With the introduction of consoles to China comes a new market of consumers and drastically increased marketing opportunities, but also a bigger development pool. KOI's claim to fame, then, is that it's the first Chinese-developed game to be published in the West for PlayStation 4. It perhaps fits that a country often synonymous with its beautiful art and scenic landscapes, as well as its polluted cities and factories, has developed a game which is based on these two things: natural beauty and its destruction at the hands of humankind.
The truth is that these issues are a worldwide problem, and they affect us all. In KOI, you play as a Koi fish in a river where the balance of nature has seemingly been interrupted. Flowers are no longer blooming and pollution has blinded black fish which martial the waters in anger. It's your goal to turn the tide and aid the development of the environment, attempting to re-establish an ecological equilibrium. It's a cleverly introspective game in which you get a first-hand view of the effects of mankind on the natural environment, and it's helped along by a beautiful, sombre soundtrack through eight relatively small stages made up of a combination of exploration and puzzle solving.
These puzzles are relatively straightforward in premise, and more often than not aren't all that challenging. To help flowers blossom, you must direct small, coloured fish to their corresponding flower bud – all the while avoiding the big, black fish that patrol the waters. Do this to all of the flowers in a particular section of the river and a healing light bursts forth, healing the black fish of its affliction. This is when you realise that the afflicted are merely white pixie fish from downriver that have been tainted by corruption in the waters, compelling you to travel there and help the rest out.
As you move down one section at a time, you realise that things are getting darker, and the environments change sufficiently so as to keep things interesting. It's visibly apparent when you get to the polluted waters, and the change in tone – both visual and audible – creates a sense of gloom and sadness that pervades the game. Puzzles get increasingly harder as you journey on, but remain within elementary boundaries: line puzzles, slider puzzles, and even a slightly altered version of Pairs where you must match the corresponding animals together. Other puzzles, however, are a whole other kettle of fish.
One particular re-occurring puzzle seems drastically out of place, and ruins this otherwise tranquil and reflective journey. Said puzzle might also sound straightforward in premise, but in execution, it's a real nuisance. You must mirror a series of sequences by selecting the correct leaves on a branch in the right order. There are three sequences in the series, with each getting increasingly longer and harder to remember. Usually, mimic puzzles are easy enough to remember by seeing patterns, but this isn't how it works here. The randomised shapes of the branches, and the locations of the leaves on them, makes it very hard to assert any order to it. It doesn't help that if you fail on the final, most difficult sequence, you have to start all over again from the beginning. It's an excruciating puzzle that appears on multiple occasions and harkens back to the most arduous of quick-time events – except arguably more frustrating. It's not so much down to how quickly you can follow the sequence of prompts as it is a memory test – one which is too long and unnecessary for a game that is otherwise a relaxing sojourn.
At its best, KOI is a slow, reflective, and tranquil experience that sets you at ease – but at its worst, it's a frustrating bore which juxtaposes heavily against its beautiful and serene veneer. Of course, difficulty itself isn't bad when it fits its property, but here, this seemingly minor point deals a crushing blow – one that obliterates the feel of the game. We don't play games like Flower, flOw, or Journey – or any other of KOI's contemporaries – for their challenge; we enjoy them for the cathartic, relaxing adventure that they take us on.
Sadly, KOI also feels like a game that is far better suited to mobile devices, or the PlayStation Vita, than to a console. Everything about the way that it presents itself – from the star rating system of each level to the collectables that enhance your score – makes it feel like a mobile title. What's more, it's easy to imagine that its puzzles might be better suited to smaller bursts of play rather than the elongated sessions that console users are perhaps accustomed to.
KOI is a game that knows how to push your buttons. It draws you in with its beautiful soundscape and enchanting premise, but then takes you through an often shallow experience with some frustrating moments that discord with its otherwise serene exterior. It's a game which seems far more suited to mobile play than console, where longer play sessions highlight its lack of depth. It has moments of beauty, and comments on larger, prominent ecological issues – but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity.