Summer in Mara originally caught my eye with its charming design that displayed a kind of vibrant anime or cartoon style, interesting characters, beautiful settings, captivating music and pleasant gameplay variety. The promise shown by early clips and the aspirations of developer Chibig, a small studio in Spain, were enough to convince me to support a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the first time.
To judge by the first several hours, the game doesn't disappoint. It's no wonder that the creators found inspiration in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Stardew Valley and Studio Ghibli films, as solid exploration, farming and presentation complement each other. Time will tell if minor issues grate over the reportedly 20 hour journey by main character Koa that involves 20 characters, 20 islands and about 300 quests.
The Nintendo Switch version so far works well in either dock or handheld mode (text including dialog reads perfectly fine in the latter, for instance, though the map is an exception, and controls function reasonably well in both modes). I tried to keep my expectations in check when even the title screen wowed with an exuberant score and delightful graphics. Settings on this screen include language and volume for music or sound effects.
It's worth noting that while the maximum setting for music is loud and clear, the same cannot be said for the maximum FX setting (and I know I'm not alone in this regard to judge by Discord feedback). Footsteps are a prime example as they're constant but barely audible, even when lowering the music setting. But character and ambient noises (there is no spoken dialog) like birds or ocean waves are more clear and add atmosphere.
As for the music, I can't overemphasize how important the score is to the enjoyment of this game. The theme that plays during the title screen and the title sequence has become one of my favorite pieces of video game music. But the game's background music, too, is simply captivating. The use of string instruments like violin or guitar, plus whistling on more upbeat tunes, is wonderfully melodic and complements the game well.
While there is no spoken dialog, conversations (advanced with the A button) have a realistic cadence and exchange between distinct personalities. For instance, young Koa can be headstrong, excitable and impulsive but also dutiful, respectful and eager, while Yaya Haku can be stern but also helpful, nurturing and encouraging. Residents of Qalis like Saimi or Edegan can start aloof or abrasive but warm up over time. Then there's Noho, who loves to tell tales.
As for the game's visuals, the distinct anime aesthetic is most pronounced in the character design, particularly during conversations. There is a fantasy element to quidos of Qalis. Yaya Haku bears a resemblance to other quidos, though they represent a range of colors and various sizes. Koa is clearly more human in appearance, and there are other characters including some that resemble cats.
The story to begin with is relatively spare as players are introduced more to the mechanics of gameplay at the start than to the narrative. But an opening cut scene sets the stage as a flashback reveals how Yaya Haku rescued baby Koa from a burning ship. Yaya Haku slowly reveals to Koa the importance of guardians in protecting from threats, which ultimately include an evil organization exploiting the ocean Mara for its resources.
World building in Mara is impressive, with picturesque landscapes and attractive structures that are familiar but can display creativity and elements of fantasy. Scenes are alive with ambient sounds and fluid animation for Koa; clouds, grass and airborne particles blown by the wind; and fauna such as birds, rabbits, squirrels and fish. Characters, however, break that immersion by remaining in place at all hours, though their gaze will follow Koa.
Sometimes, too, animation can glitch, be it clouds that are stationary at times or the day/night cycle. The latter generally works well though it can feel like it comes around too often as Koa tires easily at night. But effective lighting and shadows during both periods help sell the passage of time. One drawback is a quick transition from daytime to night, with a rapid descent of the sun and movement of shadows.
The heads-up display is mostly uncluttered, which helps enjoy the scenic surroundings. There is a hunger gauge in the upper left of the screen, symbolized by four fruit that can be filled by eating or drinking. A bar accompanies them and appears to move in unison -- some suggest this is a stamina bar, but I don't see a corresponding change especially when running at a constant pace. When swimming, a breath bar appears below the hunger gauge.
A welcome feature, at least for me, is that Koa can't get hurt in this game (i.e. by falling). So forgetting to eat/drink or sleep has no more severe consequence than forcing Koa to rest. That said, mandatory naps can prove annoying, as they're more frequent when Koa is hungry or tired, and sometimes food can be in limited supply such as early on in Qalis, where there are few fruit/vegetable-bearing plants and Koa has little money to buy any food.
Players will be forced to return to checkpoints to nap (progress won’t be lost, but on larger maps like Qalis it can require backtracking, which takes up valuable time in between sometimes frequent naps). Thankfully players are alerted when Koa is hungry/tired so there's time to eat/drink if there's anything in the inventory. Likewise a day/night cycle clock in the upper right of the HUD can prompt players to have Koa sleep.
Koa's inventory can be found by pressing the plus button to open the Menu. Inside, players can alternate between Map, Inventory and Quests using right/left shoulder buttons. Navigate the Inventory of Consumables, Vegetables, Materials, Sea and Special with directional buttons. Menu controls in general are fairly intuitive. The map, however, is not interactive at least early on. It only shows locations of characters, and quests don't appear on the map.
The menu also can be accessed via directional buttons: Pressing up opens Quests and down opens Inventory. Pressing right or left equips or cycles through tools. Which tool is equipped determines the respective actions available via the X or Y buttons. Pressing X with the hoe equipped brings up the Inventory, with the axe or hammer it brings up Build (fence, chicken coop or well).
The Y button is effectively the action button. Pressing Y with the hoe equipped enables prepare soil, plant seeds, harvest vegetables and clean weeds; with the axe, chop trees and build/destroy (i.e. chicken coops, pig pens, fences); and with the hammer, build/destroy wells or smash stones. Holding Y repeats the action until it fills a gauge and the action is fulfilled, the menu opened (if it involves the inventory), or a prompt indicates the next action.
