Right out of the torii gate, Trek to Yomi is really only going to appeal to a fairly distinct audience. An audience that will also be split between fans of samurai jidaigeki cinema from the 50s and 60s, and fans of the hack and slash genre. And of those two audiences, one will be pleasantly surprised at what Trek to Yomi has to offer, while the other might feel as if their bowl of sake has been a bit watered down.
For everyone else looking at Trek to Yomi as a curiosity, I can tell you with confidence there’s a unique experience here, especially if you’re a virgin to the aforementioned jidaigeki film and TV style (it means ‘period dramas’).
So we’ll kick things off at the obvious point -- Trek to Yomi is a pure and not-at-all-subtle homage to the films of Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Koboyashi and Teinosuke Kinugasa. We know this because the studio behind the game, Flying Wild Hog, told us themselves. And it’s in this influence and in the game’s own writing and presentation that Trek to Yomi stands tallest. Its delivery of a tale of revenge and love and loss is perfectly in tune with the source material (we're being deliberately spoiler-free, by the way). And it’s not at all cheesy and apart from a misstep or two, could itself live alongside some of the greats from the genre. Its characters and acting and setting are all absolutely top-notch, and if you come away with anything from the game, it should be that as far as narrative goes, the team at FWH nailed what they were after and did it with reverence and gusto, in equal measure.
As you’re no doubt aware, the game is also presented as a 2.5D-ish side-scrolling hack and slash, in black and white. This has allowed FWH to detail its world with incredibly fine details. And while it features plenty of life and animation, it’s all done in a clever scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot sort of way. (Though there are moments where it feels like an odd mashup between Yojimbo and Old Boy.) The studio has even gone to length to include not just a film grain overlay, but things like audio crackling, film burn and scratches, as well as oddities in editing and the like. The attention to detail in its overall presentation is truly remarkable.
"As nostalgic and throwback as the experience is, it’s still a game and beholden to gameplay expectations and beats...”
Trek to Yomi, from a visual and tonal perspective, is utterly on-point, super reverent and really refreshing given almost everything else these days is large and open-world and bursting with colour (oh, woe is us). The muted, filmic tone of Flying Wild Hog's efforts is restorative in modern gaming, and I’m glad I had the chance to play it for review.
But “play” is where some of its issues come to the fore. As nostalgic and throwback as the experience is, it’s still a game and therefore beholden to gameplay expectations and beats. To this end, the setup rolls as follows: You move predominantly to the right of the screen in a traditional side-scrolling way. There are moments when you’ll move on a 3D plane through the environment, and there is some room here and there for exploration, but largely this is a linear experience with a single goal in mind -- go right (take that, Pet Shop Boys).
As you progress you’ll come across shrines to pray at and each of these acts as a Checkpoint where your health also resets. Thankfully they come in thick and fast, so you’re never really too bottlenecked or feel like you’ve lost too much progress should you fall to the enemy’s blade. Some parts of the environment also hold secrets to find (such as collectibles or upgrades to health, stamina and even skills and abilities), while others feature small moments with the denizens of the world who might feed you some info, help you find something useful in the aforementioned hidden goodies department or will just act as deeper set-dressing for the whole affair. And while it’s definitely limited in how much there is to find, it’s nice having something other than combat to pursue as you push through the game-world.
"Some parts of the environment also feature breakable or interactive components you can use against the enemy...”
In addition to the above, some parts of the environment also feature breakable or interactive components you can use against the enemy, or to find hidden areas, such as dropping a platform on some unsuspecting bandits, or cutting out the pillars of a bridge. These are always fun and contextual, and aren’t always obvious, so keep an eye out.
In terms of the collectibles mentioned above, the game-world is littered with period items for you to find and gawk at. These help sell the world you’re in and feature small nuggets of information, but aren’t overly relevant to the story or your main goal. It would have been good if there’d been a more interactive or useful part to collecting these items, even in maybe piecing together a few finds to make a larger one, not too dissimilar to how treasure works in the modern Resi games. Though with no economy, I can see why it’s presented more as a binary distraction, but what's here is detailed and cool which just made me want it to have a larger impact on proceedings.
As you play you’ll gain new combat abilities, new ranged weapons and upgrades. All of this happens at a steady pace, which is actually pretty rewarding and overall there are 19 Offensive Skills, six Defensive Skills, and eight ‘Other’ skills to find and unlock. But it’s in combat that things start to enter the negative side of the equation, and while it’s certainly not bad, it’s also not great on the whole with definite room for improvement.
"And if you spam to overcome the lag, you tend to overload the input commands which can just leave you open for attack...”
The problem with so much of it is that inputs feel laggy and not at all aligned with a system that appears to be designed to promote good timing and careful management of your stamina (get too lethargic and you can’t block, and attacks aren’t as quick). And if you spam to overcome the lag, you tend to overload the input commands which can just leave you open for attack. But worse than any of that (and there’s quite a lot throughout where inputs, lag and timing simply don’t play nice) is that you can sort of side-step most of this just by mastering parry and doubling down on a few of the combos that result in a quick kill or stun.
In this way, you can cheese the game, but that makes it less fun and very chore-like, which is not something you want in a game that already doesn’t have a lot else on offer (in the sense that it's streamlined). There’s not a lot by way of puzzles, for example, and anything that does impede your path is more often than not just pushable (such as carts blocking a walkway). And really, all of this is just a misstep and adds to the other missed opportunities throughout.
You can decapitate enemies, for example, and against a moonlit backdrop with your avatar silhouetted and their blood spraying, the scene is presented in a stunning and brutal way. But any other enemies around you that saw that don’t care, and just come at you. There's no reaction. A fear system, even if just aesthetic, wouldn’t have gone astray (think Ghost of Tsushima), or something more tangible where you could reward a player who’d been untouchable and perfect in their offensive and defensive skills. It also would have made contextual sense. Instead, you just sort of slice and dice your way through the game, with your progress never really reflected outside of story -- the world doesn’t really react to you, unless you trigger a vignette or the like, and it’s a hugely missed opportunity.
Which is sort of where I sit with the game overall. On the one hand, in representing its source material and what it’s homaging, it’s amazing. Truly a wonderful presentation and something I ate up as a massive fan of the likes of Sanjuro and Yojimbo. But as a game it fell short because of how little there was to do, and then with what you could do, it really wasn’t expanded upon enough or in more unique and rewarding ways. Add to this a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to combat, which ultimately fell in the “too easy” basket for me, for all the wrong reasons, and Trek to Yomi just fails to deliver on its potential. It is an absolutely stunning game with a great story and an excellent presentation (as well as beautiful audio), but it didn’t quite reach the top of the mountain peak it set out to climb.
What we liked
Stunning homage to samurai jidaigeki films
Holds its own against the examples it was clearly inspired by where its story is concerned
Excellent audio and soundtrack
Great voice acting and dialogue
What we didn't like
Combat needs to be tightened, a lot
Lots of missed opportunities to help expand upon its otherwise simple makeup
Not sure why your skills as a boy are the same you have when starting out as a grown man :P