A proud homage to director Akira Kurosawa and samurai cinema, Trek to Yomi casts young swordsman Hiroki on a nightmare journey through a grimly beautiful take on Edo period Japan. This quest to save those he holds dear takes him through both the war-torn world of the living and Yomi, the land of the dead.
Presented in black and white, the 2.5D hack-and-slash adventure lures you in straight away with its abundant sense of style and place. Just don’t gawk for too long, as pretty much everyone here is out for your head.
Your first few kills feel especially cold - a quick flurry of blades, then your opponent is gone, their body collapsing in a heap. You’re just a child at this point, too, albeit one who’s upsettingly adept at chopping down bandits. Then it’s one quick time jump, and suddenly you’re on your way down a path of heroism, revenge, or maybe a bit of both.
Combat is at its best when you take a slow and measured approach. Spamming attacks and hoping for the best typically won’t cut it, as enemies can dodge with ease or take advantage of your stressed swings to land a blow of their own. A single well-timed counter-attack can fell most standard foes, but complications arise once armoured warriors, archers, and eventually bosses appear - the latter of which present both a fair challenge and a welcome opportunity to show off.
Thankfully, combat can be as technical as you like, with a range of fancy footwork manoeuvres and ranged weapons to master over time. On the game’s standard difficulty, however, you can largely get by on playing defensively, luring your opponent to their death by shimmering blade. When all goes to plan, your counter-attacks can feel masterfully swift and efficient, provided that you keep your cool and get the timing down. Sadly, you’re not always just at the mercy of your own skills. That’s because occasionally wonky animations can lead to confusion in the heat of battle, larger-scale fights are more fiddly than thrilling, and there’s a sluggishness to the controls that deters you from stepping outside of defensive play.
Beyond simple counter-attack kills, then, there is some imprecision to the swordplay that grows increasingly bothersome as Trek to Yomi starts to demand more of you. Even without these frustrations, and despite the beefed-up difficulty and my expanded abilities, I was still ultimately tired of the back-to-back encounters by the end of my journey. It’s not a long game, clocking in at around four hours, but it’s one that nevertheless drags. The introduction of repetitive, half-baked puzzles and deadly traps do little to spice things up.
That opening hour or so makes a strong first impression, though. More than just simple arenas in which to do battle, each early level and environment has its own convincing logic and design, and the team has clearly laboured over the composition of each new scene. Sprawling establishing shots have a wonderful sense of depth and awe to them, with far-off details often catching your eye, then you’ll typically be drawn in closer to the action as the bloodshed unfolds.
By the end of most levels, you’ll have viewed your surroundings in almost every which way, yet I was still tempted to explore the nooks and crannies to see just how Flying Wild Hog would present some dingy backstreet or all-too-quiet forest path. I was excited for each new cut, thanks to the simple joy of guessing where they might drop the camera next.
Make no mistake, though, Trek to Yomi’s levels, pretty as they often are, tend to be filled with grisly horrors of both the human and demonic variety. The aforementioned burning village left the greatest impression on me, with the results of a vicious raid being presented in a starkly brutal manner. A plague-ridden swamp town later on veers fully into the realm of nightmares, with its inhabitants including bug-like creatures and shambling undead.
Running Out of Steam
Its black and white presentation paired with the laboured-over scene composition makes for a striking visual experience for the most part, but as time went on and its locales grew increasingly otherworldly or abstract, I oddly found myself losing interest, not just in the level design but in the narrative too.
Even with a heavy dose of the fantastical, Trek to Yomi tells a fairly routine story of a warrior torn between love, duty, and revenge - so much so that rare player decisions dotted throughout the adventure push you towards one of these three endpoints. Yes, we know exactly who these characters are before they’ve even uttered a word, including the dutiful young swordsman and the wizened, remorseful master. There’s a shorthand at play that lets you launch straight into the action, though I was still hoping for something more than just the most obvious arcs for them.
And that’s part of a larger issue with Trek to Yomi. It’s a predictably reverent homage to samurai cinema that only attempts to get weird with it on a superficial level, both narratively and in its gameplay. Its style is considerable, and the hack-and-slash action at its core can thrill from time to time, but it’s a game that’s hard to fully enjoy and engage with on much below the surface level.