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Summer in Mara and polish in video games

I do the joke three times and I’m not sorry

2020 is full of great life/farming sim experiences; Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Ooblets being the standout two for my liking, but Story of Seasons is also out this year, and Atomicorps is a unique-looking game that uses farming sim elements, yet those are the ones that I am aware of and there are likely a few more trying to scratch that same itch. I would have never thought though that the game I would be compelled to talk about first would be Summer in Mara – a cute, 3D farming sim with sea exploration elements. Honestly, at a first glance, this was something that appealed to me due to its style, and seemed like a relaxing 10-hour game to finish up early, hopefully inspiring me to talk about the other games mentioned before. What ended up happening was me spending 23 hours, trying to find the right lingo to talk about the many problems plaguing this game currently, and why it is still worthwhile, because even those problems can only drag it down to “great”.

Firstly, lets set the stage for the game: You are Koa, a young and adventurous girl who was not allowed to see the world by her overtly-protective grandma, but after her passing and her warning of imminent danger, Koa must go on an adventure of a lifetime to explore Mara, meet its inhabitants, bring life back to her island, and save Mara. As the player you will grow and harvest crops, fruit, flowers, produce various products and materials for cooking and crafting, explore a sizeable world, and do many quests (fair warning these are all fetch quests that give you a reason to engage with the mechanics, so don’t expect anything groundbreaking).

If you want to know whether Summer in Mara is a game for you, you need only to ask yourself one question: How important is polish in video games for you? Obviously, if you’re from Poland then its absence would be a deal breaker for some, but I’m not really talking about traditional polish – sort of. Traditionally, when people talk about polish in video games they talk about visual details, technical stability, writing, removing placeholder content, and in this regard, Summer in Mara is a very unpolished game. The running animation of Koa is the most basic animation I have seen in quite some time, animals who are supposed to be sleeping will continue to move randomly (with their eyes open), but those are annoying at worst and at best not really an issue; game-crushing bugs, floating in mid-air because the game allowed me to fast travel while someone was trying to talk to me, those are not trivial. These issues were becoming increasingly frequent as I started doing the final quests of the game with the culmination being that the game crashed after the final cutscene and lead to a few tries to get back in the game that resulted in infinite loading screens (thankfully, I wanted to test this again one last time before writing this and it worked, so I was able to finish all of the quests).

While those issues are deal-breakers for some people, I’m usually not one of those people – I don’t mind some jank here and there and crashes are not a real issue for me unless they happen in such a way that makes the game unplayable (Deadly Premonitions on PC) or wipe away a good chunk of my progress. What truly hurts SiM is not fundamental or issues of balance; it just needed 2-3 months of more polish in how its systems work; not their intent or execution, but the refinement of them does not hold up for the amount of time needed to get through the game. For example, the first structure you get to build on your island is a chicken coop, which allows you to have chickens and if you feed enough of those chickens with corn, they will produce eggs. Eggs are not that valuable, but if you grow sunflowers, you can make oil and in turn make fried eggs that are valuable to replenish energy and can be sold at a decent price; essentially, early on the costs do not outweigh the rewards. But, as soon as you are able to build the pig farm, then every other structure on the island becomes redundant; pigs only need to be fed carrots (which are cheap and fast to produce) and they will produce truffles, which can be sold to almost any vendor for triple the price of any other animal produce, as well as not needing to grow anything else or cook them in any way. This could be “fixed” with a balance update on prices, but that’s not the actual issue; even if truffles were sold a lot cheaper, they take minimal space on your limited crop space, and are a lot faster/energy-effective to produce. They are also the 2nd animal structure out of the 4, which makes acquiring and building the other two more of a “checking the box” event, rather than an exciting new addition to your island. So, the intend of allowing players to add animal tending to their routine and keeping that routine from getting old by making the structures part of questlines is solid, and their execution is as well; getting the resources to build those structures forced me to engage with the mechanics of the game, and building them allowed me to progress the story, gave me new options to switch up my routine, and changed the look of my island, as well as adding more life to it. But it rings hollow when compared to similar games where every item has its use on the 1st hour of the game and the 100th. Thus, a balance patch would not fix these issues, it would either prolong the game even more or prolong the illusion of that system, either of which is what this game need, which is more polish; specifically, the Masovian dialect spoken in the central/eastern parts of the country.

