Fish, Zen, and Environmentalism
Games that lean more towards art are nothing new, particularly on Sony consoles. Titles like Flower, Flow, and Journey, where the emotional experience takes a front seat as opposed to the gameplay itself, have generally been well received. Games like these show how diverse and capable video games as an art form can be, which is fundamentally important to the medium growing as a whole. Oasis Games’ new title for the PS4, Koi, fits into this theme perfectly, and is also an important game in more ways than one. Oasis Games is based in Tianjin, China, and while this may not mean much on its own, console games were banned in China until July 2015. Companies like Oasis being able to make console games and publish them freely is a huge milestone for the country, and having developers with a fresh set of ideas and a broad range of expertise to add to the exponentially growing global video game industry will surely be a welcome addition. Oasis is the first publishing partner of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Shanghai Division, and with Koi as their first offering to PS4 players worldwide it has some rather big shoes to fill. So, how does it stack up with more established and well-known artistic titles? To be honest, I’m happy to say it does so quite well.
The concept and presentation of Koi is minimalistic and simple, yet belies a strong message and overall core experience. Players take control of a lone Koi fish traveling through a pond in a top-down perspective using the only the left analog stick to swim about. What was once a thriving pond full of beauty and plenty of fish has become eerily quiet, empty, and barren. It falls upon you to find your gilled friends and restore the lost beauty to your surprisingly large Koi pond. As you find these fish, you’ll notice that each is a different color, as is each flower that needs to bloom in the pond. It’s not hard to guess what to do in order to progress, and while it is incredibly simple to do so at first, Koi does a good job of procedurally introducing more challenges as you delve deeper into your surroundings. Increasingly difficult puzzles in addition to large, hostile fish prevent your journey from being a straightforward swim through the pond. There are also collectibles littered throughout each area to find, some cleverly tucked away.
It’s clear to see even from the very beginning that Koi has a strong environmentalist message at its core. The game wants you to savor your journey through the pond, and is accentuated with bright, vibrant blues and greens highlighting the contrast of your little red Koi fish swimming about. Despite the game’s simple, flash based graphical presentation, the game makes use of its assets very well to convey this experience to the player. Rustling leaves, droplets of water ringing periodically throughout the pond, and gentle piano melodies invoked an almost serene, meditative state of mind in me while watching my Koi swim about. It offers a profound yet understated view of how beautiful nature can be in its simplicity, and how important it is to preserve it.
While Koi is based around offering a moment of Zen for the player and achieves it very well, there are some minor imperfections in the title. Puzzles, while mostly innocuous, can at times be frustrating. Of particular note are a certain puzzle type in general that pop up occasionally. At times you’ll find an important piece of the puzzle you need to proceed to the next section of the pond hidden behind a dead tree branch. In order to get through you’ll need to “rejuvenate” the branch by playing a “Simon”-esque game by copying the pattern that lights up on the leaves. Like much of the game, the patterns start out simple, but get progressively harder. Perhaps my memory just sucks, or there was some other factor distracting me from remembering the patterns, but when I got to having to remember a pattern of leaves seven to eight deep I simply couldn’t remember after five or six. You need to clear three of these patterns in a row in order to “unlock” the branch, and making a mistake resets the entire puzzle back to zero. These more difficult patterns are almost always the last pattern needed to get the area unlocked, so constantly having to start over was frustrating, to say the least. For a game that wants you to have a calm and serene state of mind, these puzzles really harshed my mellow, so to speak. This experience obviously won’t hold true for everyone, and these puzzles are fortunately not that common. Consider this a minor, personal gripe, if anything.
Despite this minor shortcoming, Koi is an excellent little entry to the PS4’s library that is ideal for people looking for a more artistic experience or even a relaxing break from bouts of ultraviolence. While this game might not appeal to everyone, especially those yearning for more AAA appeal for the system, Oasis Games has done an excellent job showing just what Chinese developers can be capable bring to the table. It bears repeating that having an entire country able to offer their expertise to the industry after years of not being able to is massively important. If Koi is any indication to what these developers have to offer I am very much looking forward to what the future brings from Sony Computer Entertainment Shanghai.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available On: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) ; Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Shanghai ; Developer: Oasis Games ; Players: 1; Released: April 19, 2016 ; ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $9.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review code provided by the publisher.