After deciding to preview Trek to Yomi a while ago, I decided to focus on its world and level design that would up impressing me when it came to exploration and visuals, only to find that pretty everyone else previewing the game decided to focus mainly on the combat instead. And considering that this is a Kurosawa-style samurai epic coming from Flying Wild Hog, an expert when it comes to action-packed combat, it made sense. But I couldn’t help it, it was the world of Trek to Yomi that had initially sucked me in. The hustle and bustle of the Feudal Japan villages, the shock at seeing them burn down while you attempt to comfort any villages you find, the cinematic swordfights on bridges, the black-and-white visuals…all of it truly felt like it was expertly crafting a version of this world seen in classic cinema. And that was all before the titular trek to Yomi had even really begun. The side-scrolling combat section are indeed great, but the parts where you get to roam around each area and explore any potential hidden path felt like the true highlight to me. Was I crazy to think that?
Backing up a bit, Trek to Yomi is the tale of Hiroki, a samurai who had made a vow to their dying master after a vicious attack to protect their homeland and everyone they love against any potential threats. Unfortunately for them, Kagerou, the foe who lead the aforementioned attack and seemingly died in it, is somehow alive again and attempts to annihilate Hiroki’s village. Will Hiroki succeed in defeating them?…Well, the title of the game is all about a journey to the Japanese land of the dead, so it’s probably not a spoiler to say no, his first attempt isn’t successful. But after chasing after their deceased lover and heading into Yomi, Hiroki now finds themselves deciding what path to follow and if it can lead them to his love, justice or revenge…
Visually, Trek to Yomi is a delight. The black-and-white color scheme, wide-angle shots and bits of film grain certainly evoke the epic samurai dramas of the ’50s and ’60s, and the voice acting and soundtrack help to nail down that feeling as well. But while the busy markets and burning village provided some amazing shots, the visuals truly shine once you get to Yomi. While there have been countless depictions of the more scarier aspects of Japanese mythology before, there’s something about it in these dark, monochromatic visuals that emphasize the true surreal horror of the area, with bizarre spider creature poking out of the walls, fight with vengeful spirits among floating stones and eerie wails throughout it all. The contrast of such a signature film style with supernatural horror pays off here, with creepy and memorable sights.
What’s even more impressive about the world in Trek to Yomi, though, is how it uses the presentation of a classic samurai film to its full advantage. You have moments like little film breaks transitioning from cutscenes to gameplay or heavy distortion appearing if you try to head back from combat areas without defeating all of the enemies first, but then you have bits like fixed camera angles not only allowing a more cinematic look, but working with the black-and-white visuals and the use of light and shadow to help conceal pathways leading to hidden collectibles, health and stamina upgrades, and weapons and hinting at them in a subtle way without making them feel too obvious or obscured. Not to mention the way the wider shots and moments with silhouetted visuals behind paper screens, among other things, use signature shots from the genre to add a unique twist to scenery that can affect battles. Moments like that are where the game truly shines.
So with such amazing visuals and a spectacular world that they help create, does the combat in Trek to Yomi actually pale in comparison? Not at all, it’s still terrific. I’m not a combo master who can expertly pull of some of the skills you can find, but there was a still a lot to enjoy here. What truly makes combat work is the emphasis on timing, having to properly read each enemy and know when to parry or dodge, counter and figure out which attacks to use. Moments where you and an opponent swing past each other and you turn around just in time to slash them in the back not only further provide the feeling present in classic swordsman epics, but they also make you feel like your sharp reflexes are bring rewarded.
The game puts up quite a challenge, with a variety of enemies with different weaknesses and attack patterns that you have to look out for. Still, it’s vital to look for those hidden boosts, especially when it comes to finding any of the projectile weapons, be it quick knives that deal a bit of damage to ammo for ancient rifles that deal heavy damage, but are quite slow to reload. The result is a layer of resource management that adds another welcome bit of difficulty as well, having you think about conserving ammo. You’re also attacked by enemies on both sides in these 2D sections, having to flip directions via a button that once again allows for visuals evoking films of the genre while also contributing to the gameplay, having you making sure to pay attention to which threat from which side to focus on. Throw in imposing and intense boss battles that test your skill, and the combat is one of the most massive highlights.
If there’s anything that harms Trek to Yomi, though, it’s that while it’s especially ambitious in style, combat, level design and gameplay in general, it’s bogged down by the fact that, depending on your skill level, it only lasts for about seven hours at best. The result of this short length means that there are a lot of gameplay elements that feel underutilized. Early on, you’re introduced to environmental kills that can take out multiple enemies, but you can count the amount of times they appear on both hands. Environmental hazards like walled claws that can lash at you are introduced later on in Yomi, but sparsely appear afterwards. Puzzles are also introduced in Yomi, but they’re so unbelievably simple that “puzzles” should be in quotes.
Maybe this is the sole issue with the combat in Trek to Yomi, that the constant emphasis on it feels like it’s drawing attention away from areas that could have used more meat. Again, the swordplay is amazing and the game is good as a whole, but it feels like other gameplay elements suffer. This includes the parts where you affect the story with certain parts in Yomi where you choose Hiroki’s motivation and what path they eventually take (doubling as a way to add replay value), which don’t feel as impactful as they should be when it comes to notable changes. Leonard Menchiari’s story is still a mighty fine story about the journey of a dying samurai and what their loyalties belong to, with well-written dialogue that again channels the classics, but it starts to feel secondary to all the fight scenes after a while, which can also feature repetitive dialogue (and as a random aside, the collectibles in the final chapter also seem to deliver a plot twist that doesn’t impact a single thing, which felt awkward).
So in hindsight, maybe the level design wasn’t as amazing as I had initially thought, possibly because the first couple of chapters that were experienced are different compared to what was experienced in Yomi. But overall, the superb combat and impressively-stylish world still make Trek to Yomi worth checking out, even if a larger director’s cut would be more welcome.
While it could stand to be longer, if only to deliver more when it come to some of its more ambitious elements, Trek to Yomi is an amazing action game that makes terrific use of its cinematic presentation, using Kurosawa vibes to impact both the gameplay and visuals in clever ways. Intense swordfights are backed up by amazing visual flourishes, while a stark black and white world finds clever ways to highlight its more interesting aspects and pathways. It’s a great cinematic homage worth getting popcorn to much on in between battles worthy of it.