There is no sense of accomplishment quite like succeeding as a samurai.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Ghost of Tsushima, and now Trek to Yomi all offer the way of the samurai in different mediums: Sekiro provided the Souls-like punishment, Ghost showcased the beauty of Japan, and Flying Wild Hog and Devolver Digital’s latest entry is an ode to the cinematic visuals of Akira Kurosawa.
Announced at E3 2021, Trek to Yomi was introduced as a side-scroller within a movie, and it transpired so, as an interactive pocket of Japanese cinema, rich in lore and cinematography that just about succeeded in its simplicity.
Hiroki, the katana-wielding protagonist, must avenge his master, his town, and his childhood love by eliminating bloodthirsty foes obstructing his journey to Yomi. Transitioning from protégé to savior is the ultimate test for the swordsman, who aims to fulfill his duty in keeping the evil of the badlands away from what he holds dear.
Japanese director and painter Akira Kurosawa produced a number of influential films during the 50s and early 60s, with one of the more popular hits being 1954’s Seven Samurai, which clearly served as one source of inspiration for Trek to Yomi.
The use of the greyscale spectrum to capture a setting rich in contrast worked in Kurosawa’s favor and also gave Flying Wild Hog’s title its signature look. The realism of landscapes would fool any player into thinking they’re controlling real-life environments, and instead of going for uncanny valley levels of naturalism, the characters’ animation exudes a stop-motion quality which adds to the theatrical nature.
“A samurai’s journey is often depicted as a lonely affair, and while the game needs very little guidance, the lack of prompts manages to make the progression feel less rigid.“
Camera angles and scene transitions are other aspects that hone Trek to Yomi’s specific style, offering fluid progression from one terrain to another in a 2.5D perspective. There is nothing to fault in Trek to Yomi’s picturesque feudal Japan, every scene is worthy of a screenshot, and I never tired of the game’s penchant for flaunting those wide-angled shots whenever a bridge was involved.
Of course, Trek to Yomi’s display is not spoiled by HUDs and requires no map in its linear form, allowing the player to advance and take in the stretching scenery without being distracted by losing your way.
A samurai’s journey is often depicted as a lonely affair, and while the game needs very little guidance, the lack of prompts manages to make the progression feel less rigid. Grinding as a lone traveler with no hints nor a companion to guide, the landscape often offers a fork in the road, with one path frequently leading to ammunition, an artifact, or a healing shrine, and the other continuating the story. These subtle options provide the player with a much-needed sense of choice.
Entering buildings is also an option, where the protagonist may encounter fearful civilians hiding in solace, adding to the importance of your endeavor and giving the player soft moments of human contact.
The way of Bushidō
Your main objective in Trek to Yomi is to hack and slash your way through henchmen, but it wouldn’t be a fitting samurai game without a bit of finesse. Combos and a quick change of direction elevates fighting on a single axis to a satisfactory dance with enemies, and depending on your difficulty level, the timing has to be just right.
Playing under the Bushidō difficulty offered a decent balance of story focus and combat aggression, with Kabuki being the easier option designed to facilitate the story and two higher levels of difficulty for players with superhuman reflexes.
Parrying was one of the first techniques to practice, particularly useful against heavy-armored foes, which would ignite a satisfying counter and a striking of metal sound design that always satisfied. The skill tree remained a bland assortment of combos throughout with a variety of enemies asking for a different approach that at least kept me on my toes – despite the battle cries of enemies becoming as repetitive as Assassin’s Creed.
A slice of supernatural
What makes Trek to Yomi a good all-rounder is its passage from feudal Japan into something more supernatural as the trek to Yomi advances. This shift comes at a good point in the game too, when flesh-and-blood bandits were starting to spawn into the monotonous.
The artifacts collected during your travels as Hiroki also aided this change of genre, with images and details explaining different types of Yōkai – demons, ghosts and ghouls – and other sentiments pertaining to Japanese culture that expanded the overall lore.
Facing the supernatural Blighted – a mix of The Walking Dead and Gollum in a Blair Witch-styled setting – served up a different soundboard that was welcomed. To further cement the game’s step into fantasy, I found myself questioning: why do there always have to be spiders?
Sadly, my version of Trek to Yomi suffered from frame rate drops in the third act, making combat an amplified difficulty especially when surrounded by more than one enemy attacking on both sides.
While it is likely an isolated setback, the drops proved the importance of well-oiled specs supporting the fluidity of combat that was intended, otherwise, simple encounters begin to make you feel unworthy of your master’s tireless training during the tutorial.
“In a game where fire never looked so real and wind that was mesmerizing to watch, Trek to Yomi’s selling point is its visuals, and they just about compensate for the lack of innovative combat within a very classic story.“
Swordplay was not the only fighting style to use, however, as ranged weaponry in archery and shurikens allowed you to get a headstart on approaching enemies when frame rate posed an issue.
In a game where fire never looked so real and wind that was mesmerizing to watch, Trek to Yomi’s selling point is its visuals, and they just about compensate for the lack of innovative combat within a very classic story.
Its run-of-the-mill encounters and narrative may not be overlooked by everyone, but the oppressive atmosphere, stop-and-look-for-an-hour landscapes, and textbook samurai story that I’m already in love with were just enough to make the trek worthwhile.
By Jo Craig – [email protected]
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