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Like any other art form, video games are designed to evoke a certain emotion in the player through visuals, music, narrative, and above all, through gameplay mechanics – the interactivity and player agency that makes this art form we love so much, special and beautiful. 

Certain genres of games challenge the player’s reflexes while others challenge their logical thinking to deliver satisfying gameplay experiences. Yet others focus on the story and characters to weave a compelling tale. And then there’s a whole other kind of game that’s often overlooked –  games like Stardew Valley and My Time at Portia – that don’t really challenge the player at all. Instead of amplifying a feeling in the player – exhilaration, gratification, joy, sadness, anger, etc. – these games attempt to calm all emotions and instill a sense of zen-like calm in the player, walking the line between relaxing and mundane. 

After having played Stardew Valley and My Time at Portia in the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that what looks like a pointless inane gameplay loop, thanks to the interactive nature of video games, can actually deliver a highly cathartic, almost meditative experience. We sure have come a long way since Farmville.

Summer in Mara

The aptly named Kickstarter game Summer in Mara is one such title set in a beautiful tropical archipelago designed to get you addicted to the relaxing gameplay loop which incorporates farming, crafting, and sailing mechanics. So how well does it walk the line between mundane and relaxing? Let’s find out.

Story & Narrative

Summer in Mara

Though it’s not a story-heavy game, Summer in Mara does attempt to tell a tale about growth, responsibility, and compassion. You play as Koa, a young, determined girl who learned everything about life from her grandmother, Haku. As you play through the tutorial, you see how Haku taught Koa to live peacefully and sustainably and to respect the world of Mara, careful not to overuse resources and to always be grateful. A few years later, certain events occur and a new visitor arrives who compels Koa to explore the world beyond her little island for the very first time.  

While slow-moving at first, after about 15-20 hours of gameplay (if you do a lot of the side quests), you’re introduced to a greedy evil ‘Elit’ corporation that wants to exploit the world of Mara and steal its natural resources, no matter the consequences on Mara itself. Yes, it’s a pretty cliché and overdone story, with the same old ‘respect Mother Nature’ message, and Summer in Mara doesn’t really do anything new to it.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The mere fact that you spend so much time interacting with the tropical archipelago over the 30 hours of gameplay definitely did get me attached to the world, and especially to my home island. So in that way, I suppose it did make me care about the message of the game, about treating our environment with love and respect. However, there are a lot of areas where this story falls flat. 

Summer in Mara

Though there’s a decent variety of interesting-looking characters, they don’t really serve much purpose other than to hand you quests. Sure, some of them do have a backstory and there are hints of something special, but none of the characters are ever really well-used to tell a compelling story. They usually just serve as distractions instead. The dialog is decent at best and incohesive and time-wasting at worst, with quite a few typos and grammatical mistakes.

But the real narrative of the game is the relaxing tone itself. The story is ‘Young Koa has a fun summer, goes sailing, meets interesting characters and helps them, plants trees and crops, cooks and builds things, brings up animals, etc.’.

Gameplay & Mechanics

Typical to this genre, you can expect the usual gameplay tropes in Summer of Mara: you use an axe for small-scale deforestation, a fishing rod for fishing, a hoe for preparing the field and planting crops/trees/bushes, and a hammer for mining minerals and building structures. You also discover various cooking and crafting recipes throughout the game using which you can make food and other items. 

Once you’re done with the tutorial, the island of Qälis serves as your main hub, where you accept and turn in various quests, meet new characters, and progress in the story. There are 300+ quests to complete, which definitely translates to playtime. However, a significant number of these are just annoyingly shallow fetch quests that have you run between two NPCs, corresponding between them. A bike or skateboard would’ve come in handy to minimize the commute time for sure. 

Summer in Mara

Even the more involved quests require a lot of backtracking because the quests can only be accepted in Qälis, and the farming, cooking, crafting can only be done on your Home Island. As a result, you spend a LOT of time sailing between your Home Island and Qälis, which takes about 30 seconds one way. Trust me, that adds up pretty damn quick. 

