Trek to Yomi Review
Victory is reserved for those who are willing to pay its price
Benevolence, Courage, Respect, Sincerity, Righteousness, Honor, Self-Control and Loyalty. The seven codes of the samurai. Yet how can such a feared clan of warriors notorious for abundant bloodshed uphold such admirable values? This unique blend of sweet and savoury is what makes samurai stories so tantalizing and assumedly the reason video game developers keep coming back to explore these Chronicles. Trek to Yomi is the latest in the ever-growing list of these playable adventures. Developed by Flying Wild Hog and published by Devolver Digital, Trek to Yomi takes a decidedly more authentic approach to ancient Japanese culture than the pairing's recent offering - the very much caricatured Shadow Warrior 3.
Trek to Yomi is a sometimes 2D, sometimes 3D, always beautiful, counter kill melee combat game set in the Edo Period of Japan. Such as the classic tropes of this genre demand, you follow the journey of a young protagonist thrust into a conflict they did not anticipate and are forced to actualise your potential as a samurai warrior and ultimately a protector of your people. The story carries a lot of weight in this game. I would go as far as saying alongside the visuals, the story is Trek to Yomi’s most impressive asset. The game starts with a flashback. You play as Hiroki, a young budding samurai training with his master. This is neatly tied into the gameplay as a combat tutorial. You will be taught basic sword moves such as upward and downward light attacks which deal less damage but are quicker to execute, and also heavy slash and thrust attacks that deal more damage but take a little longer to carry out. More wisdom is passed on in the form of parrying technique, never turning your back on your opponent, and the distance between you and your enemy can be the difference between life and death.
Naturally, tranquillity turns to ash as your master is called away on urgent matters. As he leaves the Dojo with spear in hand your master turns to you and barks the order for you to remain in the dojo. After the inevitable happens and you disobey your master's orders, you are thrust into our young hero's journey. A journey of honor, sacrifice and redemption after Hiroki tries to make good on a failed promise to protect his people. The first two chapters will take you through various locales fighting off the marauders who have attacked your people and sought to destroy your village. Beyond the second chapter the story turns a corner and takes a more mythological approach. You will find yourself fighting your way through Yomi, the land of the dead. Here you will decide Hiroki’s fate through choice based interactions.
Trek to Yomi adopts a unique but beautifully authentic black and white aesthetic with striking camera angles in the spirit of classic samurai films. After the game’s tutorial, you will make your way through Hiroki’s village lacing between alleyways and market stalls, as the camera slips behind villagers and shopkeepers as if it is right there with you in the tight depths of the village. As you weave between silhouettes suddenly the camera pans out, shifting the perspective from the tight and enclosed spaces of the village to reveal the wide-open, stunning fields of rice gently blowing in the wind. Off in the distance, the mountainscape frames the shot beautifully. This highly considered cinematic approach is the absolute pillar that Trek to Yomi stands on. Almost every shot has been well thought out and delivered with the utmost cinematic intent. This attention to detail doesn't end there. Trek to Yomi takes place in the Edo period of Japanese history and it is clear that the developers have tried to reflect a faithful recreation of life and culture at that time. This is demonstrated through the locales and architecture, from the Dojo to the shrines to the marketplace; even decor inside villagers' homes remains coherent. Flying Wild Hog has excelled in this department and Trek to Yomi is a delight to look at. But what is it like to play?
I recently finished playing Ghost of Tsushima. I'm currently playing through Elden Ring with a Samurai build. A couple of months ago I played and reviewed Shadow Warrior 3, so it's safe to say that recently I've had my fill of samurai action. Whilst all of these games are very different in their own right, they all possess one consistent characteristic - tight and precise controls worthy of a samurai. The difference with this title, I am sad to report, is the controls are not precise, or at least not as precise as they should be in a counter-kill melee combat system. As mentioned earlier there is a number of standard moves across light and heavy attacks. Depending on which direction you hold the analogue stick as you attack determines which type of attack you will do. For example, holding up will have Hiroki slashing his katana upwards, downwards will have you perform a downward strike and forward will have you thrust your katana forward in a stabbing motion. You get the gist.
The problem is you use this same analogue stick to move your character. So let's say there is an enemy in front of you, you approach the enemy and want to begin your attack. Well, the same forward motion you used to approach the enemy will be registered as your sword direction, meaning time and time again in combat I would accidentally do a katana thrust which is a slow move that left me vulnerable to enemy counters. You may be thinking, it's simple enough just let go of the analogue stick before you attack. Whilst in principle that makes sense, in practice it's a whole other matter. Especially in late game, Trek to Yomi will expect you to be quick and tactile in your movement to avoid being overwhelmed by enemies, but the control system will have you tripping up over yourself in order to do so.
As you progress through the game you will unlock additional move sets performed by tapping a combination of buttons. There are some awesome ways to take down enemies but again, the controls make it hard to execute the combos with any real finesse. Often resulting in you carrying out a combo you weren't trying to do or mistiming your attack and having to retreat. This unfortunate situation isn't exclusive to your attacks either. Parrying can be equally as frustrating. The fundamentals for a strong parry mechanic are timing and reward. Trek to Yomi tries to implement this system but it’s nowhere near as tight as it should be. When an enemy is about to swing their weapon there will be a visual cue in the form of a glint of light. At this point, you know it's time to tap that block button to execute a parry. A successful parry will slightly slow down time for the enemy leaving them open. But in this case the parry is near impossible to fully master because something just feels off about the response time of the controls. At times they will connect, other times they will perform a standard block even though you were certain you timed it right; sometimes the block won't register at all and in worst cases the parry will reset the enemy animation without them even completing their attack.
The combat is fun on occasion, particularly when performing quick attacks, which look and feel devastating. One of the most satisfying moves in the game is when you change direction and attack an enemy behind you. Obviously, this was designed to be used when facing multiple enemies at once. The thing is, this attack is so quick and powerful that it can be executed before almost all enemies complete their first swing. I found myself using it all the time. As in, I would purposefully approach combat by walking backwards so that I could pop this move off and get in some decent early damage, and whenever time would allow, I would repeatedly reposition myself to face away from enemies to do it again. At times it felt so overpowered that I had to force myself to stop using it because I was effectively cheesing my way through enemy hoards. For a game that starts off by teaching you never to turn your back on an enemy, and I found it ironic that doing just that turned out to be the most potent attack in the game.
Finishing this adventure will take you somewhere in the region of 5 hours. Even within those 5 hours, I could feel the monotony creeping in. Aside from the combat woes, the enemy variation feels lacklustre. Whilst there are a few different enemy archetypes their differences are often only aesthetic and don't require much alternative consideration when taking them out. The game’s bosses are definitely highlights of the gameplay though, with some unique encounters that offer some deviation from the rest of the game's standard procedure.
That’s not to say that I didn't enjoy Trek to Yomi because thankfully where the combat was lacking, the beautiful vistas and the engaging story kept me enticed until the end. Any longer than the 5 hours though and I imagine it would begin to feel a bit of a slog to get over the finish line. Whilst visually the Flying Wild Hog has delivered on its promises creating a game that will no doubt be lauded by fans for its presentation, they have failed to match that standard with the gameplay.