Koi is of the design philosophy that less is more; and while I'm generally a proponent of this style, I couldn't help but feel awash with boredom as I swam my way through this rather shallow game. Koi has the distinction of being the first Chinese-developed game to arrive on the PS4. I love to see indie studios outside of Europe and North America being represented on consoles as some of these games have very distinct and unique visions (Papo & Yo, Toren, and Crescent Pale Mist come to mind) but sadly Koi comes up short in multiple facets. Koi's style and tone is something I want to see more of in games, but it flounders when it comes to some of the more basic components that make a game good.
As the title of the game would suggest, Koi puts you in control of a koi fish and tasks you with doing rather mundane tasks in order to move your way from level to level. Controls consist of moving and pressing circle for interaction (having circle as the confirm button is something you might be familiar with if you've ever owned an Asian Playstation or played some early Japanese RPG's). Everything about this game is very minimalist in approach. Even the title screen menus are devoid of actual text and require you to just guess their functionality based on small images. Amidst all these quirky design choices, Koi has a very calming/zen-like effect on me.
The calming meld of acoustic guitar and piano coupled with the almost dreamlike, meandering quality of the gameplay was refreshing but by the time my hour and a half romp through Koi was over, I was left wondering if I had actually missed parts of the game. I'm not someone to harp on about game length and what constitutes a game being "worth your money", but in the case of Koi, its incredibly short length makes it feel like a game that was shipped in the middle of development. Some games can get away with a short playtime if that time is packed with memorable moments (Journey) or crisp gameplay and a punishing difficulty curve (Hotline Miami). But Koi drifts by slowly and inconspicuously without the story or the gameplay to really justify its haiku length.
Koi tasks you with either solving rather simple puzzles reminiscent of brainteasers found on the back of a children's menu or collecting other fish and chauffeuring them to lily pads or flowers. The only real obstacles to obstruct your progress are strong currents and a large, foreboding fish that will charge if you get within its line of sight. But don't worry, there's no real penalty for being attacked as you're only momentarily stunned and then allowed to amble on your way. Since there's no real sense of urgency or danger, Koi becomes a game that is both peaceful and meditative, yet dull and listless at the same time. Sometimes, in the case of games trying to ride the atmospheric approach, an arresting visual design can bolster an otherwise shallow game.
The color palette in Koi is nice and vibrant but the environments and the design of the Koi are rather flat and lackluster. Most of the game I was questioning if I was actually swimming through water or if I was being blown across a greased up sheet of cellophane stretched over a piece of blue construction paper. Koi is especially coy (sorry) with its story. The developers made the interesting choice to gate the narrative behind collectibles. Each level contains four puzzle pieces that, if found, provide some insight into the story behind our fishes plight. However, if even one puzzle piece is missed in any provided level, you'll miss out on that levels nugget of exposition. At its core, Koi is a story about the evils of industrialization and pollution, which I have no problem with, but it seems rather ham-fisted in its delivery.
I really do love these types of games; games that challenge the notion of what a game is supposed to be. There are no leveling systems, no high scores, no punishing difficulty in Koi. It's just a short, serene swim through a game struggling to balance atmosphere with entertainment value. Koi only succeeds on one of these fronts. Sadly, Koi is so easily forgettable and dull that I struggled with finding things to even say about it.