and Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where you grow crops on your homeland island, then sail the seas of Mara, exploring islands and having adventures. But these big ideas are delivered in somewhat small ways. Farming for example, is a bit basic, and needlessly tedious. Tilling land, for example, isn’t done in the familiar way you might know from Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley; where hitting the ground creates a plot to plant a seed. Instead, on ground that can be tilled, you press a button until a progress bar is filled, and then a plot of tilled soil magically springs from the ground.
Watering crops is equally unsatisfying, instead of gathering water from any freshwater source, and methodically watering each crop; you grab a bucket from a well and walk on to your crops until a progress bar is filled. This is also hampered by the well needing to be filled with rain water, so knowing when to water crops can be a gamble unto itself.
Even something like fishing, which is usually pretty chill in these kinds of games, finds a way to be needlessly tedious. Much like Stardew Valley’s fishing minigame, when a player lands a fish they have to keep a little fish icon within a bar in order to reel it in before the line breaks. The problem with Summer in Mara’s minigame is, even though you have plenty of bar, if the fish isn’t in the DIRECT center of it, it won’t reel. So you can imagine how annoying this might get when trying to reel in tricky fish that move around constantly—and you thought it was a tremendous hassle in Stardew Valley.
Adventuring fairs no better. The crux of the game’s “questing,” genuinely involves one fetch quest after another, with the farming serving as a means to gather food items for various quests. There’s little in the way of variety, and even sailing the ocean of Mara lacks the epic scale of The Wind Waker’s Great Sea—as each part of the ocean is broken into one section, separated by a loading screen, with an island somewhere on the water.
In the game’s audio/visual department, again it’s a problem of good ideas being undercooked. While the game admirably emulates the minimalist, almost Miyazaki-esk style of The Wind Waker, it lacks the attention to detail that game had that made it’s aesthetic really stand out. This is particularly noticeable in the main town of Qälis; there’s a certain inconsistency where some buildings have little splashes of detail, while the majority are just flat colours, giving the visuals a somewhat amature look.
In other areas, there’s a noticeable lack of visuals that really hamper the game’s feel. The aforementioned tilling of land is one example, but what upset me the most was chopping down trees—where you’re denied the satisfaction of watching it fall over, as it just blinks out of existence and some lumber falls to the ground.
Audio suffers in similar ways. While most sound effects, ambient sound, and character fanfare works in its simplicity, there’s only a handful of songs that are on a pretty noticeable loop. While they’re clearly well and lovingly made songs, this is where the game would’ve greatly benefited from poppy, short-form themes similar to games like Animal Crossing, or even the game’s direct influence: Harvest Moon.
Honestly, it pains me deeply to be as hard as I am on Summer in Mara, because you can genuinely see how much love clearly went into it. There are the glimmers of good ideas in here, and as a whole, the game is fairly well made. While I definitely think there is a lot to like in Summer of Mara, the lack of polish and general tedium of the gameplay might make this a fairly unsatisfying experience for even diehard fans of farming sims like Harvest Moon.