With the hand icon selected, Y enables hit trees or plants, which knocks fruit like apples, oranges or blueberries to fall off (thankfully they don't roll away from the player's grasp, as can happen in other games). Y also enables talk and navigate boats. One downside is that targeting can be a challenge when objects are close together, i.e. instead of destroying a fence I'm beside I get options to clean weeds, prepare soil or plant crops.
Destroying objects breaks them down into their component materials for use in crafting. Wood, stone, etc. can be used to craft pens, wells and other structures. But, as with drinks or meals, recipes are needed first. These are given as reward for completing tasks in the world or for others (i.e. gathering oranges unlocks the orange juice recipe). Crafting/cooking takes place in Koa's home, with options for Tools, Workshop, Kitchen and Sleep.
Cooking can involve fish, which can be hooked at specific locations by ponds or the seashore. Fishing is a minigame that requires a rod, fishing line and bait. Players first have to press the displayed button (which changes) when a moving sphere hits one of two concentric circles, then keep a rectangle in sync with a fish icon moving along a horizontal line. Success nabs a fish; failure, trash. It can be exacting, but an entertaining diversion.
Crafted objects can be placed with thumbsticks and/or directional buttons. The process, like with crafting/cooking, is intuitive and relatively quick. The left thumbstick also controls walk/swim/steer boats (add the right trigger to move faster, the left to reverse boats). The right stick moves the camera. These controls work well, though boating can be floaty/imprecise, and the camera can't pan up (a shame in Qalis with its large buildings/structures).
Koa seems to be able to run indefinitely, especially as the bar with the hunger gauge doesn't appear to behave like a stamina bar. That said, she did lose the option to run on two occasions (after receiving instructions, like checking a light by the beach). She also teleports back to a checkpoint if she strays too far afield. Koa can also jump satisfyingly high with the B button, clearing many obstacles, though invisible walls prevent some leaps.
The fact that movement in general works well is a blessing in a game where exploration is so important, whether Koa is gathering fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish or stone on her island; boating or diving on open waters; or visiting other islands in the same archipelago. And although the base mechanics are solid and enjoyable, the game would benefit from a less restrictive design around rest, not to mention a fast travel option that doesn't exact a high cost.
Be that as it may, Qalis is a wonderful place to visit. The city itself is larger than I expected, with several city blocks of multistory buildings at varied elevations. On one hand it resembles a popular seaside town including picturesque parks with a playground, rolling hills and wildlife; beaches with umbrellas and sunbathers; and an oceanfront walkway with benches and street lamps.
In many ways it's idyllic but it also manages to be distinctive. Fantasy elements add character and a unique feel to Qalis, such as an open-air market in the hull of a boat-shaped structure that's topped off impressively by a whale blowing water out of its blowhole. Elsewhere, there's a building with a giant hand attached, another with a planet topping it off, and at least one with Asian influences.
The resident quidos likewise come in a variety of character models that are creatively designed and well realized. Interesting characters and dialog options are complemented by various NPCs with their own commentary (though as with other games, models and commentary can repeat). Their outsized personalities not only entertain but will give Koa quests that will send her to get information or objects from others or other locations.
An early questline, as an example, sends Koa to retrieve a plant from her island for Saimi, but first she must get a special tool from Caleb, who in turn wants crops from Koa. So Koa has to return to her island to plant Caleb's seeds, grow his crops, return them to Caleb in Qalis in exchange for the tool recipe, return to her island to craft the tool, harvest the plant and return to Qalis to give the plant to Saimi.
This follows a fetch quest pattern that fans of RPGs will be familiar with. It also follows the established means for one way of obtaining recipes that will help upgrade Koa's tools, which will be necessary to do additional things that she couldn't before including removing weeds, breaking down boulders or harvesting certain plants. So this will open up new gameplay options as Koa's journey continues and no doubt also help progress the story forward.
Chibig has also planted the seed (pun intended) for the gameplay that follows with a philosophy toward life that Yaya Haku passed on to Koa early in the game. Namely, that we must always help others; that every action, no matter how small, can benefit others, whether it's bringing someone something they need, or planting a seed. And while there are truly mean people, others that appear mean are lost and need help to find their way again.
It's hard to argue with such a wholesome, proactive and restorative philosophy, especially when it factors into the gameplay in such a significant way. No doubt that approach will help players progress, though the charming world and melodic score go a long way in that regard. However, obstacles such as backtracking between islands, cumbersome fast travel, and hunger/sleep demands could weigh on players' overall enjoyment.
That's a concern, but honestly it's too early to tell. I might be several hours into the game, but bear in mind that up till now I've only visited two of the game's 20 islands, have not had an opportunity to explore the game's underwater environments and have only begun the story and its 300 quests. There is a lot for me yet to explore. Any issues I've encountered are at worst inconveniences along the way.
Indeed, to judge by the first hours of Summer in Mara, the game has met and in some ways exceeded my already high expectations. The colorful natural and artificial settings, imbued with creative fantasy elements, are bolstered by equally colorful personalities in support of fun, intuitive gameplay elements and bound together with a captivating score and wholesome message to deliver an entertaining journey that hopefully in the long run can overcome a few early issues.
(This post was based on the Nintendo Switch version of Summer in Mara, which released today, June 16, 2020, on that platform and on PC. It releases later on PS4 and Xbox One.)
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