When I first saw the trailer for Summer in Mara, the game looked fantastic. It showed an animated cutscene full of apparently likable characters, sailing mechanics immediately reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, as well as diving, and farming mechanics. The demonstration was very promising with all of the separate activities involved. But would the game hold up to my eager expectation? Let’s see.
Homosexuality: There are several insinuated—and one confirmed—same-sex couples in Summer of Mara. This is only apparent in quests late in the game.
Piracy/Smuggling: The themes of piracy and smuggling are prevalent in much of Summer in Mara’s story, though they’re very childish.
Death: A character close to the protagonist dies early in the game.
Idolatry: Summer in Mara’s story is heavily based around the fictional figure of “Mara,” the deity that rules over the game’s area. Offerings are made to Mara at several temples throughout the game.
Teach a girl to fish…
Summer in Mara starts off with a tutorial segment, as many games do. A blue alien woman named Yaya Haku is a parent figure to you, the protagonist named Koa. The tutorial segments are disguised as story events as Yaya teaches you to fish, farm resources, and further manage your island. It wasn’t hard: crops need to be planted and watered, trees can be cut down and planted, and fishing is almost like a minigame. A mini, mini game. When Koa is tired, she needs to eat and/or rest. It’s a bit tedious and wordy, but after an hour or so I had the tutorial done. It wasn’t very detailed, but the quests took time to do. Once I had completed the tutorial, a tiny bit of exposition was given and a cartoon animation played: the same animation that plays in the trailer mentioned earlier. A pirate ship arrives at the end of the cartoon, and the screen fades to black.
The story then jumps to an unknown later time. Koa seems to be older than she was in the tutorial, but Yaya is nowhere to be seen. The first thing I did was run to where I was last able to play, only to find a shrine, apparently dedicated to Yaya after her seeming demise. Turns out her name was fitting, as she was just “ya, ya’d” out of existence. I was never told in detail how she died.
After a couple of in-game days of farming and trying to communicate with a strange creature named Napopo, I was finally able to sail away from the island. However, without a map, I was only able to head North to an island named Qälis. Aside from the home island, Qälis is the area that serves as the hub for most of the quests in the game. Most NPCs are there, and some of them have quests for Koa to complete. The beginning of the game is exhausting with the copious amounts of trips required back and forth from Koa’s island to Qälis. I was eager to have a sea map created for me so that I could explore somewhere other than the two islands. I was getting sick from all of the circular trips.
Not soon enough, my wish was granted, and I was able to eventually sail to new islands and explore more areas. However, this newfound freedom wasn’t quite as great as I’d envisioned.
I was ecstatic to be able to sail to different islands than the Home Island and Qälis. Even if it was just one square in each direction, there was finally something new to explore. Unfortunately, these new islands ended up being little more than bland and repetitive.
The sailing system in Summer in Mara is fiercely nostalgic for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. The grid system is nearly the same, and the art styles are extremely similar. However, Wind Waker was not only larger, but also much more intriguing in island variety. In Summer of Mara, islands are very generic: Copper Cay is where you get copper ore, and Puni Cave is, you guessed it, a puny cave. Rinse and repeat. There aren’t any puzzle islands either, unlike Wind Waker. Thus, 9 out of 10 feel like little more than fluff. Koa may find one or two new items and an easter egg each island, and that’s about it.
The Crabs Deliver
One of the best features of Summer of Mara is finding the lost delivery crabs. In Mara, mail is delivered via delivery crabs that swim across the ocean. However, since they’ve mostly lost their way, Koa is directed to find as many crabs as possible and read their letters. It’s wacky, but this is actually an in-game way of allowing the player to find notes left behind by developers of the game.
These letters remind me of when Square used to leave developer messages inside games such as Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger. I’ve always enjoyed that real-world connection, and it’s honestly refreshing to have amidst Summer of Mara’s monotony. Among the 20-ish letters I’ve found, I was really happy to find some quotes from the Kingdom Hearts series. I even found a marriage proposal!
Months at Sea
As a gamer and a critic, it is my personal belief that games should never feel like a chore. Even grinding levels in an RPG can be a pleasant experience with a good enough UI and rewarding battle system. However, that is one of Summer in Mara’s largest flaws: it is way too shallow. It consists of nothing but fetch quests. That’s it, that’s the game. The story feels almost nonexistent, though that may just be due to the excessive fetch quests stretching it out. Crafting is nice, but it feels like there isn’t any point to it after the item has already been crafted for quest satisfaction.
The grinding nature of the quests wouldn’t be nearly as bad, however, if I didn’t have to constantly return to my home island. If I was in a far corner of the world, and a quest required me to make a hat, I had to sail all the way back home to work in my shop. Then I’d sail all of the way back to give the hat to the NPC, who would then send me on another quest back home. Resources, such as wood, also cannot be farmed on islands other than the Home Island. This makes little sense, considering there is literally a forest island seemingly dedicated for wood farming. If I wanted a resource and didn’t want to go all the way back home, I would have to either buy it off a merchant (hopefully nearby) or find it in a destructible box or barrel. Way too much time of this game is spent needlessly traversing the oceans. It’s dull, it’s tedious, and it’s easily avoidable.
