Trek to Yomi fascinates me. It’s rare that a side scrolling action game hosts this level of spectacle. Similarly uncommon is a game that features such heavy emphasis on shot composition, even during regular gameplay. However, in as many ways as this game is fresh, it’s also stale. The visuals are spectacular, but the combat fails to hold up its end of the experience. Japanese mythology is an intriguing framing for a plot, yet the story fails to stick the landing. To simply call Trek to Yomi a disappointment would be unfair, but its potential makes its shortcomings sting all the same.
The game wears its influences on its sleeve, a love of classic samurai cinema was clearly a driving force here. Gameplay, too, inherits shades of this inspiration. The developers at Flying Wild Hog certainly knew what they were doing, it’s undeniably a work backed by passion. Consequentially, that passion is part of why I find the overall package so frustrating. At every turn, the game shows hints of promise that never come to fruition.
Trek to Yomi can be purchased on Xbox, Playstation, and PC for $19.99 USD.
Story: Flip the Script
It’s difficult to discuss the story of Trek to Yomi without spoiling some key aspects. It begins as a fairly traditional samurai tale, nothing much of note. However, it doesn’t take long before a twist upends this premise and sends Hiroki, the protagonist, on a very different kind of journey.
Hiroki is a samurai who, as his home village is under attack, finds difficulty in balancing his duty to protect his people with fulfilling a promise to a childhood friend. Grappling with his own humanity as well as that of his enemies, he must make difficult choices along his journey. Unfortunately, said choices often feel hollow and purposeless. They rarely have significant consequences, and honestly feel like they exist more to give the illusion of depth.
The plot is a twist on an ancient Japanese legend, and an interesting one at that. It’s a topic that isn’t frequently touched on in games or fiction in general, which is nice to see. The mythical elements help tie the game’s themes together while simultaneously justifying gameplay decisions. It’s far from the most profound or insightful story ever written, but it’s got more to it than it lets on.
Gameplay: The Final Cut
For a samurai action game, Trek to Yomi’s combat is woefully flawed. Attacks lack any real punch or gravity, parries feel weightless. While it’s far from an issue unique to this game, there’s also a serious lack of enemy variety. It’s a shame that a game with this much potential has combat that falls this flat.
While you unlock a number of combos and hidden moves throughout your adventure, the majority of them are next to useless. During my playthrough, I found myself using the same one over and over: the Stunning Combination. Stunning enemies, which can be done with specific moves, allows the player to kill them instantly with a brutal finisher. This trivializes a good chunk of the game’s combat and feels like an improper fix to an issue that didn’t need to exist.
Despite making fights far easier, it also feels disappointingly necessary. Many enemies take a heavy barrage of hits to go down, turning finishers from an afterthought to a necessity. They also throw a wrench in the pace of battle, something that ties into more widespread problems.
A Fresh Perspective
One of Trek to Yomi’s most interesting features is its side-scrolling perspective. For the most part, this adds a nice cinematic flair to combat, one reminiscent of those classic samurai movies the game is clearly inspired by. However, it also comes with its own share of issues. For one, the game’s combat necessitates that the player must manually change the direction they face mid-battle by pressing a button. This may not sound like much, but it’s not a very intuitive solution and introduces more problems than it solves.
Another point of contention brought about by this perspective lies with the enemies. While they often take turns fighting you, they just as often feel overwhelming. Enemies have a significantly wider range of movement than the player, which prevents fights from feeling satisfying. Some types of enemies in particular felt as though they had an unfair advantage over the player at all times.
Two and a Half Dimensions
Trek to Yomi is quite possibly the only game that I’d feel comfortable classifying as 2.5D. Normally, I find this label pointless, but it actually might fit here. The game frequently swaps the playable space between 2D and 3D. It’s a major part of gameplay, despite ultimately not changing much.
This manifests itself in areas of varying appeal. Most lacking of which are the occasional puzzles, which, to be honest, barely feel worth mentioning. Said puzzles involve finding characters in the environment and matching them together in a seemingly arbitrary order. They’re extremely shallow and never challenging. To be honest, the game would lose nothing upon their omission.
Elements from the foreground and background also play a role in gameplay. Archers will shoot hails of arrows that you must seek cover from, horsemen will swing their swords from unreachable positions, the list goes on. These serve to spice up the challenges, and they’re welcome for that, but they ultimately don’t add much. What’s more impressive are the ways enemies will dramatically stumble into bodies of water once defeated, or the way the camera angle will change during cinematic set pieces. It’s small touches like this that adds some much-needed weight to the action.
Everything in Trek to Yomi is steeped in this kind of cinematic flair. Despite shortcomings on the mechanical end of things, it truly is impressive what this game is able to accomplish. I just wish that it took these ideas further and used them at the behest of the core gameplay.
Graphics and Audio: Rule of Thirds
By far the most obvious outlet of Trek to Yomi’s influences are the visuals. Notably, the entire game is rendered in black and white, down to the UI and menus. Beyond just the (lack of) colors, the game is filled with cinematographic choices highly reminiscent of a specific era of film. It’s a style sure to please movie buffs while also creating a distinct, memorable atmosphere.
Even games that put heavy emphasis on how “cinematic” they are rarely commit to it as much as this one. Everything about the way the game looks goes all the way, there’s even some artificial film grain. Truly, it’s fascinating to see a video game adopt the aesthetic of another medium entirely. Plenty of games have tried to look retro, but few have tried to look vintage.
For all my praise of how unique and stylized it is, Trek to Yomi also looks excellent from a technical standpoint. It is one of the most screenshot-worthy games I have ever played. As someone who lists Red Dead Redemption 2 as one of their favorite games of all time, I don’t say that lightly. Because of its liberal use of fixed camera angles, almost every frame is beautiful. The shot composition is also exceptional by video game standards, a breath of fresh air in a medium that often falls back on safe, cliche choices in that regard.
The sound design, while not as groundbreaking as the visuals, is well-crafted. It does its job and little more. One weak link of the overall aesthetic is the music, which isn’t ear grating, but isn’t memorable either. What is worthy of praise is the Japanese voice acting. As far as someone who doesn’t understand the language can say, the performances are great across the board.
Trek to Yomi was reviewed on PC via Xbox Game Pass.