The worst thing about the game is that literally ALL of the NPCs are stationary. All the time. This makes the world seem extremely lifeless and static, as everyone just stands in their usual positions at all times of the day. A total immersion-breaker. Obviously this is archaic and is not acceptable in 2015 much less in 2020.

Also, don’t expect the crafting and building to be as extensive as in Portia, as it’s relatively pretty shallow here, with the focus being more on the farming for sure. Plus, there’s no leveling system, the quests don’t really award you with experience points or anything. However, I kinda liked that as it worked in the game’s favor. In addition, there are no penalties in this game: crops and animals don’t die if you forget to water/feed them, nor are there any deadlines for quests. In fact, though there’s a day/night cycle, there’s no calendar so no ‘events’ or birthdays to keep an eye out for. All of this subconsciously promotes the eternal summer paradise island vibe of the game, which I definitely love. 

Another thing I disliked at first but came to love was the lack of a mini-map. The map of Qälis is static and non-interactive, so you’re left to figure out where everything is by yourself with not much guidance. This was obviously inconvenient in the first few hours but after a while, it was really cool to find that I knew the island better than the back of my hand.

However, there’s a lot to love as well. Your Home Island is customizable, and watching it grow over time is incredibly gratifying and wholesome. Your farmland gets bigger as you upgrade your tools, you can expand the mine, and though this isn’t true for the crops, you can plant trees all over the island, almost wherever you want, which allows for some creative expression. Plus, baby chicks and other animals can be rescued and brought to your island once the appropriate structure has been built, and it’s a great feeling to sail back to your island after a long quest-filled day to be welcomed by all your farm animals excited to see you.

Speaking of sailing, that’s definitely what sets Summer in Mara apart from its competitors. Granted, almost all of the 20+ discoverable islands are tiny and pointless. However, I still enjoyed the feeling of sailing into unexplored waters, and not just because it brought back fond memories of sailing aimlessly in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, thought that nostalgia probably had a lot to do with it. Discovering new islands, filled with the potential of meeting new characters/animals and discovering something new is a great feeling though the game doesn’t always deliver. 

Alright this is getting too long, so I’ll mention some of the things I disliked real quick:

  • Imprecise collision detection and the issues that stem from it. 
  • Sometimes not immediately clear what you need to do to progress, you’re left to explore and talk to characters and figure it out by yourself.
  • Boat upgrades are visually disappointing, the boat looks almost identical and upgrades do nothing except provide you access to more of the map.
  • The diving mechanic is clunky and obnoxious.
  • Fishing is only allowed in certain spots.
  • Selling a large number of items at once isn’t possible (really?).
  • The options menu consists only of a volume slider and a language setting. Nothing else – no FOV slider, no keybinding.

Visuals & Sound

The visuals are definitely a highlight of Summer in Mara and definitely contribute to the relaxing, meditative effect. It’s reminiscent of the art-style The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and it’s very pretty and easy on the eyes. The animated cutscenes, inspired by the Ghibli films are spectacular as well, though there is only a handful of them. 

Though the NPCs have rigid character animations, the character design itself is fantastic. There are some extremely visually interesting and well-designed characters in this game since they’re not all human. Though it has a similar visual style to Portia, the color palette is definitely brighter and more vibrant here – the greenest of grass and bluest of waves – and this only makes the world feel that much more welcoming. I only wish there was the option to customize the boat as well.

The music is pleasant and uplifting as well, and keeps you motivated to do ‘just one more quest’. There are also some very low-key, serene tracks that provide some variety, and a couple of minutes of silence in between tracks during which you get to truly hear the waves and the other background noises which I appreciated.


Summer in Mara is a nice, quiet, casual farming/exploration sim with plenty of warmth and charm, perfect for those who wish to get away from the stress of everyday life. Though it feels unpolished and at times, archaic and there’s a lot that can be improved, I still felt completely at peace and zen during my stay in Mara and thoroughly enjoyed it. The beautiful visuals and serene music helped in no small part to produce this effect, adding to the core meditative gameplay loop. Just don’t go into it expecting much more than that.


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