Koa and the Five Pirates of Mara was not what I expected after playing its relaxing, exploration, farming, and crafting-driven predecessor. It’s a traditional, collectible-hunting, medal-chasing, action-platformer – with some light progression systems thrown in. It’s also best played in short bursts, making the Switch version ideal.
A narrative sequel in a different genre
You don’t have to have played 2020’s Summer in Mara to appreciate this follow-up mechanically, but it provides a lot of missing context. Koa and the Five Pirates of Mara wastes no time reintroducing the cast or recapping their relationship with Koa, while many familiar locations return re-purposed as stages or backdrops. If you’ve not played the prior game, it could make for a strange disconnect when characters immediately launch into dialogue with one another like old friends or rivals.
In brief, Koa receives a letter stating the pirates are up to no good on Qälis – the island home of a quirky assortment of anthropomorphic sea life that survives on the sea’s natural bounty and human tourism. Koa quickly realises the titular five pirates of Mara have been stealing goods to construct an elaborate set of trials to test new recruits – a position she and several youngsters from the prior game end up competing for. The others seek adventure, fame, and wealth, while Koa just sees it as a means to get her archipelago back to the way it was.
With rare cutscenes, no voice acting, and plenty of push-button-to-progress text dialogue, the story is not particularly compelling but the basic premise provides the perfect narrative context for the gameplay loop.
A traditional action-platformer – for better and sometimes worse
As for what you’ll be doing for the 6ish hours it’ll take to 100% a save file? You’ll sail Koa across a compact archipelago in her boat to visit themed islands; guide her through 3D courses from a fixed camera perspective; keep an eye out for several collectibles tucked off the main path; and potentially rerun each stage as fast as possible to claim a bronze, silver, or gold medal.
The major island offer three trials with three collectibles in each stage, followed by a unique boss encounter to claim a map fragment. There are also a handful of smaller islands with brief challenges that reward a single collectible. You move through each set of trials and unlock new regions in a linear fashion, resulting in a traditional structure that can feel like a mix of classic 2.5D and early 3D platformers from the SEGA Saturn/PlayStation One era. Thankfully, the stages themselves evolve in length and complexity to keep you engaged.
The earliest stages are typically linear gauntlets with moving platforms and precision jumps; whereas later stages might offer branching paths to find keys and switches, along with an ever-increasing number of hazards like pits, traps, and – my least favourite genre staple – platforms that disappear and reappear on a timed cycle.
There are many sections that function like auto-scrollers viewed from the side or behind Koa, quickly teaching you the hard way that she always moves relative to the camera. There are also a few tricky underwater stages, a simplistic dredging mini-game, and even a handful of tougher AI races against the other pirate aspirants using reworked stages.
While beating stage times for medals is desirable, story progression only requires that you complete them, with each map fragment unlocking the next region, new trials, and another “boss” encounter at the end. The secondary progression systems are tied to collectibles, so delivering fabric, backpack designs, cogs, and pearls to the inhabitants of Qälis unlock the ability to spend the basic shell currency – which litters every stage – on cosmetics for Koa, boat upgrades, and restoring tourist attractions on the island.
In theory, it makes for an accessible and relatively low-stress experience – especially if you enable the “relaxed mode” that adds more checkpoints to each stage. It also helps that Koa has a simple move-set and the game often provides assists whenever the camera shifts from the typical overhead perspective. That said, there are issues that could affect accessibility and frustrate players.
The most obvious is how you have to always hold down a button to make Koa sprint, despite there never being a good reason to move slower and the need to release and press the same button to trigger combination moves – think landing from a jump into a roll or chaining boost-jumps – both essential to beating stage times or winning races against the AI.
Another common issue is how easy it is to get ahead of auto-scrolling boss stages. If you don’t actively slow yourself down – contrary to what the trial stages encourage – you end up with a restricted view and are more likely to plunge into hazards and end up back at the last checkpoint.
On the whole, Koa and the Five Pirates of Mara was still a lot of fun despite those issues – but the traditional and formulaic structure does not lend itself to longer sessions.
As I’ve mentioned already, the game doesn’t suffer from a lack of stage variation and environmental diversity. Aside from what looks like a complete lack of anti-aliasing on the Switch, the Ghibli-inspired cutscenes, characters, and vibrant chunky environments look great on a small screen. There are the classic tropical islands, rusting naval yards, pirate lairs, otherworldy temples, glaciers, and active volcanoes – all full of moving parts with detailed backdrops, while still conveying all the information the player needs. The problem is how you progress through them.
You tackle a region’s trial stages in linear order for a new map fragment and collectibles; return to town to unlock another region, outfits, and boat or town upgrades; then head out again to repeat the process a half dozen times. This rigid structure isn’t helped by the fact there are no gameplay-modifying upgrades for Koa, so the optimal approach is to complete a stage after finding all the collectibles, then immediately replay it while the layout is familiar to get the time-based medals.
You could argue this structure is no different from many classic games in this genre, but it feels incredibly dated in 2023.
Fun but formulaic
As a consequence, Koa and the Five Pirates of Mara is a good game that’s hard to recommend without caveats.
If you’re both a fan of Summer in Mara and enjoy action-platformers, it’s a solid addition to the IP with many returning characters and locations smartly reworked into stages. If you’ve got no familiarity with the IP but enjoy classic action-platformers, there’s still a lot to like mechanically but the narrative context will mean little and it feels like you’ve walked into a movie halfway through. Regardless of which category you fall in, I’d recommend tackling Koa and the Five Pirates of Mara in short bursts – maybe tackling a region per session as a breather from other games – so the formulaic structure doesn’t undermine the solid core gameplay.
Koa and the Five Pirates of Mara was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided to gameblur by the publisher. It is also available on PC, Xbox One/Series S|X, and PlayStation 4/5.
Koa and the Five Pirates of Mara (Nintendo Switch) ReviewKoa and the Five Pirates of Mara (Nintendo Switch) Review
- Traditional but satisfying action-platformer mechanics
- Whimsical tone, charming visuals, and great soundtrack
- Perfect when played in short bursts on the Switch
- The rigidly formulaic progression does not lend itself to longer sessions
- Character interactions feel underdeveloped if you’ve not played the prior game
- Sprinting should just be a toggle