Review: Summer in Mara is a rough but charming island farming adventure

0

Summer in Mara is rough around the edges, but its tropical farming adventure and story about finding a place to call home are still delightful.

I’ve spent a good share of my time in the last couple of weeks lost in an idyllic tropical archipelago, sailing the bright blue ocean, raising sheep and pigs, and growing crops. I’ve seen new friends turn rivalries into business partnerships, encouraged a pirate to speak out against the bullying he gets from his older sisters, and helped an old man find the perfect anniversary gift for his longtime husband. I’ve fended off the threat of colonisation, and helped the local spirits find peace.

In other words, I’ve been playing Chibig‘s Summer in Mara—a wonderful piece of escapism that’s come out in a time when that’s so desperately needed, but one that isn’t afraid to remind its escapees that there’s still good in the world worth fighting for.

Related: Animal Crossing: New Horizons is another worthy island-based life sim, though it takes a very different approach to the concept than Summer of Mara. Read our review.

Summer in Mara casts you as Koa, a young girl who’s spent her whole life living on a little, self-sufficient  island under the care of her grandma, Yaya Haku. Though she knows from Haku’s stories that their island is but one in a sea full of them, Koa’s never set foot beyond its coast. This little island is her whole world, and since Haku’s passing, taking care of the land (and herself) has been her life.

A screenshot from Summer in Mara, showing Koa fishing.

That all changes one night when a mysterious creature—humanoid in form, but with a clam-like head, and able to communicate only by drawing pictures on a wooden board—washes up onshore. In an effort to figure out where this “Napopo” has come from and how to get her home, Koa decides it’s finally time to see what lies beyond the sea; she repairs Haku’s old boat and sets out for Qälis, the island city at the heart of Mara. So begins what would turn out to be a life-changing adventure for the young girl.

Qälis is a city full of all manner of quirky people from around the world (and even a few from other planets). Being the happy-go-lucky kid that she is, Koa inevitably ends up befriending the locals and helping them with whatever they need help with. Saimi, a reclusive old woman who lives in a lighthouse, is a tougher nut to crack, but Koa eventually learns that Saimi’s an old friend of Haku. Along with a few others, Saimi and Haku used to be part of a navy that worked to protect Mara’s natural balance (while getting up to all sorts of other misadventures). As you might guess, Napopo’s appearance is a sign that that balance is out of whack, and Koa inevitably gets caught up in a journey to set things right.

The threat to Mara comes from the Elits, an alien society that wants to colonise Mara and exploit its abundant resources. On the outskirts of the islands, there are already a few symptoms of the Elits’ efforts—old, damaged machinery left to pollute the water, and oppressive contraptions drilling down into the seabed below. But the Elits want all of Mara, and when trying to buy out the locals doesn’t work, they’re happy to fall back on more extreme measures. Summer in Mara is a not-so-subtle story about colonisation, one that perhaps lacks nuance—it amounts to “colonisation is bad”—but is an important message nonetheless.

A screenshot from Summer in Mara, showing Koa approaching a monument with a spiral emblem on it.

The other side of that coin is the idea of home, and the connections one has to whatever place they call that. Despite her grand adventure, Koa is never too far away from her home island, and is given plenty of reason to return. Much of the game loop revolves around farming and crafting, both of which can only be done on the home island. Whenever a quest calls for you to craft something, or whenever you need to harvest some crops to sell, you’ll return home to do so, really embedding the idea of “home” as a place you can always return to, that will also welcome you with open arms. (Apparently, the developers plan to add crafting workbenches in other locations with a future update, which I find really disappointing).

Home is also a thing that you need to protect, and Summer in Mara goes some way to encouraging sustainable life instead of just ravishing the land. For many resources, taking more than you need can have detrimental long-term effects—deplete the fish stocks in a fishing hole too heavily, and you’ll have to wait ages for them to repopulate, far longer than if you only catch a few each visit. Cut down trees before they’ve had a chance to drop at least a few seeds, and you’ll find yourself cutting down trees faster than you can grow new ones. Wells can only hold a limited capacity of rainwater, so you’ll want to be selective about when you water crops and which ones you prioritise; luckily, plants can still grow without water, they just take longer.

A screenshot from Summer in Mara, showing Koa farming.

None of these systems is especially harsh in how it’s implemented—it’s never difficult to find the right sustainable balance, and if you do dig yourself into a bit of hole, there are always ways to get back on track (buying items from merchants, for example). It still makes its point clear, though: if you want the land to be able to keep giving you the things you depend on it for, you need to take care of it, and not over-exploit it. 

The one weird exception to this is minerals. The most efficient way of gathering stone and metals seems to be to harvest every vein to exhaustion, so that it can respawn a few in-game days later. Leaving nodes slightly untapped doesn’t seem to do anything to speed things up—if anything, it slows harvesting those resources down even further, since a node won’t respawn until it’s fully tapped out.

Notwithstanding the stuff with minerals, there’s a simple, elegant game loop in Summer in Mara that really drives home its point: you travel around the islands, accepting quests from locals and discovering new materials and recipes, before returning home to put the requested items together. It connects Koa to the rest of the people of Mara, to the land, and to her home in simple, satisfying way.

A screenshot from Summer in Mara, showing Koa looking out over a city.

But for all its good ideas, Summer in Mara is a diamond in the rough. Bugs are plentiful, and often only able to be resolved by closing the game and loading it up again. It’s not uncommon to fall through the ground, or get the in-game clock stuck at 8.30am (thus locking you out of any time-dependent things, which includes most shops and quest-givers). I even managed to permanently lock myself out of a whole chain of sidequests, thanks to picking up the first quest after a point in the game when the item you need for it is no longer available.

Summer in Mara also suffers from quest and item descriptions that are often vague or downright misleading. In the early part of the game, I spent literal hours running around aimlessly because—thanks to a quest description that simply said “Be nice to everyone in the town”—I thought the main quest wouldn’t proceed until I finished all the available sidequests. One such sidequest involved collecting and recycling a particular (rare) type of trash, but because I’d already cleared up all the trash prior to picking up the quest, I was left trying to respawn trash piles in the hopes of finally getting the one that I needed.

It turns out the goal of that main quest was just to talk to everyone in the town, including a couple who are just a bit out of the way and easy to miss. The trash quest could wait until later, when it would become much easier anyway. That’s the worst example I encountered, but vague quest descriptions often throw up roadblocks. I found myself consulting the internet far more often than I’d expect to in a game like this, just to try to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. 

A screenshot from Summer in Mara, showing Koa's boat sailing past an island city.

And yet, despite those frustrations, most of my memories of Summer in Mara are happy ones. While 2020 keeps being *gesticulates wildly* all of this, here’s a game that gives you a tropical paradise, a boat, an island farm, and an adventure to get lost in. It touches on some heavy themes, but it’s fundamentally a hopeful game about making one’s mark on the world and the connections that tie us to “home”, whatever that may be for you.


Summer in Mara is developed and published by Chibig. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC, with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions coming later.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

Share.

About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.