Serenity now, serenity now, serenity now...
Many people play video games to unwind from a stressful day, but does skidding around turns at 100mph or riddling enemies with virtual bullets really calm the nerves? It's doubtful. That's why Chinese developers Oasis Games decided to create a video game that truly brings about a feeling of peace and serenity. Unfortunately, Koi focuses too much on calming the nerves and not enough on creating an engaging experience that satisfies players.
This game centers on a lone koi fish who is destined to revitalize its surroundings. I'm sure that everyone has seen beautiful koi swimming around a koi pond without a care in the world. Their reality is limited to the water in which they reside, so they're not concerned with anything beyond the surface. As such, the aquatic hero of this game wants to improve its surroundings by reuniting other koi with the appropriate lotus flower in order to make them blossom. At first the koi's mission is all about beauty and peace, but eventually it is forced to deal with the ugliness of mankind's rampant pollution. Despite the, ahem, scale of this daunting task, the story ends on a positive note with the idea that existence extends beyond death.
While Koi won't impress anyone with its minimal visuals, the game still manages to impart a peaceful feeling of serenity by combining bright colors with cheerful imagery and mellow music. Guiding the cute little koi around ponds and streams is definitely a stress-reliever, even when hazards like giant menacing fish are encountered. It's surprising how a seemingly unimportant thing like leading a blue koi to a blue lotus flower and watching the resulting bloom can make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Chalk that up to the power of nature and how its beauty and majesty can impact people's lives, especially when they're surrounded by concrete buildings and sidewalks.
In order to pass each level, players must guide their orange koi around a pond or a stream and find yellow, red, blue, and green koi (let's call them koi minions). When the player's koi gets close enough to a koi minion, the minion will automatically follow the leader. Even though there's no limit to the number of koi minions that follow the leader, it's slightly more challenging to lead more than one. This is because koi minions are prone to blindly run into hazards and also because they tend to get caught on environmental objects. On numerous occasions, I had to retrace my steps to find a koi that got stuck on a rock or a piece of pollution.
Large black fish that move in predictable patterns are the only hazards in the early stages of the game, but flashing electrical hazards come into play in later stages. I use the term “hazards” loosely because there doesn't seem to be any real consequences to running into either of them beyond losing control for a few seconds. Even repeatedly running into hazards has no effect beyond slightly extending this loss of control. When all koi in a stage have been reunited with their flower, the “bad fish” turn back to their original color and become friendly again. It's a nice little reward for each level that helps turn my black heart into a more aesthetically-pleasing natural color.
I love the beauty and simplicity of the early stages in the game as it reminds me of the ponds and streams I used to play in when I was a child. However, the later stages impart a real sense of disgust at the hidden impact of man-made pollution. Early stages show beautiful flowers blooming among grassy areas with stones, reeds, and green lilypads while later stages take place in dark, ugly areas filled with pipes, wire, and various types of trash like shoes and broken bottles. It's never revealed exactly how reuniting koi with lotus flowers drives away pollution, but I assume that it's more about the empowering feeling of helping others than actually claiming victory over pollution.
It's too bad that there isn't more to do in the game. Despite the fact that there's a different type of puzzle on each level that must be completed in addition to making lotus flowers bloom, I can't help but feel like there's a lot of wasted potential. This is partially due to the fact that nearly every level is full of open space with very little detail. The experience would definitely benefit from more components, especially interactive objects.
Thankfully there are two types of collectibles that help motivate players to explore their surroundings. The first consists of four stars on each level that, when collected, are displayed as part of the overall completion of that level. The second collectible is made up of puzzle pieces that display artistic murals at the end of each level. These help to give additional insight into the story.
Despite the feeling of catharsis I achieve when playing Koi, it still lacks many of the fundamentals that make a video game compelling. Add in the fact that the experience only lasts around two hours, and the result is a game that feels incomplete. Perhaps a future installment could add weekly downloads that would help players achieve peace on a daily basis without being repetitive.