Trek to Yomi Review: Ninja Gaiden Meets Seven Samurai

Trek to Yomi is a 2.5D Action game developed by Leonard Menchiari and Flying Wild Hog. It was published by Devolver Digital. It was released on the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC in May 2022. MSRB is $20. I played the PC version.

I love games set in Feudal Japan. The ruthless bandits, the bustling villages, the ornate pagodas, it’s a fantasy that I can’t get enough of. Granted, the real Feudal Japan was a terrifying and oppressive time to live, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the magic of period pieces like Okami, Muramasa: Rebirth, and Sakuna: of Rice and Ruin.

I have a weak spot for games set in Feudal Japan.

This love stems from watching the films of legendary Japanese Director Akira Kurosawa, best known in the West for his movie Seven Samurai. He captures the charm and the brutality of this era so well. And despite the cultural barriers, his characters manage to be universally compelling to watch. If you haven’t seen one of his works yet, please set aside the time to see one soon.

It seems like I wasn’t the only one impressed by Kurosawa’s movies. The developers of Trek to Yomi went through painstaking detail to reinterpret his storytelling style as a video game. The result is one of the most unique and striking experiences of this year, despite its glaring flaws.

The story begins rather routinely, but it breaks that routine rather quickly.

The story begins with a familiar setup: a young samurai sees his teacher slain by bandits. When he grows up, he vows to avenge his fallen mentor. For the first few chapters, this game follows that predictable premise, until the halfway point where some interesting twists begin to happen. Our protagonist, Hiroki, begins questioning the honor of his actions. What starts out as a typical hero’s journey becomes more of an antihero journey.

At specific places in the story, you will influence what path Hiroki will take. You will have to ask yourself: despite everything that has happened, and everything that he’s learned, should he remain a dutiful samurai, or should he rebel against his code of honor? The game actually has three different endings (and a secret ending) based on your choices, thoroughly subverting my expectations.

The composition of each shot is astounding.

Speaking of expectations, the audio and visual presentation of this game is unlike anything else. As I said before, the developers are presenting this game as if it were a long lost Kurosawa film. It works. Everything is rendered in black and white, and that stylistic choice leads to some impressive use of lighting that you don’t normally get to appreciate when a game is in full color. The sound design is especially impressive. You can occasionally hear the hiss and pop that these old reels actually made when shown in a theater. The voice acting is in Japanese (of course) and the actors give a compelling performance. The soundtrack swells with traditional Japanese instruments such as the shakuhachi flutes, taiko drums, and the shamisen stringed instruments. The swords give an impressive “woosh!” sound as they slice through the air. Every sound pulls me into the emotional experience of the moment and heightens the tension.

Of course there are impressive visual design choices for the game as well, but I worry that these might actually alienate some players. Allow me to explain. The game mostly uses static camera angles, where you navigate the world one scene at a time. The camera only moves with these large jump cuts, changing the angle significantly. It reminded me of walking around the pre-rendered backgrounds of PS1 games like Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil. On the plus side, it gives the game a strong cinematic feel. The developers composed the shots well, with many bold images and environments laid before your eyes. Even the foreground has a strong visual presence, where a tree branch, a rock, or even a cowering villager may even obscure part of the view for a moment; it’s as if the camera was really there following Hiroki along. However, these changing camera angles might be confusing for a modern player to actually move around in. If you’re used to PS1 limitations, then I think you’ll do fine. If you’ve never played those games, though, then I think you may find it rather jarring, especially when coupled with the sometimes invisible barriers guiding you along the path.

The combat tries to be cool, but unfortunately the result is inconsistent.

Since this is a game about a samurai, I expected tense 2D combat, similar to Muramasa or Shinobi III. Unfortunately, this is where the game struggles the most. On paper, it all sounds perfect: you can parry, dodge, and attack in combos, and you can even acquire new moves as the story progresses. So far so good. However, the controls are a bit too slippery, the animations are a bit too slow, and the collision detection between yourself and the enemy is unreliable. In the beginning you might not notice it, as the early enemies fall to the ground in one hit. However, later on you’ll encounter more tactical enemies like the spearmen that will block and party you in turn, and that’s where the flaws in the game feel will finally appear. The end result is a combat system that tries to make you feel cool, but fails to deliver that experience consistently. When it works, it’s awesome; but when it doesn’t, it’s unfulfilling.

The puzzles are rather tacked-on but also a welcome respite from the combat.

Between fights you’re left to explore the game’s corridors for secrets such as health and stamina powerups. You can also find collectibles that expand your knowledge of Japanese history as well as the game’s larger narrative. If you’re observant enough, you may even find a way to defeat a few enemies without having to fight them, like cutting a rope that was holding barrels over a bandit’s unsuspecting head. You’ll also encounter a few environmental puzzles, but they’re rather shallow and don’t impact much of the game. Overall these exploring sections serve as breaks between fights, which gives the game’s pacing a good sense of flow. Again, if you’re used to navigating pre-rendered backgrounds like in old-school JRPGs, you’ll do just fine, but younger gamers might not appreciate this design choice.

As much as I personally love this game, I find it a hard one to recommend overall. You need to fulfill a somewhat niche set of characteristics, such as liking Classic Japanese Film and knowing how to play old PS1 games, in order to fully enjoy yourself. Even then, prepare yourself for dealing with some finicky combat. If you’re coming in expecting a 2D version of Ghost of Tsushima, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. This is an ideal game for anyone with Game Pass, where you probably need to try it out for yourself. I hope you enjoy it, but I totally understand if you don’t.

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