A little while ago I talked about my love for civilization and city builders. They are just a nice and simple way of unwinding after a day full of getting stomped on in whatever competitive shooter I decided to torment myself with. I feel the same about crafting games despite the genre getting just a bit stale. I’m starting to think part of the problem is nobody is really doing anything new in that crafting/survival space. Many of them lately seem to lean more into survival than crafting which adds a lot of stress to a game I would like to be relaxed by. When Summer in Mara showed up in my feed I was very intrigued by its pleasant aesthetic. Unfortunately, being pleasant is about all Mara has going for it.
Summer in Mara was developed by Chibig and released on June 15, 2020 for PC and Nintendo Switch. The PC version was played for this review.
Take It Easy
Part of what makes Summer in Mara pleasant is its setting. Taking massive inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Mara is set in a cluster of islands with one of them being your home. As a sheltered child named Koa you must take care of your island alongside your grandmother. Once she is gone, it is up to you to maintain the island yourself as well as explore the world around you.
This sense of adventure and exploration was something that I was attracted to. A lot of crafting games inadvertently encourage you to find a place to make a permanent residence with only periodic excursions into the unexplored world around you. Summer in Mara encourages the opposite. While your home island is your hub and must be maintained, the goal is to see the world unseen. Unfortunately, it is that tether to your home that ends up killing the sense of adventure.
With the exception of Koa, the characters you encounter throughout your journey aren’t particularly thoughtful. Most of them are at best tolerable and at worst completely unpleasant. Before the adventure even gets going half an island of people will have sent you on some sort of fetch quest. Almost everyone wants you to either grow some crop for them or craft them some product. This would all be fine, but you have to return to your home island to do it. Every. Single. Time. I will come back to this later, but I mention it here because it pretty quickly made me stop paying attention to whatever story Mara had to tell. It just wasn’t interesting.
Back And Forth
It really is the gameplay that stopped me from enjoying myself. The farming and crafting is absurdly basic and doesn’t reward creativity or ingenuity. All recipes for crafting are locked behind quests, most of which are extremely obnoxious to complete. Unlike most crafting games, there is no discovery of new recipes or items simply based on need and breakthrough. The game only gives you what it wants you to have until you meet someone who says they need something from you. Even more annoying is they are the ones to give you the recipe to do it.
This brings me back to my two major frustrations with this game: The back-and-forth and the characters. Almost every NPC in this game has something you need and they won’t give it to you for nothing. They tell you what they want, throw a recipe or seeds at you, and send you back home to literally sit there for several in-game days until the task is done. It just isn’t fun. The characters are annoying and the tasks they give you require the least fun parts of any crafting game: Traveling and waiting.
The real nail in Mara’s coffin, however, is its severe lack of direction. Almost every time I was asked to use a mechanic I had never used before there was no instruction on exactly how to do it. For example, when I needed to collect money from the women running the markets of a local town, I was told I would have to sell things from my inventory to raise the money. Seems simple enough. But, once I initiated the Commerce interaction there was no obvious option to sell, only to buy. I literally had to mash keys on my keyboard before finding the hotkey that allowed me to sell from my inventory. There was no instruction from the quest giver or in the menu telling me how to switch to the sell option.
That’s just one example of this happening in Summer in Mara. There were many others and it really made me feel there wasn’t much QA testing to ensure the game was ready for a general audience. Especially with how simple the game is otherwise, this really seemed like Mara doesn’t know who its audience is.
It’s a shame these massive issues exist in the game because, much like the graphics, the sound design is also great. Music is pleasant and well arranged. While there isn’t really any voice acting, there are simple sounds and sighs, similar to Zelda, that fit the game’s aesthetic. The ambient noise is appropriate to the environment and just generally fits the design of the game very well. It is all pretty basic but it works.
What Summer in Mara really has going for it is its art. It is an exceedingly beautiful game to look at. Even more Wind Waker influence is evident here. Summer in Mara has wonderful cel-shading and bright colors that just immediately put me at ease. With so many gorgeous, photo-realistic games, it’s nice to have a game with such a simple and wonderful aesthetic. Sometimes I just had to stop at a high peak and look out over my island and the vast ocean.
While the NPCs may not be the best in terms of characterization, their design is fun and unique. There are a lot of characters to interact with in Mara and it can be difficult sometimes to keep track of all the names thrown at you. I have always struggled in other quest based games with remembering the names of quest givers. Here I was able to remember their faces which made keeping track of who to talk to much easier.
Summer in Mara does falter quite a bit in its animation. At first it seems OK; Moving around the map on foot is smooth and looks great, but when you start swimming or driving your boat the cracks start to show. Driving the boat in particular feels like skating. There is no physics at work and just makes the experience dull and unnecessary.
Summer in Mara isn’t a bad game. Shockingly, I would actually recommend it…for children. It is definitely “baby’s first crafter” IF it can solve its direction and instruction problems. Everything is so simple and easy that it is perfect for a child. Without the need for combat and violence like other crafting games have, it’s perfect for young people.
For the rest of us who have been playing crafting and survival games for 10+ years, there is nothing in this game for us. For almost everything this game does well, there are other more complex games that do it just as well or better. I can tell lots of love was put into Summer in Mara, but there are some tweaks that need to be made to support the audience they seem to be going for.
Review copy provided by Chibig for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.