Trek to Yomi Is Another Stab at a Kurosawa-Aping Samurai Game

Games Reviews
Trek to Yomi Is Another Stab at a Kurosawa-Aping Samurai Game

Trek to Yomi is a side-scroller parry-based samurai fighting game set in Japan’s Edo period, shot in black-and-white with artificial screen aging effects added to evoke Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a relatively straightforward action game that nonetheless provides exploration opportunities and multiple, eventually convergent, paths through its world. The art style is functional and effective through the first three chapters, but after the protagonist Hiroki (Masayuki Kato) is felled by an unbeatable boss, players get to explore Yomi, an afterlife realm of the Shinto religion, and that’s where it really shines. Of course, as another in a long line of games made by non-Asians focused on depicting Asia, it raises questions about appropriate ways to depict other people’s cultures. Moreover, it’s held back by the need to remind players of what’s come before rather than being something new.

Trek to Yomi builds on the ongoing fascination with bringing the highlights of cinema to interactive entertainment, playing with black-and-white coloring, lighting, and angles to evoke Akira Kurosawa’s iconic filmography. Players that find this adoption distracting can turn the bloom filter and grain filter off for a clearer picture, but there’s no accessibility setting beyond subtitles, though there are over a dozen languages to select from for text. The audio is all in Japanese.

Players take hold of Hiroki as a child, training with his sensei, Sanjuro (Hiroshi Shirokuma), in a combat tutorial that gives way to a prologue where Hiroki first bloodys his sword in defense of his village. Players quickly meet Sanjuro’s daughter and Hiroki’s best friend and love interest Aiko (Sarah Emi Bridcutt), as well as the village-storming bandit villains Sadatame (Hiroki Goto) and Kagerou (Akio Otsuka). The game quickly advances Hiroki and Aiko to adulthood as the village’s new leaders, who find themselves under attack by familiar bandits.

Trek to Yomi is very digestible on the medium setting—it took 10 hours to complete with me seeking out a lot of the collectible artifacts and stamina/health augments, and often I found bosses or groups of enemies turn from frustratingly difficult to surprisingly easy after a few tries, a familiar experience for any gaming enthusiast. The fact that there are other path choices imply that there are other directions to take, but achievements based on acquiring unlockables make it seem like there’s ultimately just one way to go. At least once it’s implied that players can end the game early, like in Katana Zero, if they forgo vengeance or duty in one of the game’s three instances of offering a dialog choice in Hiroki’s path. That would mean players have the choice not to see all of the game’s underworld, which would be a poor decision: it’s an underworld worth seeing.

The moment-to-moment gameplay, while enjoyable, isn’t especially complex. Players have two verbs to utilize throughout most of the game, run and fight, and can’t use the former to avoid the latter. It’s primarily a melee game and, while I found the fighting somewhat frustratingly unresponsive at the beginning, unlocking combos throughout the game creates beautifully choreographed and articulated swordplay that feels truly cinematic. While it’s not super fun to get boxed into an edge of the screen by enemies, pulling off consecutive parries around enemies to slash them down offers a palpable thrill, while also looking cool as hell. Unfortunately, the roll movement feels rather ineffective, as it seldom allows Hiroki to move past opposing fighters, and if poorly timed going backwards will be broken by an opponent attack. Players also receive shuriken, a longbow, and an ozutsu flintlock cannon. There’s an exciting variety of opponents throughout the upper and lower world, as well, with different styles of bandits, “blighted” and “tainted” undead, as well as wraiths, spirits, and demons.

While the first game I compared Trek to Yomi to in my mind was Katana Zero, the combat reminds me much more of a simplified Soulsborne. It relies heavily on parries, counters, and timing your shots. The fixed camera that changes direction between areas resembles the original God of War games on the PlayStation 2, though the variation of angles here reminds me of cinema, as it was intended to evoke. The furthest depths of Yomi, when the game really engages with the mystic and mythical, feels like Arkham Asylum’s Scarecrow sequences and the indie adventure game Genesis Noir, especially as it introduced puzzles that, while simple, at least provide a third method of interacting with the world. I also found myself thinking of Ninja Gaiden, where—like in this story and many others before and since—the protagonist returns to his village to see it is under attack and begins a quest for vengeance.

