Koi is a game that doesn’t tread much water and an experience that excels only in parts.
What’s the difference between a game and an experience? Oasis Games, in this first American-bound production to come out of China, mulls this question by their game’s mere existence. Other’s such as Little Inferno, Flower, and even The Walking Dead once upon a time faced this question, all of which came out the other side with both defenders and protractors. Koi doesn’t seem to break the same barriers these titles once did as possible conductors of spirit-infusing moments, but that doesn’t make its landscape completely barren of art.
You impact the world around you as a little fish, swimming in limited environments to bring life back to the stream. This is a small, simple loop of finding fish and bringing them to their matching flower while avoiding the polluted black fish. Most of the spaces also have stars and puzzle pieces, which reveal the history of the stream, to find, musical-based mini games, and a few neutral sources of informative wildlife.
That’s about everything that Koi has to offer from a gameplay perspective, and while the mini games have their charm, none of it engages you. Even the possibility of free exploration feels taken away by an intermediate arrow that points directly towards another fish-and-flower pairing, making your time inside an already light game feel diminished. The environments, while animated and colored well enough, don’t even seem able to lose you with their drop-in-the-bucket size. The constant arrow is made to seem baffling by how often the fish is three inches worth of TV screen away from its flower. Guidance in such a small area on top of light gameplay actively makes your input feel meaningless between objectives when it should feel relaxing in some sense to cruise the waters.
The strongest area of Koi, as in a lot of these games, is the set atmosphere from the art style and music. Smooth running and sharp colors give you a sense of visual comfort whereas the music changes into the tone of the area, from peaceful basin to darkened bit of industry. Neither the style nor the execution break molds, but with so few games pushing you into this kind of peaceful avatar, there was a feeling of adequacy, in regards to the art present, permeating as the end wrapped.
That is, less than an hour after starting. Koi is not a lengthy title, leaving a very standard story note as the final period before credits. You can replay for trophies, puzzle pieces, and skins for your fishy presence to wear, but this is an experience that was meant to leave an impact and leave, not be the replayable destination for years to come.
The limitless bar of potential that every game starts with seems to have been cut and divvied too many times for Koi to have an impact on an overall level. Aural and visual beauty does what it can, serving as the game’s only chance to leave a lasting impact on the player, while everything could’ve been brought to that level. There’s simply too many worries about the restraints on players and gameplay to make this a recommended artistic destination, and conversely so to make this a stop for gameplay. The music and visuals will stick with me well beyond the game itself, but Koi is more than just those parts and feels decidedly lesser for it.