If Devolver Digital and Flying Wild Hog’s Shadow Warrior series is the winking, gleefully cynical and witty take on the Japanese chanbara then the newly released Trek to Yomi is their more self-serious, contemplative and straight-faced attempt at the Japanese jidaigeki.
Exuberantly stylish, clumsy in combat, filmic in narrative and presentation, Trek to Yomi is by no means a perfect sword fighting game but it is a spectacular feast for the eyes in its imitative rendition of the very best of Akira Kurosawa’s work. What it lacks in free flowing, expertly crafted combat it more than makes up for in its stylish presentation and its intensive journey across love, duty, and vengeance.
Recreating Japanese Cinema in Gaming
The jidaigeki is a popular period drama genre of Japanese film, tv, and theatre that tends to focus on the lives of samurai, craftsmen, farmers, and merchants of the Japanese Edo period (1603–1868). To the Western world, one of the most successful and famous jidaigeki filmmakers is Akira Kurosawa, with such classics as Yojimbo, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, and many more, all of which have bore influence on media across the last century. In video games, Ghost of Tsushima most recently attempted to imitate the narrative and artistic stylistics of Kurosawa’s work—now it is Trek to Yomi’s crack at the whip.
But where Ghost of Tsushima really only managed a surface level version of that framework (i.e. allowing you to play the game in black and white and calling it “Kurosawa mode”), Flying Wild Hog’s Trek to Yomi goes quite the step further in slowing its gameplay down to be more imitative of Kurosawa film while also explicitly using its camera framing and artistic stylings to espouse even more of the feel of a classic Japanese jidaigeki film.
You start as a young samurai, Hiroki, merely learning your trade when your village is attacked by bandits prompting you to accelerate training by immediately rushing to the defence of your people when few others can – a typical plot for the jidaigeki. Fast forward to adulthood and vengeance is still at the forefront of your mind, but as a samurai your personal trek to Yomi will then dictate whether you stay on the dark-consuming path of revenge, or whether love or duty will become your root cause. True to its name, Trek to Yomi will take you on a vast journey through life and quite literal hell to help you decide on the right path of the samurai. What you choose to fight in the name of will determine your end and the kind of life and death you wish to have.
Slow-Paced Combat Gameplay
Unlike Flying Wild Hog’s previous work, Shadow Warrior, or even the other recent Asian-film-inspired Sifu,Trek to Yomi is far more concerned with being accurate to the tone and style of its influences, rather than being a blistering action game with intensive, fast paced combat. While it might have been easy to have mistaken the game for a samurai version of Sifu from quick glances at trailers and gameplay images, the reality is anything but as Trek to Yomi adopts a far slower, rudimentary style of gameplay and combat – something which takes a half beat to get into step with when initially expecting the former.
Combat is done on a 2D side scrolling plane with enemies coming from either side of the screen, and of course you can only face one way at a time. You have light and heavy attacks at your disposal, and you’ll time these in various combos to execute certain moves, more which are unlocked the further you progress through the game and explore. But rather than a hack and slash these combos are far more deliberate and do not flow into one another. Button presses have to be exact to execute the right attack; merely mashing will only result in considerable pain and difficulty since once a move has begun it cannot be cancelled, leaving you far more open to attacks if the wrong move is tried at the wrong time.
You can also block at the expense of your stamina bar, and you can parry with a well-timed block allowing you to then perform a quick counter on your assailant. If your stamina bar is depleted then you won’t be able to block effectively and your attacks will become slow which leaves you very open to some pretty nasty blows. This ends up lending itself to a more controlled, thought-out style of combat more in line with Kurosawa’s work, wherein eyeing up your enemy and waiting for the right time to strike is the name of the game rather than attempting aggressive brute force.
Despite bringing with it a verisimilitude to Kurosawa’s actual work, the slower pace of the combat is a little disappointing when really, for a video game, all you really want to be doing is coolly slashing your way through enemies and feeling like an actual samurai master. It feels slightly sticky and clunky with the combo presses sometimes being annoyingly too exacting, plus with most enemies going down in only a couple of hits you’ll likely find that at a certain point it is far easier and more effective to just cheese the same combo over and over (up, x, x, y, finisher), rather than attempting anything more complicated. The combat is also challenging with enemy attacks being very punishing so these cheese moves will likely be your best friend eventually.
Style Over Gameplay
Though the combat isn’t all too impressive, it does the job enough to allow the more stylistic elements that the game is far more concerned with to take over. When not in combat the game moves seamlessly back to 3D exploration where you can roam around through fixed camera angles. There are typically no more than two paths at a given time, one being the main path and the second being a little more hidden and leading to bonus secrets such as pickups or even a fight which will lead to a valuable reward.
The camera does a load of heavy lifting in creating Trek To Yomi’s splendid visual feast. The fixed camera angle allows Flying Wild Hog to dictate some truly wonderful images, the likes of which would not go amiss in any of Kurosawa’s work. With its sepia tone black and white colouring, complete with a film grain and even some reel burns and frame skips from time to time, Trek to Yomi gives over a powerful sense of an old Japanese film being played out in front of you. The stylishly presented settings and the choice of angles allows nearly every frame of the game to be an excellent still straight out of a book of Kurosawa’s best, as each comes magnificently composed with rich detail and often incredible scale. Light and shadow are used brilliantly to complete the filmic look and render the whole experience of Trek to Yomi as a magnificent piece of art in its own right.
The veneer of the cinematic experience does thin out a little more any time the game moves into a cutscene, however, since at these times the camera will move in closer exposing the more rough around the edge details and the janky character models. The clipping of clothing and environmental objects is far more noticeable in these close-ups, taking you out of that filmic illusion, whereas the gameplay is more typically distanced and wide angled camera positions hides the weaker elements of the game’s computing power and preserves its cinematic quality.
The narrative is straight out of any jidaigeki as well. Flying Wild Hog have evidently taken the time to consider Japanese myths and stories of the Edo period to produce something that is accurate to the films that it is inspired by. You have all your typical elements of bandits, warmongers, a thirst for revenge, and the need to follow duty over darker impulses. Each stage of the game is measured out well with the story never feeling like a cheap copy or an insulting Western view of Japanese media or history. Its narrative allows you to trek through period accurate villages to ominous forests, to the very depths of purgatory and back again, all of which are artfully presented and add a new, distinct variety of level design.
The scoring for the game is another brilliant layer to the game’s stylish output, with haunting, dreamy, and sometimes downright beautiful pieces pushing you on throughout your Trek to Yomi.
All in all Trek to Yomi is a wonderful piece of art, it just isn’t always quite a magnetizing enough game to actually play. The gameplay is rudimentary enough to have an enjoyable time with, but it’s unlikely that you’ll come rushing back to complete its one hit kill/death Kensai mode once you finish the game since the combat wasn’t nearly fun enough to add another layer of frustration onto.
Every other element is close to making Trek to Yomi exactly what it is striving to be, however: a Kurosawa film presented as a video game. It is artful, stylish, a spectacled feast of cinematic brilliance. It also just isn’t quite a good enough sword fighting game, unfortunately.
Final Score: 8/10