Games are a great form of escapism; and never more so than in the current lockdown climate. Rather than the same four walls you can explore whole new horizons and experience different worlds. While this is often done in the name of violent adventures or the eradication of foes, sometimes it’s nice to just take a break from routine and try out a new way of life. Summer of Mara provides an entirely violence free escape from contagion and confinement and offers a welcome burst of sunshine.
Fitting into the well-established tradition of Harvest Moon style games, Summer of Mara sees you take young orphan Koa through the traumatic loss of her adopted grandmother and into her newfound responsibility as Guardian of the sea of Mara. The backstory is relatively perfunctory and certainly far from original, filled as it is with prophecies of chosen ones and unknown destinies. Fortunately, for the most part this remains relegated to the background and doesn’t interfere with the rhythms and routines of island management. There are definite nods to Disney’s Moana with the seafaring and nautical mysteries, echoes that are nicely nodded at when you begin transporting rescued livestock back to your island.
To begin with, your home island is a fairly wild place, with overgrown planting spots and broken down animal shelters. Bit by bit you regain control of the space; planting orchards, rejuvenating gardens and mining for minerals and building materials. This rhythm is accompanied by a well-structured series of tool upgrades and a steady input of new recipes for food and crafting. The first few days will be spent beginning this process of taking back control whilst you wait for the true adventure to start.
Graphically, Summer in Mara is lovely. There is a hint of Studio Ghibli and more than a dash of Zelda Windwaker to the whole aesthetic. Colours are bold and eyecatching, giving a real sense of the tropical paradise of Mara, whilst everything is clear and well defined. This may seem like an obvious point but it really helps when you’re looking for specific mineral deposits or particular fruits in your harvesting. I haven’t played the most recent Animal Crossing but there is a clear comparison to be made here too, although Mara is played at your own pace rather than relying on calendar days. The residents of the various islands of Mara are all interestingly drawn, with some humans, some aquatic influences, and a couple of cat people. While I would have liked to see more occupied areas (there is one main town and a couple of islands with individual occupants) the characters that directly affect your adventure all have very different personalities.
Travelling between the islands is incredible reminiscent of Windwaker (there is even an achievement for fully upgrading your boat that clearly refers to this) and is an enjoyable experience. Each square of the map contains one island as well as fishing spots and diving locations. Your explorations are limited at first until you unlock larger engines so there is no risk of being overwhelmed. The combination of these restrictions and the clear upgrade path through multiple questlines provides a strong structure that will enable younger players to work through the game without becoming lost. It is a little too scripted but I actually enjoyed the feel of progress taking me through the game, with the freedom to just drift off into fishing, farming or exploring whenever the desire struck, or I needed to raise some funds for an upgrade.
The crafting and recipe trees are not as complex as the likes of My Time At Portia, another aspect in which Mara feels like a perfect fit for younger gamers. That being said, there is still a need to juggle crops, manage resources, and plan your expenses to work through the various tasks and requests. Quite often I found myself selling items that I then needed and had to construct again. This is more to do with my obvious greed than the game being at fault though. I’d recommend only selling enough to raise funds for the materials you need until you reach one of the boat upgrade points where large sums are needed. This will help to avoid moments of impulse selling frustration. Luckily, you’ll often have at least five or six questlines open at a time, so a roadblock in one doesn’t necessarily mean a resultant grind.
The rhythms of planting, harvesting, feeding your animals, and exploring the seas are the basis for the game mechanics and are largely satisfying. The review build I played was frequently updated and the finished version feels a much tighter and more responsive game. The addition of a view invert option in the most recent update was a massive plus for me and freed me from playing with mouse and keyboard. Alongside these activities there is a nicely crafted narrative that contains some poignant moments of character interaction and a surprise or two. I was surprised by how rude Mara’s residents are to poor Koa, though, and was quietly hoping that there would be a comeuppance or two.