There are games that are played to entertain, to inspire, to send a message, or anything in-between. Dependent on the purpose of the game, various perspectives can be taken to attribute different kinds of worth to games which try to do different things. Through my own experience with the games created by Dotoyou Games (all two of them), they tend to focus on both the simpler pleasures of entertainment while instilling a sense of urgency and importance in a suble way.
KOI is the debut game from the studio that brought them into the world of game design. Originally released for mobile devices in 2015, it’s finally swam up the stream leading to the Steam archives. Even with its new home, much of the aspects of KOI feel right out of a mobile game, complete with a small runtime, directional cursor, and opportunities for touchscreen interaction. I was intrigued to see how this would differ upon the Steam port, but it turns out not much seems to have changed. For better or for worse, the game has kept its roots.
What motivates the player to action in KOI is pretty straightforward: a small koi fish is tasked with investigating the cause of pollution towards the deeper part of the pond it inhabits. While it’s difficult to see any signs of corruption early on, the farther into the game one goes, the easier it is to notice. The waters begin to turn dark and gray, and the atmosphere of the soundtrack becomes very grim. The game’s dialogue, minimal as it is, also does whatever it can to remind the player of their mission.
Whatever the story manages to accomplish depends on the tolerance of the player. Many will see this game, which costs little more than spare change and takes about an hour to complete, as a timekiller. Should they be willing to look into the deeper aspects of the game, they may find some measure of impact through the simple, but mildly effective emphasis on purity and perseverance. While the story is definitely motivative in theory, it relies on this as much as Super Mario Bros. relies on saving the princess as a crutch to have the player continue the game. It’s worth will likely vary wildly by person.
One gameplay aspect, described here as it coincides with the storytelling device, involves having the player pick up hidden puzzle pieces while swimming around in the water. With four in each level, one is subtly pushed to collect these puzzle pieces so that, at the end of each stage, an accompanying picture will describe an outside perspective to the koi’s adventure. Some, especially earlier, are as simple as showcasing various landscapes. Later on, however, one is given the indication that there’s one with a connection to this koi fish, and that the world it inhabits may not be entirely accurate. This all comes to a head near the end of the game, which by that point I found myself somewhat intrigued by what the studio was planning to do with it all. With only an hour of content, they couldn’t do much, though I appreciate some level of effort in making things feel uncanny.
The issues I had with KOI in its entirety begin right at the main menu screen. One is given a row of symbols to choose from, without marking any of them. Some symbols are obvious, such as one displaying a game controller, which implies controller inputs. Others aren’t so much, like a symbol with nine dots, a puzzle piece, and a shirt. I spent close to five minutes just trying to figure out what all of them meant, and even accidentally closed the game because I wasn’t aware that the symbol I clicked meant to exit the game. It may seem like a small thing, but marking menus and options is something that I didn’t think I would appreciate until now.
My growing disdain for the game only continued upon starting the game, which had an overbearing tutorial that marked everything with huge arrows. Where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to collect, and what button I needed to press. While it’s understandable that a tutorial stage be really explanatory, it all seemed unnecessarily obvious to me. I only hoped that it wouldn’t continue. If I recall correctly, the huge arrows persisted into the first stage, which seemed odd considering the top shoulder buttons, at least according to the controls, were what triggered the hint system. Thankfully, it either went away entirely or I became so caught up in the goals necessary to advance to care.
On the topic of goals to advance, one should expect one thing with KOI: gathering fish and using them to bloom flowers. This requires the player to swim into (or around) fish of various colors (which are generally stationary) and match them with the corresponding colored flower. In a game that barely takes over an hour, this will be a lot of what the player will be doing… other than swimming.
Something else about KOI, such that has been discussed as a negative criticism by others, is the lack of things to really do within the game. I stated just before that a majority of the game is predicated on swimming and matching colorful fish with colorful flowers; what else is there to do? Every so often, the game will throw in puzzles in the form of mini-games to impede progress. These include a matching game, a sequence-matching game (this one was brutal for me), and various environmental hazards, such as pitch-black areas and oncoming currents. Most levels only incorporate one of these things, which makes it feel a little less developed into the overall experience. Not to mention, a lot of these levels, especially one of the last ones, are pretty big. One could spend a decent amount of time just swimming around looking for things. The last level might be a bit too big.
Along with puzzle pieces, one can also collect stars that contribute to a stage’s total percentage completion. What is this good for? I honestly have no idea. An achievement, perhaps? From what I could tell, it doesn’t change the game in any way. One can unlock various skins for the main koi to wear within the journey, so perhaps that might be the reward for star-collecting. Even so, the completionist in me made me want to 100% everything just for the sake of it. For others, it likely isn’t worth it. The inclusion makes it feel like unnecessary filler.
For as much as I’ve ragged on the game thus far, is there anything about the gameplay that can really sell KOI to the average person? In all honesty, probably not. KOI, to me, feels like a beginner’s game, one that would be better suited for a casual audience who wish to get into gaming but are too intimidated by the pressure of the almighty “git gud.” What makes this game recommendable is the spirit of storytelling and the manner of style attributed to the game’s aesthetic presentation. There is nothing particularly wrong with the overall gameplay of KOI, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything outside of what it feels is the absolute minimum. And there’s a whole lot of swimming. I’m almost tempted to revive the “too much water” debate.
Graphics & Audio
Almost on a continuing basis with its gameplay aspects, the game implements some harmless, yet non-awe-inspiring work into the visual nature of its game. A lot of it is very picture-esque, simple designs of color and almost cut-out-like in its finality. Things are easy to register and the colors pop brightly enough to state that the content is nice to look at. However, my expectations were trampled upon the ending stage of the game, which incorporated a really nice effect that made it seem as though one was swimming on the stars. There was a very prominent spiritual make-up to the design of the pond that I was really fond of, and I can’t say I was displeased with the continuted pollution of the waters, either. I enjoyed the atmosphere of futility whenever the koi was within a dark place that seemed the heart of pollution. It brought me into the game when nothing else could.
Perhaps the strongest point of the game, which is rare as I almost never think so with any game, is the soundtrack. While generally suitable for the mood of a particular area, I found myself somewhat enamored with the overall variety attributed to the sound quality. There was even one track, for level four if I recall, that I genuinely liked even outside of its ambient quality. Even if the gameplay didn’t thrill me, I was immersed enough in the presentative qualities, enhanced by the gloominess of the mood and the foreboding pitch of the soundtrack. It got to the point where, near the end of the game, I almost didn’t mind that I had little to do each stage. I was invested in the positive qualities of the game that gave it worth in the end.