Anything But Fun In The Sun
There’s something strangely endearing about relaxing farming sims that keeps audiences coming back for more – just look at the success of Animal Crossing and Minecraft. Whether it be that simple gameplay loop of planting and harvesting or the sense of progression you get venturing into greener pastures and crafting better gear, this genre has found its mechanics seeping into so many different games over the years that it’s hard to find a unique slant.
That’s a problem Summer In Mara has from its opening hours right the way through the 15+ hour journey. The game just doesn’t make a great case for itself thanks to its simple and repetitive gameplay loop and tiresome fetch quests. How long you stick it out through that time period really depends on your investment in the story.
In its simplest form, Summer In Mara feels like a mash-up between a very simple farming sim and one of the poor anime-adapted games on Playstation. The general aesthetic and music is relaxing enough to entice you into playing but the endless array of fetch quests and simple crafting mechanics do little to spark your enthusiasm to carry on. While the game does get a little better as you start to venture out to different islands, there just isn’t a lot of depth to accompany your journey, making it more tedious to play than it perhaps should be.
The game itself wastes little time throwing you head-first into this world as you take on the role of Koa, a spunky 11 year old girl who lives with her Grandmother Yaya. Their strong familial bond ties the story together as she teaches you all the basics while keeping a consistent theme around loving and caring for nature. During the opening hours, the foundations for the story ahead are laid including teasing glimpses of a strange Guardian Door and Yara heading off on mysterious voyages overseas.
As the game progresses, so too does the main narrative which changes from one of caring and tending to the land to one of protection as a powerful force arrives and threatens to colonize and take over the various different islands. This story is easily the highlight of the entire game but it’s such a pity that cumbersome and tiring gameplay mechanics accompany it, making Summer In Mara so much more of a chore to play than it should be.
Essentially the game follows a very rigid structure of hunting for resources, harvesting crops and combining different ingredients at your house to create new tools. These new tools then help you progress through the different quests and collect more resources. The tasks begin simply enough – creating orange juice or grilled fish dishes – before progressing to crafting more useful tools like upgrading your boat and crafting better tools like hoes and hammers to move further through the different areas.
Once you’ve exhausted all the tutorial missions on your starter island, more missions and characters become available by sailing across to different islands and it’s here the game does open up a bit. There’s a day/night cycle, complete with a simple UI that shows your energy and hunger bars alongside a ticking clocking, and a whole inventory section of the menu dedicated to your missions and a map of the area. Those expecting open-world gameplay though will be left disappointed; the traveling between islands is strictly limited to a North, West, East and South directional travel.
Aesthetically, Summer In Mara looks okay and the bright, vivid colours and quirky soundtrack combine to make things feel relaxing and involving as you play through. There are some bugs too but these are usually reserved to simple graphical glitches here and there and the occasion bit of pop-in.
The lack of voice acting is actually something that suits the game though – feeling like a throwback to those old days of text-heavy RPGs. Those old-school vibes do, unfortunately, extend to the NPCs you encounter here as almost every character stands on their designated spot. It’s an odd design choice, especially when a simple piece of pathfinding code, allowing these NPCs to walk around in long, winding loops, may have actually helped the game feel a bit more alive.
For Yara, she at least teleports around between quests to give the illusion of movement but these issues are much more noticeable in the towns you visit. These areas feel like they should be bustling and vibrant but instead are eerily static; it’s as if Medusa has rolled into town and turned everyone to stone.
Unfortunately, the further afield you travel the more tiring and cumbersome the journey becomes. Summer In Mara has a really annoying tendency to force you into these long quests where you gather resources but have to manually travel back on your boat to your starter island to craft anything. As it turns out, your house is the only designated area for crafting and checking recipes so every quest becomes an exercise in patience and time-wasting as you voyage back and forth multiple times.
When you compare this to titles like Minecraft of Stardew Valley, Summer In Mara fails to match up to its predecessors that stand tall in this harvested field. Sure, it looks pretty and for some of the younger kids this may even be a good stepping stone to get into Minecraft, but the gameplay loop and repetitive quest design wears thin long before the end of the main narrative.
If you’re a fan of farming simulators then you may find some enjoyment with this one but Summer In Mara is anything but fun in the sun. It’s a game that repeatedly wastes your time with mechanics that feel lackluster and archaic in this age of game design. The aesthetic and story are enough to drive you forward and keep you playing but Summer In Mara’s gameplay lets it down from becoming the fun, vibrant simulator it so easily could have been.
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Verdict - 3.5/10