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Despite being an imperfect experience, there’s much to love about Summer in Mara.
There is an outright charm to Chibig’s Summer in Mara, a Kickstarter success that exudes “wholesome.” With an already established IP universe, this entry sets out to be the ambitious title that pulls in the elements from their prior work. It’s easy to see why Spain-based Chibig’s fundraising campaign was such a success, with a clearly defined vision, art style, and a lot of passion fueling it. Thankfully, backers are largely getting what they have paid for, as Summer in Mara comes together quite well.
Diving into the title, players are introduced to Koa, a small girl seemingly abandoned to the waves of Mara and rescued by a sailor named Haku. Players are taken through a sort of tutorial where Koa dutifully listens to her now grandmother, Yaya Haku, tending to some assigned chores that introduce the basics. Their home island is a lovely place, host to tilled plots, orange and pine trees aplenty, and livestock underfoot, with a cute little house on a cliff. The most unique feature is the Guardian Door, a direct connection to Mara inlaid with the Chrystalis’ power. As the years progress, Koa is left to tend their little island alone, which hasn’t been going well. It’s clear that, for all her bravado, she isn’t ready for this level of responsibility. Still, it’s time for things to change.
Though the initial motivation is to care for your home, it’s clear that the people of Mara have problems of their own. The rest of the story develops as you unlock quests, linking together the vibrant cast of NPCs here and there and leading toward the larger plot looming over your quaint homeworld. The story isn’t always the most cohesive, largely due to the patchy localization, but a few typos here and there aren’t much of an issue. Meanwhile, the stilted dialogue reads strangely, using an excessive proper tone. The story suffers with its pacing a bit, largely because it ties into quest progression, eventually revealing a final threat with little exposition and an equally brief resolution. Despite this, Diego Freire weaves a heartwarming and lovely tale that loosely brings all the game’s elements together and reinforces that moderation is key: try to progress too fast and you will burn out. Koa is consistently reminded of her youth, to not rush into things, take her time, use her manners, and approach things with a level head, which are lessons we can all benefit from.
As you explore the great seas, it is a joy taking in the vibrant, colourful islands and their host of flora, fauna, and citizens. Summer in Mara is lovingly rendered, capturing the beautiful concept art in delightful 3D and sufficient adorableness that creates much of the game’s charm. This style was established in Chibig’s previous titles, with Deiland putting much of the farming and crafting assets into practice. It’s also easy to see inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (they are not shy about it). While each new island offers a neat new set of sights, most layouts come off quite sparse. You’ll find there are a few interesting set pieces, but nothing to do with them. While it’s enough to say they’re pretty, it was a missed opportunity to further develop the game’s story, rich cast, and mystical world. Summer in Mara also boasts strong 2D components that culminate in a couple of gorgeous, traditionally animated sequences. They show another point of view and will have you wishing for an after-school cartoon in this vein. Throughout the game, incredibly drawn and detailed character portraits wonderfully capture each person Koa encounters, with an array of expressions that makes up for the rather wooden faces on the 3D models. You can also unlock some cosmetic changes that alter Koa’s portrait depending on her outfit, which is a nice, oft overlooked detail. As you proceed through this living storybook and unlock more tools, buildings, crafting and kitchen recipes, each graphic and model is quite polished and showcases even the smallest parts of the game.
Summer in Mara‘s striking visuals set a clear vibe that is amplified by a wonderful soundscape. The soundtrack drifts in and out like a summer breeze, which serves each song well. Most pieces have tight loops with only a few standouts, so having them come and go allows you to appreciate them when they do play, and the peaceful moments between. Each NPC interaction triggers a theme, most of them personal, that elevates each member of the vibrant alien cast. Another neat design choice is how the volume is amplified whilst sailing, enhancing the sense of adventure as you splash over the rolling waves on your journey. Given the breaks in music, the sound design is crucial and does a great job of capturing the ambient life of Mara. The gulls overhead, the waves rolling in, your pigs snorting around; all of it is perfectly placed to make the world seem like an idyllic little escape.
As you explore the world, you’ll use a happy mesh of gameplay systems, the first of which is the farming simulation component. These elements are fairly basic, allowing even the most novice farmer to produce any crop they plant. Watering and fertilizing are unnecessary (but can boost your yields if desired), and there are no seasons or days to track for planting. Animals can be fed to produce specific items, or you could leave them alone. Players can neglect every living thing on their island and still achieve success at the local market. As another simple system, Summer in Mara boasts a robust catalogue of crafting and cooking recipes if you have the required ingredients harvested through farming, mining, or tree cutting. Some recipes seem impossible to complete at first because it’s poorly communicated that some ingredients aren’t available right away rather than unattainable. Probably the most rewarding aspect of tending your island is the level of control you have. All the main buildings have set places, as do your fields, but you can otherwise plant trees and place other installments and décor however you wish and make the island truly yours by end of game. It’s gratifying to walk through your own little paradise and reflect on your hard work.