It’s a frequently beautiful game throughout, but especially in the afterlife. It’s more distinct and surreal than the parts of the game seeking to remind you of Yojimbo and Seven Samurai. What comes next feels appropriately unreal.

While there is exploration and Hiroki unlocks different combat skills, Trek to Yomi never gave me Metroid-y “I need to backtrack” type of vibes. I did some backtracking as I was exploring for collectibles, but you don’t learn skills that would make it necessary or worthwhile to go explore an old space. It’s not a platformer, and you can’t even jump—when the character scales a wall or ladder or felled tree, it’s all just done with the analog stick, including sometimes pushing trees over to traverse gaps, or moving objects out of the way to go through paths. It seems in these small moments like it wants to be more complicated, like it wants to be Metroid, or a puzzle-platformer, but never quite commits.

There’s an entirely Japanese main voice cast, though Flying Wild Hog had people contribute to nonverbal voiceover. You can contrast that with Ghosts of Tsushima, which had a Japanese audio track option but originally didn’t have correlating motion capture to map it to. The story isn’t super complex in theme, which further reminds this is a European interpretation of Japanese culture, despite collaborators, consultants, or quality. Nonetheless, its incorporation of Shintoist themes in the collectibles add to the dark fantasy setting of the later chapters, helping connect that to the grounded material culture on display in the first few. In this excavation of culture, it reminded me of The Forgotten City and the Assassin’s Creed franchise, where you have a little opportunity to learn about a place you can’t experience, because the place is gone. Yet Japan exists, even if the Edo period is behind us.

The underlying problem, of course, is that “Western” developers seemingly cannot keep their eyes or hands off East Asia, reproducing cultures in ways that are often reductive or simplistic. We see this in fellow Polish studio CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077, which follows in its genre’s footsteps by aping feudal and contemporary Japanese aesthetics for cool points, of course, as well as The Ascent’s mishandling of Korean script. Naughty Dog’s Ghosts of Tsushima was enough of a success that its lead developers were appointed ambassadors of the island. Meanwhile, Sifu raised ire for being an all-American team attempting to evoke Hong Kong martial arts cinema, with even a white guy as the martial arts consultant.

I’m not Japanese or Asian at all, so it’s not for me to say whether Trek to Yomi’s existence is appropriate. It’s not like BioWare’s Jade Empire, a very fun game from the first generation of the Xbox that built a whole fictional East Asian culture by intentionally combining aesthetics and ideas from China, Japan, and Korea, and only had one Asian voice actor. There’s a part of me that believes anyone can make art about whatever they want, so long as they’re willing to live with the criticism. And it’s worthwhile to engage good faith effort with a good faith response. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but there’s likely a hierarchy of problems in how, for instance, U.S. citizens perceive East Asia, and I’m not sure Trek to Yomi is near the top of the list. Regardless, care must be taken with other people’s cultures, and the easiest way to do that is to include them in the creation of the piece.

I was heartened by the fact that, in addition to the voice actors, the musical direction, orchestra, and the sound design team were all primarily Japanese and—closer to my own heart—there was a Japanese historian, Aki Tabei Matsunaga, consulting with the development team. I simply can’t help but wonder if we might have gotten a more sophisticated story if people raised in Japanese culture were tasked with its writing. Maybe not—this is a videogame after all. To Trek to Yomi’s credit, the game doesn’t portend to represent all of Japan in the Edo period; it’s trying to remind us of Kurosawa while introducing us to a religious tradition and mythology that isn’t frequently discussed in this part of the world (and probably not in Poland either). Perhaps that’s worth celebrating. To be perfectly honest, I was very excited to play this game and I’d be interested in a more expansive sequel, provided people related to the culture in question are involved in story crafting.

Just like every other kid that spent the early 2000s watching Ruroni Kenshin, Samurai Champloo, and Gundam, I think samurai are very cool. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized they, like knights, they were probably mostly bad on a person-to-person and institutional basis as executors of a feudal order. Nonetheless, their fictional depictions, especially in the films made between the 1930s and 1970s in conversation with the cowboy westerns and swashbuckler films being made at the same time, led to captivating art whose influences extend through today, and Trek to Yomi is an admirable attempt to bring that to gaming audiences. Hopefully it gets more of us to engage with the source material.

Trek to Yomi was developed by Flying Wild Hog and published by Devolver Digital. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It’s also available for the PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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