From what I’ve read, a fast travel system has been released on the Steam version of Summer in Mara, and is on it’s way to the Switch. That would have cut this game’s play time from over 30 hours to 12, and the 12 would have been a much more entertaining experience.
Y’ar! We be the characters of the sea! Har Har!
While the fetch quests were a chore, returning to the NPCs for a bit of new dialogue was always a silver lining I’d look forward to. I didn’t like a lot of the characters due to their rudeness or overused tropes, but it was still interesting to see how Koa interacted with them. My favorite character is a blue alien by the name of Aquila. Although he’s made to seem a bit of a jerk, his dialogue with Koa is always respectful of her and very proper. Since he’s of the Elits, an antagonistic race who tries to destroy Mara, many people don’t like him, though he doesn’t affiliate with the actions of his evil brethren. Aquila is a very cool character, and presents some much appreciated dramatic themes to the game. Also, his theme is one of Summer of Mara’s best musical pieces (though that isn’t saying much.)
Although there are a myriad of different islands and seas in it, Mara is very small. Every notable NPC character knows each other, even on opposite sides of the map, and all unremarkable NPC characters have the dialogue variety of a random NPC in an old NES game: one repeating line of generic dialogue, and that’s it. They don’t actively do anything at all, but at least the world doesn’t feel empty with them scattered everywhere.
Waiting to Come Back
One thing had confused me the entire time I played Summer in Mara: why are there so many load times and screens? Out of the previously approximated twelve hours of substantive gameplay, another two hours are likely in load screens. It seemed every minute and a half I would cross a barrier that needs a loading screen. I can understand the need for a screen whenever entering a building, or before entering a “mini game.” However, having a load screen after traversing each line on the ocean map goes too far. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker’s oceans were procedurally generated so it didn’t require load screens at sea. That game is now turning 18 years old, and came out several console generations ago. That’s not mentioning the WiiU rerelease that made everything faster.
In Summer of Mara’s defense, it isn’t a part of a massive franchise such as The Legend of Zelda, and being an indie game, it was made from a fraction of the staff and funding Wind Waker took. That gives this point some debatability, but I’ve seen enough games, indie and otherwise, to know that this probably could have been done better.
As I progressed through Summer in Mara, I came across a number of glitches and oversights. The biggest example is the invisible walls. Qälis, for whatever reason, is the only island I can recall that has invisible walls which blocks Koa. They made sense in some cases, such as when stores are closed, or when at sea and coming across an unmapped section. However, it was a little irritating to stop dead in my tracks whenever I tried to jump certain open fences (which is very easy to do, as Koa has the hops of a Super Italian Plumber.)
In handheld mode, the problems only increase. I can’t say how many times the game had frozen, locking up all button prompts. I couldn’t even go to the home menu. Oddly enough, taking out my controller and clicking it back into the system was the only way to get the game going again.
The UI in Summer in Mara is also very poor. When selling items to merchants in bulk, there is no scaling system to sell things quickly. If I wanted to sell 99 rocks, I either had to select the button 99 times, or hold the button and wait for it to slowly scale one rock at a time. If I went over the amount I wanted to sell, I would have to restart the entire process again, as there wasn’t any clear way to back out of a transaction without backing out of the entire store. I could also only sell up to a certain amount of items per transaction. The interface isn’t any better when traversing, either. Trying to check treasure maps is particularly clunky, as it would jump me from my inventory screen to my map screen, but would need to be manually changed back to the inventory screen again if I wanted to check a different map. I didn’t even realize my character status screen existed until half way into the game. In short, the UI needs improvement, and I don’t believe it would have been difficult to change.
Play me a Dirge, Matey
The music in Summer in Mara ranges from mediocre to maddening. For most pieces, the music consists of the same, or similar, eight second loops over and over again. Napopo’s theme made me want to bang my head against a wall. There were many times where I was tempted to mute the TV and play some other music.
I don’t know whether it’s a bug or not, but thankfully I never had to listen to music for very long; it often cut off randomly and on its own. This always brought back memories of when I played Effie, which had the same issue/feature. I was also able to cut off the particularly bad pieces manually by running off and talking to someone else: each character and some areas seemingly have their own theme. Thus, after talking to someone in the market, I could sprint off to Aquila’s mansion and jar the music into his theme. The characters could also get annoying at times because of their music, though. Imagine playing an RPG that, whenever each character speaks, the music changes to their theme. It would be ridiculous.
To conclude, Summer in Mara is long, tedious, and unfortunately, pretty boring at times. I would have loved to play a game that at least holds its own as a mixture of Animal Crossing, Wind Waker, and games of their sort, but sadly it just doesn’t seem to be the case this time around. Optimistically, I now have a newfound appreciation for other crafting and farming games, such as Forager, for feeling cohesive. There may have been some effort put into the world of Mara, but the chemistry was lost somewhere. Hopefully there are some future updates that can flip this title around, but until then, I’ll be sailing other seas.
Review copy generously provided by Evolve PR
The Bottom Line
I wanted to enjoy Summer in Mara, but with gameplay consisting of little more than trading quests, I was left disappointed with such a mediocre performance at best.