If you ever watched a samurai film and wished to play it as a video game, then, oh man, are you in for a treat. Trek to Yomi hits virtual store shelves today and it’s sure to please samurai historians and action gamers alike. Developer Flying Wild Hog describes it as a “cinematic” adventure game, and nails this description to a tee with its art direction and tough but fun gameplay.
Trek to Yomi proudly wants to visually be compared to the 1950s and 60s samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, and those comparisons aren’t unwarranted. At times it feels like a playable movie, not because you take control between 30-minute cutscenes, but because the game is so beautiful and presented as a film via its camera, staging, and soundtrack.
You won’t always be taking on enemies from the same vantage point with your characters fixed in the middle of the screen (like in a 2D fighting game). Instead, the camera may be placed behind the heads of frightened villagers peeking through an open window or perched in a forest behind plants. The duels are framed to make the characters look like actors on a stage, and this framing works very well.
My favorite cinematic moment during a fight may have been as I was making my way through waves of enemies in Hiroki’s village. A storm was pouring down sheets of rain as I fought against enemies on a bridge with a hill leading further up the village as the background. I don’t know if it was scripted or purely coincidental, but lightning struck as soon as I parried a bandit’s swing, lighting the screen up in bright white and turning the characters into the shadows against the lightning. The scene was striking for its beauty and easily one of the most memorable moments of the first half of the game.
Of course, though, Trek to Yomi is not cinema – it is a video game first and foremost. You’ll play as Hiroki, a master swordsman, and fight honorless bandits and frightening spirits in Yomi (the afterlife). Trek to Yomi’s gameplay is simple on the surface but deep once you dive into it. Combat orbits around three main inputs – light attack, heavy attack, and guard/parry. You’ll learn different ways to string these attacks together, but the core of the game never changes. Throughout the game’s 5-7 hour length, you’ll mostly be honing your parrying timing and combo skills.
Learning which combos lead to a finisher opportunity – one button press killing blows on a stunned enemy – is key, and once you’ve got them down, you can feel like an expert at the game’s combat, going through a group of bandits with nary a scratch upon Hiroki. Through practice and attention you can learn what combos work best against which enemy types and won’t waste time flailing away with the wrong attack type against different enemies, because if you slip up, they will pounce.
Yomi aims for a sense of realism in terms of the health of both enemies and Hiroki. It doesn’t take much to bring down an armorless bandit – sometimes just one well-timed and correct strike – but the same can be said for Hiroki. If you miss your parry timing or leave your guard down, Hiroki can be felled in just a few strikes (depending on how upgraded his health is). I enjoyed the challenge – challenging games seem to be all I play these days – and Yomi was certainly no walk in the park on its Bushido/medium difficulty. However, there are checkpoints aplenty and always one before a boss fight, so I never had to backtrack too much or replay too large of a section when I died (and, dear reader, I died a lot).
Hiroki can use the environment to his advantage at times, which I absolutely love. There are times when instead of taking enemies head-on you can interact with the environment to take them out, whether by releasing logs on unsuspecting bandits or destroying floodgates to wash away drowning enemies.
When Yomi’s gameplay is rolling, it’s great – time your parries right and you’ll leave your enemies defenseless while you slice them down. Mess up your timing, however, and Hiroki won’t last long. I’d be lying if I said Yomi didn’t frustrate me at times. The visual cues to know when to parry – a glint of white light on an enemy’s sword – are easily missed when the entire game is in black and white. With Yomi being a short game, I didn’t feel like I had ample time to memorize enemies’ animations (a la From Software’s offerings), and combined with the lack of audio cues, I sometimes found myself guessing as to when to parry – and failing miserably.
Learning new combos or increasing your health is as simple as taking a left turn to a new area where the main path actually leads right. I would have preferred some sort of experience point/upgrade system as a few hours in I was wondering just how many combos and upgrades I was missing for simply not noticing some optional explorable areas.
As for the plot behind all that swordplay, Yomi’s story is pretty thin. After the opening prologue where Hiroki helps defend his village against a bandit attack, the game jumps forward in time to…yet another attack by bandits, this time against a neighboring village. Hiroki leads a band of warriors to go protect it, and bloody sword fighting ensues.
Yomi attempts to insert a personal villain, but the connection to Hiroki is thin and underdeveloped. The romance plot between Hiroki and Aiko, the village leader and Hiroki’s love, is likewise underdeveloped – aside from a flashback cutscene or two, their love lacks substance and investment from the players.
What I would have loved to see in Yomi are some quiet moments at the onset of the game, of which there are unfortunately none. Tender moments between Hiroki and Aiko would have helped develop their relationship, and scenes of them reflecting on the loss of Aiko’s father – Hiroki’s swordmaster – would have helped develop Hiroki’s relationship both with his love and his teacher/father. I wanted to get to know the village Hiroki is defending better as well. As it currently stands, this is a nameless, faceless place that we are told to defend but not shown enough of Hiroki’s connection to his home, its community, and any individual villagers to really care about defending it.
However, once Hiroki enters the titular Yomi, the game takes a delightfully frightening turn for the better both in terms of its gameplay and emotional investment. Hiroki races after his lost love Aiko through the desolate land of Yomi, which manifests as a village built along the water at night and a haunted temple, among other locales. Creepy blighted enemies line the walkways and introduce some variety to whom you’ll be fighting, though the core gameplay mechanics stay the same.
The game retains its cinematic atmosphere through the Yomi portion, this time with a supernatural twist to the proceedings. Detached stories of buildings swirl above the scenery, cyclones on a sandy beach rise up to the sky, bodies hang from branches, and a sea of skulls floods one area. The environments are wonderful and add a nice contrast to the villages of the opening half of the game.
While in Yomi, Hiroki must undergo a personal journey to return to the land of the living. He confronts several familiar faces, such as the first man he killed, the men whom he led to their deaths, Aiko, and Sanjuro, Hiroki’s master. To echo an earlier point, some sort of emotional foundation in the start of the game would have led to a great payoff while in Yomi, but the scenes of Hiroki confronting his demons were still well done nonetheless.
Trek to Yomi is easily one of the best indies of the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it show up on gamers’ Game of the Year lists come year-end. Its cinematic excellence, fantastic environments, and tough gameplay make it a highly honorable samurai game.
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