Cinema's rich history has encapsulated dozens of genres, many of them representing different cultures. Some people grew up on high octane action movies, others grew up on big budget horror, and there's a subset of movie fans that have developed an affinity for Japanese samurai films. Trek to Yomi, from Devolver Digital and Flying Wild Hog, is a game that's designed for the samurai film lovers and one that works in introducing their storytelling style to a new audience. While the journey feels short, it's a satisfying one nonetheless.
Trek to Yomi's story follows a young samurai named Hiroki, an adopted orphan raised with the sole purpose of defending his village. When an evil warlord named Kagerou attacks and razes everything before him, it leaves Hiroki at a crossroads in more ways than one. After a fateful battle with Kagerou, Hiroki finds himself in Yomi, the fabled afterlife as interpreted by Shinto mythology.
What's interesting about Trek to Yomi's story is that it features a fixed series of gameplay sequences, but how the narrative unfolds is largely up to the player. At the start of the story, Hiroki is bound to his duty, just as his sensei taught him. Once he finds himself in Yomi, Hiroki's path is shaped by simple player choices. What drives Hiroki from there? Is it love for his slain paramour, his duty to protect his village, or a thirst for revenge against the fiend that has murdered dozens?
Whatever choices the player makes will influence the direction of the game's cutscenes, though they do not appear to have much influence on the actual gameplay sequences. I'd have liked to see more of how these choices influence the narrative, but unfortunately, there are no multiple save files or any other way to backtrack. Once you're on your path, that's where you stay until the story is over.
Trek to Yomi wears its inspiration as a badge of honor. Picture a black-and-white samurai film from the 50s and 60s. This is literally that right down to the grainy film effects. When characters encounter one another, they speak about the honor of battle and clash swords. It takes a moment to realize that the playable portion of the game has kicked in and that you're not just watching a cutscene. It's one of the most unique presentations I've seen in a game and one that does a lot of justice to this style of film. From the monochromatic visuals to the clashing steel of the blades, this feels like a playable samurai movie.
The combat further adds to the immersion. Fights in Trek to Yomi are mostly one-on-one sword fights, though there are instances where groups of enemies will try and overcome Hiroki with a numbers advantage. Success hinges on finding an opening to strike, but also in balancing offense with defense. Those who mash buttons will often leave themselves open to attack. Play too defensively by holding the block button and Hiroki's stamina meter will drop and ultimately leave him vulnerable.
The game offers over a dozen potential sword-swinging combos to master, but that sometimes proves to be information overload. By the end of the story, I was mainly relying on one or two combos and paying the rest of the available button strings no mind. While enemies can hit hard, finishers can help replenish Hiroki's health. The issue here is that the window for finishers can be unpredictable. Sometimes an enemy won't register a finishing blow, even as they're standing still, other times a combo will hit so hard that a foe will just fall before Hiroki can even nail the finishing blow. Consistently hitting finishers proved to be one of the game's more undesirable challenges.
Ranged weapons are also part of the combat experience, though they're honestly something I could have done without. They feel like a shortcut on offense and almost impossible to defend on defense, though the best I can say about the latter is that there aren't too many enemies that use arrows or ozutsu blasts.
Positioning matters in battle, as well. Nailing a well-timed parry that puts Hiroki behind his opponent never stops feeling good. Conversely, inputting a combo and ending with Hiroki inexplicably turning his back to his opponent doesn't feel so great. I had a few frustrating moments with combo inputs, but outside of that, combat in Trek to Yomi feels crisp, as does the way in which the game fluidly transitions to it by putting Hiroki on a 2D plane.
Outside of battle, players explore their surroundings in a 3D space. This mostly involves searching for ammunition, collectibles, or save points. Towards the middle of the adventure, players are introduced to puzzles that involve sliding Kanji characters into their proper slots to open up new paths. Within those paths, expect to find time-sensitive escape sequences to help mix things up between sword clashes. These instances provide some extra tension and can lead to a few errant deaths, but Trek to Yomi's generous save system reduces any frustration that would normally stem from that.
Trek to Yomi is presented like a very different type of video game experience and that's largely attributed to its presentation. Flying Wild Hog went into this project with the goal of making a playable samurai film and they've capably accomplished that objective. The swordplay is strong and complements a captivating story. It's a story that players will want to see through to the end, though some may be disappointed by the short runtime. I was able to polish this off in just a hair under five hours, but those looking for a challenge can take on the game's hardest difficulty after completing the game for the first time.
Fans of Kurosawa films or of Japanese samurai movies in general will dig Trek to Yomi. Anyone with even a passing curiosity for this genre should absolutely check this out. Trek to Yomi aims high and proves to be as sharp as Hiroki's blade.
This review is based on a Steam digital code provided by the publisher. Trek to Yomi is available now on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox for $19.99 USD. The game is rated M.