Game trailers can be deceptive at times. Even when no lies are told, a series of clips edited with an eye to impress potential customers can elide some of a game’s truth. Trek to Yomi, however, is one game very well captured by its trailers. They ask the prospective player, “Do you want to journey through a beautifully realized action-game homage to the chambara samurai films of the 1950s and 60s?” And if your answer to that question after viewing one of the many trailers out now is “Yes” …well, there you go. You can probably skip the rest of the review.
If you’re still on the fence, though, the time I spent in the sandals and kimono of a young samurai on the worst day of his life — and death — left me with some thoughts to share.
Trek to Yomi is the brainchild of director Leonard Menchiari, working with Shadow Warrior developer Flying Wild Hog Rzeszów. Set in a nonspecific era of medieval Japan, it focuses on the journey of Hiroki, a young samurai and designated protector of his village. The game begins in the dojo. Hiroki is a former orphan taken in by his master Sanjuro. Lessons in kenjutsu double up as a control tutorial, teaching players the basics of combat they’ll use for the next five to eight hours. Sanjuro is called away with some urgency, and a stroll through the village with Hiroki’s sweetheart Aiko serves as the last moment of peace players will experience for the rest of the game.
Soon, Sanjuro is dead on the ground, slain by the bandit Kagerou, leaving Hiroki and Aiko weeping over his corpse. They vow to carry on the master’s legacy as a protector of the people, and everything flashes forward some years to the beginning of the game proper. Hiroki and Aiko are husband and wife. Aiko is the village head, and Hiroki the samurai commander. More bandits approach, and Hiroki resolves to take the fight to the enemy this time.
To say any more beyond this point would be something of a spoiler, but truth be told, Trek to Yomi doesn’t tell an especially complex story. The plot’s pretty much in the title! For your information, “Yomi” is the term for the underworld in Japan’s creation myth. Hiroki sets off on a journey to win honor and glory, encounters unimaginable tragedy as a result, and in seeking retribution, travels further and deeper into the shadows.
The narrative is actually surprisingly straightforward about certain things. Until about halfway through my first run, I was assuming the references to Yomi were more metaphorical than anything else. More the fool me. As it turns out, Flying Wild Hog isn’t one to shy away from evoking the supernatural in its quest to give players new vistas to behold.
And behold them they shall, in glorious black-and-white. That monochrome palette is a constant of Trek to Yomi‘s most potent tool: its visuals. I won’t mince words. The game is beautiful. Playing mainly as a side-scrolling adventure, with occasional breaks for more cinematic cutscenes, Trek to Yomi never lets itself look plain. Any given screenshot from the game that’s not a menu could easily be mistaken for a carefully framed snippet from some lost archive of world cinema.
A subtle film grain effect and detailed attention to lighting and shadows ensure that even the most mundane moments carry a powerful, dramatic aura. In fact, the developers are so happy to take advantage of opportunities to make some striking images that in retrospect, it can even come across as funny in its contrivance. Hiroki’s route certainly passes by a suspicious number of picturesque waterfalls, for one.
Jokes aside, Trek to Yomi displays a single-minded focus on sending up the look of the classics. It’s tightly structured and never lets up in its sense of momentum. There are no sidequests to dawdle on or secondary systems to be distracted by. Even collectibles and secrets serve to emphasize the narrative. Their descriptive flavor text is written as a combination of informative trivia about Japanese myth and the darkest broodings of Hiroki as he contemplates his situation. Again, there’s some unintentional comedy to be found here, if one pictures Hiroki himself writing out these elaborate item descriptions between cutting up thugs with his sword and witnessing the bloody murder of all he loves and cares for.
This intense focus also serves the game well, by helping it avoid some of the complaints directed at other prominent, Japanese cinema-inspired games like Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima. Whereas Tsushima often felt like a mainstream, open-world title dressed in samurai cosplay, Trek to Yomi feels like a more coherent tribute to its inspirations.
The personal quality of Hiroki’s ordeal avoids feeding too deeply some of the unfortunate Orientalism common in media set in Japan, but produced by outsiders to Japan’s history, politics, and culture. Trek to Yomi‘s story operates on a small, individual scale. In doing so, it sidesteps the trap of inflating ahistorical and politicized pop cultural myths about samurai.
In fact, the narrative only really falls short in the spots it attempts to broaden and add a sense of expansiveness to this cozy revenge tale. The game has multiple endings, but these endings, save for one, feel somewhat unearned and unsupported by the relatively spare character development in the game itself. They feel like they were added in as an excuse to get players to replay the game and expand its potential playtime. Also, in the review build I played, there was no way to explore alternate endings without replaying the game from the beginning, as the checkpoint-based saving system prevented me from going back to a late-game checkpoint.
Further, beyond these alternate endings and perhaps grabbing all the collectibles, Trek to Yomi feels like a game you’ll play and then put down once the credits are finished rolling. The combat system is fairly simple and doesn’t change much over the course of the game. Hiroki only ever fights with his sword, and gets no other options for melee weapons. His basic combos expand, and new techniques can be unlocked by progress and collectibles, but the additions don’t add enough variety to make truly mastering the system feel like a challenge worth the while.
Trek to Yomi also has three ranged weapon options, but all are simply different flavors of “interrupt an enemy’s animation to create an opening”. Enemy variety is also fairly low. Over half the game is spent chopping up three or four types of bandit, each with a unique, if simple attack pattern. Staying safe is mainly about knowing these variations and being patient. Baiting an enemy into an attack that can be parried is the go-to strategy for 9 of every 10 fights. Enemies will also politely attack one at a time, and are easily handled, so long as you don’t try to button-mash (most of the combos require deliberate spacing on inputs to register).
In the end, while Trek to Yomi is a small and deliberately limited affair, its taut structure and evocative visuals carry it well through its short lifespan. That’s no fault, mind you. In an era filled with broad, overstuffed games aiming to monopolize all one’s free time, it’s refreshing to be able to brighten one’s weekend with a short jaunt into the underworld.
Trek to Yomi is available on the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S, and PC.