This doesn’t just happen with one aspect of the game; it is prevalent in most features. Story is pretty good for a farming sim and actually has a few cool moments (I liked the callback to the beginning of the game in the penultimate quest), but it is so sloppily glued together I literally did not know what happened to a main character after the introduction, because she just vanishes. The idea of having quests guide you through the game is great and allows for a feeling of progression and adds stakes to this genre, but every single quest is a fetch quest and a lot of them will have you take an item from one character to another and then back to the original character, or even worse have quests that linger on my log for a dozen hours, before I can go back to them, removes any sense of urgency or dependence that character may have on Koa; I don’t mind fetch quests by the way, I think they are an okay excuse to force the player to engage with the mechanics of the game and remove the focus from that aspect of the game to the mechanical one, but this is too much even for me. Mixing farming with exploration works surprisingly well, allowing the player to plant crops, tend to animals and gather their produce, before setting of to explore and coming back days later adds another layer to your routine, which is constantly switching and keeps being fresh, however this makes both of those elements trivial by the midway point of the game; you only need to visit each island once (apart from islands with quests) and farming without needing to tend to crops/animals becomes more akin to a clicker experience, which is not what I want from an exploration/farming experience. It simply makes most of the game optional and so drawn out that I wanted to get things done and be done with it, rather than go at my own pace, which lead me to figuring out pretty obvious ways of breaking the economy. Similarly moments where you couldn’t buy your way to the end of a quest became an exercise in frustration; needing to find a specific item from 91 collectible crabs spread throughout the map is an example that springs to mind, but there are so many other baffling decisions like having a quest that requires getting to an island with a fully upgraded boat, before I even had my first upgrade.

Again, most of these can be seen as problems that can be fixed with patches, but their first update to the game definitively proves that the problems are not that shallow. By adding fast travel and crafting points, the devs made the game unquestionably better and undoubtedly worse at the same time; crafting points are great and allow for some alleviation of the frustrating parts of the fetch quests, but also encourage players to return to their island by not allowing them to craft multiple staff (like on their island) and needing to return to craft new tools and structures. Fast travel points are also great, because they reduce the time needed to get simple quests done and generally makes the game more enjoyable; however, they break one of the fundamental considerations the player needs to have and several questlines, by not costing any fuel to use, only coins. After the update, I refueled maybe 2 or 3 times, which is a shame because it breaks certain questlines that would have you refuel at certain points to get to somewhere that is far away, but I was able to just fast travel next to it and just not do any of that, as well as not really making you engage with a fundamental message the game is trying to push: Whatever you take from nature, you must replace. When you took fuel from springs, you were encouraged to make offerings of fruit/vegetables/materials, but I made way more offerings than taking fuel, because I simply didn’t need as much fuel (and only made offerings because I didn’t want to waste oranges by picking them while I had 99, which is the max number of you can have of one thing in your inventory).

I don’t want to discourage you from getting Summer in Mara, but I also can’t help but be a little disappointed in it either. Like Maneater from earlier this year, it suffers from having a loop that would be perfect if it had stayed shorter, but also Summer in Mara is a farming/exploration game – genres known for their ability to sustain and engage your interest for hundreds of hours – so this feels like something is wrong in a more fundamental level. I still feel pretty confident in recommending this game to people, but with the caveat that they should not go 24 hours with it like I did, because it was simply not worth it, especially that last two hours spend with the game were particularly rough. I hope the game does well enough for the devs and it warrants a sequel or another shot at this concept, because I can definitely see myself loving that and the problems I have with this game are not due to a lack of interest or talent from the studio’s part; it simply needed more time and more polish – that way maybe we will get more games with Greek support, which I still can’t believe the industry hasn’t supported yet.

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