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Preview: Trek to Yomi

18 Mar 2022

The melding of videos games and cinema is a tall order. It’s a difficult fusion that developers the world over have attempted to reach from the moment that games became something more than simple shapes sliding across a black background, and to varying degrees of success. Trek to Yomi, a game in development by Leonard Menchiari with Flying Wild Hog and published by Devolver Digital, is absolutely shaping up to be one such title.

Screenshots from the game alone are evocative of Akira Kurosawa classics like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. From the word go, it emulates the experience of watching Japanese films of that era, but intriguingly, Trek to Yomi doesn’t attempt to do this through lengthy and frequent cutscenes. Instead, it utilizes its camera, presentation, and general aesthetic to recreate the feeling of those movies without actually turning into a movie itself. This unique angle made for a great time, although the game’s opening chapters did leave me with a few concerns as to how certain balancing decisions will play out over the course of the full game.

The preview I had access to contained the initial two chapters of Trek to Yomi. The first is framed in a flashback and serves as an introduction to our protagonist, Hiroki, at a pivotal moment in his childhood. When his training is interrupted by a bandit attack, he’s forced to take up the sword to defend his home, thus beginning his journey as a samurai of the 19th century. The second chapter jumps back to Hiroki in adulthood when he must once again fight for his hometown, this time by proxy in the defense of a neighboring village.

As mentioned above, this starting portion of Trek to Yomi doesn’t feature many long cutscenes, but that’s not to say there isn’t a large narrative focus. Once the player gains control and has to guide Hiroki through a large section of the town, they’re treated to a plethora of dialogue from its inhabitants as they progress. Hiroki has reason to be on the move given the urgency of the situation, but the dialogue is paced in such a way that it brings enough life to the city for the player to care while still avoiding slowdown.

It’s hard to get a feel for the overall quality of the story from such a short slice of Trek to Yomi, but the experience was engaging, if a bit on the simplistic side. It’s a fairly standard setup—once again hearkening back to plotlines commonly found in the era of Japanese film the game is based on—but it has a lot of different directions it’s capable of heading in. It’ll be interesting to see where Hiroki ends up in the grand scheme of things, as well as what twists are waiting in the wings.

Outside of cutscenes, Trek to Yomi’s gameplay can be delineated into two parts: exploration and combat. During the exploration of each area, you’re more or less given free reign over movement along the path. The perspective is fixed, but far from static. It will often move to follow Hiroki as he traverses the landscape, or pull back to establish a sense of scale. It creates a feeling that’s both dynamic and cinematic, and makes something as simple as movement between battles feel a lot less repetitive than it might otherwise.

You’re rewarded for venturing off the more straightforward route with very tangible benefits like health/stamina upgrades and ranged attack ammunition, but the detours are usually only a few seconds long at most and typically pretty obvious. There’s also the occasional lever and pulley system that will instantly kill a group of enemies without you needing to fight them, which is always fun to watch play out.

Combat itself is distinct from exploration in that movement switches entirely to a two-dimensional plane with only left and right movement. In these encounters, the player has access to a block (with a bonus parry for tapping the button when you see a glint of light on your enemy’s sword), a strong attack, a light attack string with three variations, and a button dedicated to turning to the opposite direction. Bo-shurikens can be used to easily take out enemies from afar and cull their numbers, but they’re limited and have to be found in the environment before they can be used. As you play, more skills and combos are given to you at specific points of progression, some of which require timed button presses to execute successfully.

The battles are consistently flashy and incredibly fast. Most every enemy in this preview of Trek to Yomi can be felled with one or two swings of your sword on the middle of the three difficulties available. This, in conjunction with the fact that you’re fighting the same types of enemies for all of Chapter 1 and a large part of the beginning of Chapter 2, made for an unfortunate feeling of sameness with the encounters. Every combat situation could be solved with a parry and a counter attack, and this was true even for the boss battle at the end of the first chapter.

The armored enemies in Chapter 2 were a great addition to switch up the formula, as they’re heavily resistant to all forms of damage other than piercing attacks (which require a specific directional input) and finishers (which require a well-timed combo that ends in a stunning strike). Shortly after this addition was also when I began to notice the game throwing more enemies at me than before, requiring me to be a bit more cognizant of which ones I should be taking down first.

This went a long way in offsetting the feeling of encroaching monotony, but it didn’t erase it completely. Not long after I realized I needed to be more aware of which side to face in combat, the game handed me a passive ability to automatically switch sides just by blocking, almost entirely eliminating the need for me to manually switch directions. It begs the question as to why the game devotes an entire button to turning Hiroki around if it’s going to make it nigh on unnecessary less than hour after it begins.

Therein lies my biggest source of friction with the combat of this preview. The options that Trek to Yomi offered were both plentiful and fun to use, but the battles themselves didn’t grant many opportunities to use them effectively, or even ask me to use them at all. I had a consistent feeling of every battle being over a bit too soon, every enemy dying a bit too quickly. There’s something to be said for maintaining forward momentum, but I wanted Trek to Yomi to slow down just a little bit more and really allow me to explore the greater depths of its gameplay.

When it comes to the level of challenge, I certainly died a handful of times on the balanced difficulty, but I did find the harder option much more rewarding with the way it raised enemy HP and damage output. The game’s generous checkpoint system between most of the encounters ensures that frustration is kept to a minimum and makes it easy to jump back into the fray, which was very much appreciated.

One area I have very few complaints about in Trek to Yomi’s preview is its stellar presentation. Removing camera control from the player affords the developers the ability to mimic black-and-white Japanese films to great effect. Never at any point does it feel like a black and white filter was slapped over the game; everything from the lighting to the set dressing feels artful and intentioned. The variety of camera angles is impressive and always visually engaging, even when they have to maintain a consistent sense of perspective to avoid drowning out the gameplay.

I was also thoroughly impressed by the location variety in the first two chapters. The beginning sees Hiroki working his way through a town bustling with commerce to reach its besieged outskirts, while Chapter 2 features a thick forest and a dark, atmospheric mine. The way both enemies and Hiroki are silhouetted at certain points beneath the trees of the forest is nothing short of striking.

When the environments look as great as they do, it can make the occasional lackluster animation stand out a bit more. It’s never frequent enough to detract from the experience, but it is worth noting that some NPC movements can feel a bit rigid here and there. The voice acting is also a bit loud compared to the other parts of the mix, and the translated text of the dialogue can feel a bit stilted, but both of these could very well be stylistic choices.

There are also black bars at the top and bottom of the screen to give the game a letterbox effect, further evoking the feeling of watching a film. It isn’t distracting and doesn’t take up too much of the screen, but I am surprised by the lack of an option to remove them.

My concerns about combat balance notwithstanding, I found the beginning chapters of Trek to Yomi be both promising and singular. The effectiveness with which the game recreates the feeling of the films that inspired it without feeling derivative of them is something to be applauded.

This hour-long preview was an indication of a game with its own voice and its own goals, and I can’t wait to see how the efforts of the developers come to fruition in the full release of Trek to Yomi later this year.

Preview beta access provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Devolver Digital.