Review: Trek to Yomi

5 May 2022

In March, I had the chance to play the opening pair of chapters from Trek to Yomi, an action game developed by Leonard Menchiari and Flying Wild Hog with Devolver Digital taking up publishing duties. It acts as a love letter to Japanese cinema of the 1950s and 60s, an appreciation that clearly led to the game’s distinct visual style and narrative presentation. It’s available as of May 5th, 2022 and can be found on PC, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. The PC version was played for this review.

I had very few negative things to say about the game’s opening portion, largely due to the stellar implementation of its visuals, but there was a prevailing feeling that the combat balancing left something to be desired. After playing through the title to completion, my opinion of the combat was only marginally improved, but the former categories of presentation were so standout that they ensured Trek to Yomi remained an experience that was far from hellish.

Path to the Self

Orphaned at a young age, protagonist Hiroki grew up under the wing of his father figure, Sanjuro, and alongside his childhood friend, Aiko. When bandits executed a sudden raid on his home, Hiroki was forced to kill for the first time, thus taking his first step on the path of the warrior. Now adults, both he and Aiko serve as protectors of the town. After an attempt to save a neighboring village forces him to break a sworn vow, Hiroki must embark on a journey of justice and self-reflection.

First impressions of the game imply that the story is more of a straightforward one, with vengeance and the bloody path to its realization being the primary beats of the narrative. I was fully prepared to jump into Trek to Yomi with the belief that the plot was more of a means to an end, a vessel to further the game’s cinematic parallels by basing itself on elements commonly found in those films.

However, as you delve deeper into the game, it becomes readily apparent that there’s more than meets the eye once the surface level narrative gives way to an inward, introspective journey. The storyline never changes enough to eschew its clear revenge focus, but it does expand its scope in a way that’s both unexpected and further builds on the game’s uniqueness.

The narrative does, regrettably, suffer slightly from the game’s length. It took me about six hours to reach the credits for the first time, and while I felt satisfied with the way Trek to Yomi explored its themes, I was left wanting for more character moments from Hiroki and Aiko. More insight into their personality and histories would have gone a long way in giving them more depth and further fostering the attachment between the characters and the player, but what’s on offer here is still interesting.

Fluidity Flatlined

You’ll be doing two things through all your time with Trek to Yomi: exploring the monochrome environments and dispatching the (typically sword-wielding) baddies that block your way. The former gives you full control over Hiroki to investigate every nearby nook and cranny. Thoroughly combing the area will yield large upgrades to your health and stamina, replenish your ranged weapon ammunition, or give surprisingly lengthy insight into Japanese items and cultural beliefs held in the period the game is set. Finding the last of these was always a treat, particularly with the knowledge that the developers consulted with Japanese experts and researched items from the Edo-Tokyo Museum for the sake of authenticity and accuracy.

The exploration sections are divvied up by purely two-dimensional paths where the combat itself happens. The player has access to a variety of light and heavy attacks, a block and parry, a dodge roll, and ranged weapons to dispatch the enemies. As you work your way through the game, you get access to a large amount of variations of the different attack combos, several of which end in a stunning strike that lets you perform a flashy finishing blow and instantly kill an enemy.

In my previous coverage, I noted that the battling in Trek to Yomi had potential to be the weakest part of the package. While that opinion was unchanged by the context of the full game, it isn’t as large a detriment as it might seem at a glance. In the first two chapters, this feeling stemmed from the fact that every enemy could be easily taken down in one or two slashes of any type, as well as the constant barrage of combos and abilities that seemed to continually flatline the game’s difficulty in the same breath that it started to challenge me with tougher encounters and enemy types.

Thankfully, the first of these perceived negatives from the opening chapters is offset greatly by the fact that new enemy types are consistently introduced in every chapter that sport unique attacks and behaviors to deal with. There isn’t quite enough variety to make the enemy encounters consistently exciting, and the AI is a little too predictable, but it is enough to keep things fresh enough for the game’s full runtime.

As for the second, the pace of acquiring new skills for Hiroki never slows down. You’re constantly getting a new stunning strike, another step in your attack string, or a slight modification of an existing skill you already have, such as a parry variation that lets you step to the other side of your opponent. This plethora of combat choices is something of a double-edged sword; with the player having so many attacks to select from, combat always looks and feels fluid. Conversely, the overabundance of skills calls attention the lack of enemy variety even further. It feels like a band-aid solution to make the combat more engaging, doubly so when you’re able to dispatch so many of the different enemies with similar methods.

Given the above, it’s difficult to deny the gameplay feels a bit unrefined, especially in contrast with the talentedly crafted presentation and atmospheric environments. The fact that you could easily clear almost every encounter by doing the same thing (whether it’s a stunning combo and finisher, repeated parries, or utilizing your ranged weapons) speaks to what’s lacking most in the game’s combat.

And yet, although it’s easy to see that it could have been so much more, it’s still fun. Deflecting blade strikes before returning your own is always a satisfying game of timing. Even with each battle being more similar than it should be, it really does feel like you’re controlling the hero of a samurai film, and actively utilizing all of the tools Hiroki has at his disposal makes for a smooth, stylish combat experience—even if the game doesn’t force you to do so.

As far as replayability is concerned, the Kensei difficulty, which unlocks after finishing the game once, puts a neat spin on the experience. It’s a mode where Hiroki is able to kill everything in one hit (sans bosses), but the same applies to enemies as well. The collectibles are well hidden, which serves as a good motivator for playing through the game again to find them, but it also highlights the tragic absence of a chapter select function. It’s a little too easy to to miss a collectible and then lock yourself out of being able to backtrack, and the lack of an option to start from a specific chapter to round up what you didn’t find is an unfortunate oversight.

Motion Picture Presentation

The visual artistry on display in Trek to Yomi speaks well enough for itself in screenshots, but seeing it in motion is another thing entirely. The decision to present the game in black and white is a bold one, and it affords the developers the flexibility to fine-tune the shadows and make every camera angle striking. It also lends itself greatly to establishing a sorrowful tone and eerie atmosphere at many different points.

Good lighting alone is only half of what it takes to create a world though, and the set dressing that brings Trek to Yomi’s to life more than meets the expectations set by it. There’s very little reuse of environmental assets across the chapters, which makes the simple act of progressing something to look forward to, but what stands out most is the avoidance of empty space. From the open exploration areas to the 2D combat stretches, both the foreground and background of each viewpoint is always fully utilized to great effect.

Most of the general movement and character animations are decent, but the physics animations in particular are excellent. Mountainsides will crumble, bridge railings will snap, urns will shatter, and none of it comes at the cost of hitching or framerate drops as physics-heavy sections have a tendency to do.

The soundtrack feels authentic and never fails to accentuate the atmosphere of the on-screen action. The shamisen and the percussion instruments are the stars of the show, and the music always knows when to go all-in and when to pull back to better heighten the mood. The Japanese voice acting is similarly emotional and well-delivered, and there’s no shortage of dialogue.

A Trek Worth Taking

Trek to Yomi is a game with a voice and a vision. The title takes every liberty to adhere to its inspirations without ever feeling like a film masquerading as a game, and the reverence the development team has for that era of Japanese films can be felt in every aspect of the experience.

The dynamic camera, the gorgeously realized environments, and the personal, character-driven narrative work in tandem to deliver a game that’s wholly unique. It might not be an easy recommendation based purely on gameplay alone, but it’s certainly easy to recommend for just about everything else.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Devolver Digital.