We've travelled to the land of the dead and beyond in this captivating samurai action-adventure tale.
A little while ago, I had the chance to dive into the opening stages of Trek to Yomi, as part of a preview where the first two chapters of the story were at my disposal. During that opportunity, I became pretty infatuated by this action-adventure game from Leonard Menchiari and Flying Wild Hog, so much so that I said that it was shaping up to be one of the top indie titles of the year. Jump to the present and Trek to Yomi is looking to launch, and I've been able to experience the rest of this samurai tale to see whether my former claim stands up.
Following the story of a young samurai known as Hiroki, Trek to Yomi tells the tale of Hiroki's journey to fulfil a vow to protect his people that was made to his dying master. But this isn't a simple protector tale as Hiroki's journey will see him travelling beyond life, confronting his own demons, and having to find strength when all seems hopeless, all to uphold this promise. If anything, it's more of a redemption story, as Hiroki comes to terms with the person he is and the decisions he has made to get to where he is in life, and where he has to go to maintain his vow. And without spoiling too much, anyone who has an affinity for Japanese culture and legend, will probably notice that the game's name of Trek to Yomi basically affirms that Hiroki will have to travel to and through the land of the dead to reach his end goal.
That's pretty much what you can expect from this game. It's a story that looks into the full life of Hiroki, and tackles a significant time in his youth, before jumping forward to adulthood, where Hiroki will be expected to undertake this overwhelming journey, following a horrific incident that saw a lot of his loved ones and subjects he was expected to protect brutally taken away from him due to what can only be described as a lapse in judgement. It's heavy-hitting and emotionally complex to say the least, which is what you want from a game that aims to entertain in a similar vein to a classic Akira Kurosawa black and white samurai movie.
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And this is an important aspect because it seeps into everything that Trek to Yomi is. This is a video game that is designed to make your jaw drop with its cinematic and breath-taking set pieces. The fundamental design of Trek to Yomi, which is often that of a 2.5D game, albeit with the occasional more freely explorable 3D sections, puts further emphasis on the art style and the visuals, because the game doesn't play from over Hiroki's shoulder or through his eyes - it's played from a zoomed-out perspective where Hiroki is simply the point of focus. And that might be a strange thing to say, but it all makes sense when playing, as the camera angles are used in such a way that each duel has a level of gravity, that each new location makes you want to explore and unravel its mysteries, and likewise, to add to all of this and despite being a black and white only title, the camera angles are used to truly highlight the elegance of each level and location.
But at the end of the day, while Trek to Yomi is an absolutely stunning title, it is a video game first and foremost and you will have to lead Hiroki to cut through the hordes of ghastly bandits and Yomi-spawn that stand in your path. For the most part, this involves using your katana to block, parry, and to perform a variety of strikes and combos ideal for hacking down opponents in swift and effective actions. You can really lean into this aspect and study the combos all to become a master of the sword (something that is far more necessary for the higher difficulties), but for those who just want to indulge in the story and experience the combat without it being overwhelmingly challenging, the lower difficulties do allow for light and heavy strikes to more than suffice.
As I mentioned that the katana makes up the majority of the combat, the other area revolves around ranged attacks, which can be kunai, arrows, or single-shot cannons. You can acquire ammunition from exploring and progressing through the game, and these items are really handy for dealing with the more slippery or lethal enemy types that become commonplace as the storyline develops and you continue travelling through the depths of Yomi and beyond. To this end though, while the exploration is important, it is by no means complex, and basically just consists of you taking a less obvious path to pick up a collectible, some ammo, or even a permanent upgrade to health or stamina.
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And this point brings me on to a couple of things that miff me a little when it comes to Trek to Yomi. The exploration itself feels really dull and meaningless, aside from grabbing ammo that is, as the collectibles add very little to the overall experience, and the health/stamina upgrades have their own faults. The collectibles don't do much for the overall lore and narrative of the game, and are really boring to search for. And then, the upgrades are handled in such a way that it feels like they don't really make Hiroki all that more effective. Health upgrades add another section to your health bar, which does make you more resilient, but considering enemies can remove multiple sections in one swing, grabbing the health upgrades doesn't really change the fact that you can still be killed in three hits if you're not paying attention. As for stamina, the more you get, the faster it seems to run out, as Hiroki seems to get exhausted when half of the stamina bar empties, meaning there's not much of a benefit to having more as you ultimately seem to tire faster. There's a clear lack of a rewarding factor to wanting to venture off the beaten path, as the only other thing to find is the very, very occasional opportunity to eliminate multiple enemies at once by manipulating the environment.
But at the end of the day, these are just sub-sections of the wider Trek to Yomi experience, which is mostly a very refined product. It's not long at all, in fact you can get through the story in around 3-4 hours, with exploration included, but those few hours serve up a very immersive and engaging cinematic narrative experience, one that is combined with precise and challenging combat that really captures the essence and meticulous nature of samurai sword-fighting. Going full circle back to my preview impression, I do still firmly believe that Trek to Yomi is one of the better indie games we've seen so far this year, and probably will see this year. Despite its minor problems and short length, it's unique, and truly captivating, and for that reason I can't help but recommend this game.
8 / 10
Visually striking. Set pieces are stunning. Combat is complex and challenging. Narrative is compelling and a true highlight.
Very short. Exploration is pretty drab. Upgrades lack a rewarding feeling.