Outside of homesteading, Summer in Mara requires players to quest across its many isles while the overall stakes are low. You’ll discover that the greatest threat to Koa throughout the game is her need for food or rest. Stamina governs how much she can get done in a day, and every action consumes stamina as it gradually diminishes. Early game, a regular diet is a struggle, but food gets easier to manage and you’ll soon be able to get a lot done in each day. On the open seas, you can sail between the various quadrants, but you also have access to fast travel. Fast travel requires payment—which is irritating as you struggle to afford food, seeds and quest items early on. Since many of the game’s quests require you to cook or craft, you’ll have to trek back and forth from your home island constantly, and the majesty of the open sea rapidly dwindles if you’re not fast traveling. In-game, the reasoning is that you are being towed, but on a functional level, you could make the journey on your own by spending the time! Forcing players to pay for a convenience that circumvents an inevitability seems a poor design choice. Thankfully, as you near the end, money becomes less of an issue and paying to speed between quest locations seems less egregious. Chibig has also attempted to mitigate travel by offering other workshop and cooking points, but they are few and not as convenient as just going home.
Most named NPCs require help, and you’ll spend most of the game fetch-questing all over the place to progress the story and grow your farm. Every upgrade and new recipe is locked behind some character’s quest, ranging from straightforward to nebulous. This is largely because navigating the map and the functionality of the quest menu are not truly explained, which is frustrating. (Protip: quests can toggle a destination on the map for travel, but you need to access it through the quest menu, not straight on your map.) It’s nice the game doesn’t hold your hand overmuch, but a bit more clarity would be welcome. In fact, the entire quest system runs into a few roadblocks due the murky treatment of the game’s progression. The game oscillates from pursuing quests to returning home and growing the necessary items to contribute to said quests. It’s a really nice routine that breaks the monotony of the traditional farming sim, offering clearer goals in many ways. At the same time, this introduces a progression system of “just one more quest” that hooks you and will leave you high and dry at times. You will frequently hit an inexplicable wall, needing to meet an NPC or find an item that is impossible to locate because you haven’t progressed another quest far enough along. This is standard RPG fare, sure, but the sense of urgency from the adventure gameplay undermines Summer in Mara‘s relaxing theme of “take your time.” That being said, perhaps this is a problem with the need for expediency when playing for the sake of a review.
If you decide to meander, though, you have plenty of ways to do so. There are fishing spots to catch a menagerie of fish using a simple skill-based catching sequence that makes for a fun pastime. Since there are quite a few species, though, it can be hard to keep track of their locations and what bait they require. The game also has diving points where you can explore scenic beauty beneath the waves, but the control is clunky as Koa plods along in search of largely mundane loot. More rewarding is Koa playing at pirate and digging up buried treasure. If you’ve found or purchased a map, you can dig up chests, but make sure you keep some keys handy! Sadly, the boat racing is a sorely missed opportunity. Players can race at a few points in the story, but most locations don’t allow participation in these famed pirate races, which I hope the team remedies in future updates. Either way, for better or worse, there is always something to do between quests and farming.
At this point, Summer in Mara has some rough edges. In the early game, each of its intricate systems works swimmingly. However, as you progress with more islands producing collectibles, more NPCs sailing about, and things growing back home, the complex world begins to feel like it’s breaking down. Frequent glitches manifest, ranging from inescapable popups to rain inside the mine and even to one occasion where a save file wouldn’t load. Again, this title is very ambitious, so it’s not shocking a few seams may come apart, but these can cause problems. Thankfully, the team has remained committed to addressing these issues, ensuring the game is only going to become smoother. On that note, the trading could use a bit of an update as well, since selling more than 10 of anything takes forever as the number slowly ticks up as you try to sell, say, 99 truffles. Otherwise, controlling Koa on her adventure is quite effortless even if the jumping has a bit of jank here and there and a few objects struggle with interaction due to clipping. Thankfully, nothing renders Summer in Mara remotely unplayable.
Despite being an imperfect experience, there’s much to love about Summer in Mara. Each aspect of the game gives you something to do and a lot of control over how you want to approach it. While it can be easy to get sucked into the game’s progression through the quest system, you can still go at a slower pace should you desire. And this is definitely the recommended way to approach the game. Take it easy in Mara and enjoy this endless summer. Get excited with each new discovery and enjoy the trek! Even kids find the simple, consistently adorable adventure incredibly welcoming, so even if it’s not for you, Chibig has made something special for all ages! This indie team has lovingly crafted a big, heartwarming tale that can hopefully lead to more adventures in this world, or even the universe beyond.
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