Plenty of innovations made in modern-day have truly made media avenues spectacular, but there’s something about nostalgia-driven projects that manages to captivate just as well. Whether that be late 2000s games, beginning to grasp the jump to the seventh generation of consoles, or iconic black and white flicks, memories of past times easily draw unique reactions. That’s what Flying Wild Hog, known for the Shadow Warrior series, felt when conjuring up their samurai adventure Trek to Yomi. I had the chance to play and review it here for The Nerd Stash, so what did I think of it? Find out in my review of Trek to Yomi!
A Samurai’s Journey
Trek to Yomi follows the story of young Hiroki, the best apprentice of his samurai master. Trained well in the skills of samurai sword-fighting, he vows to protect his people and his lover, Aiko, to his master after the latter falls during a bandit assault. Much older and wiser and faced with serious hardship, Hiroki must venture to and from death to handle those responsible and determine his path forward.
That premise is simple, and you would be forgiven for thinking that gives too much of the plot away, but Trek to Yomi prides itself on showing the circumstances of its world rather than telling. While there’s plenty of writing in your journal to give the context you may desire, it’s hard to understate the focus on environmental storytelling. You aren’t just told that your village is a smoldering ruin. You’re forced to traverse it and experience the dangers firsthand. It adds weight to the deeper points of the story, allowing you to feel Hiroki’s pain.
It’s supported by great dialogue and performances from Trek to Yomi’s stellar cast, helping push this review forward. The dialogue is great itself, brimming with odes to old-school Japanese cinema, but the performances help drive the point home. That is, for Japanese voice acting. As with most Japanese content dubbed for western audiences, the optional English audio is so bad that it’s hilarious. Performances and the feeble attempt by English voice actors to portray a believable Japanese accent are laughable, to the point where some may find it offensive. That wasn’t the team’s intention, but you’re better off keeping audio in Japanese unless you signed up for an unintentional comedy.
Despite that fault, Trek to Yomi’s story gets more than enough right to stay afloat. It won’t surprise you, but it’ll do enough to push the story forward.
With how much I praised the narrative and (Japanese) voice acting, you may be asking, “Poor English voice acting can’t possibly be the reason for that score, can it?” and you’d be right. That’s because the gameplay manages to hold that down more than enough. Where do I begin?
Out of the gate (and especially in my review), you can tell something about Trek to Yomi’s combat feels off. While you find yourself in a flurry of blade strikes, you’ll occasionally hit a lunging strike that can’t be canceled and won’t let you block during it. The game never teaches you a move like this, so at first, you’re confused. After learning more attack combos, you discover eventually that this is because the team tied certain combos to your movement keys. Since combat can quickly become chaotic if you aren’t fighting single foes, this happens a lot and can be a reset on higher difficulties.
This lack of precision in controls is merely one example of the issues you’ll find yourself dealing with in Trek to Yomi. Another example comes in the complexity of attack combos. You’re offered more than enough attack combos to deal with various situations. Whether that be anti-armor, blocking, rotation attacks, or others, each type of attack gets a handful of combos to trigger. The issue here is that many of these combos become worthless on Hard mode, often causing more deaths than kills. Enemies should naturally become harder on higher difficulties, but invalidating certain moves does nothing more than damage gameplay variety.
Several smaller issues combined with these make what should be a tight combat system into a janky wrestling match with your controller or keyboard. Rotation attacks can occur due to the movement keys being partially attached to it without you wanting them to. Checkpoints tend to be either spaced in between singular fights or at the end of around five with no in-between. Stunning moves are easily the best move type in the game, causing the expansive list of movesets to feel more worthless than they already did. The list goes on, and it causes serious problems for anyone wanting a challenge on Hard mode.
Now before you say it, yes, you can drop the difficulty to Medium and eradicate many of these issues. While that alone would be annoying, it wouldn’t be the end of the day, and you could still enjoy the experience. That is, except for the fact that Medium alone trivializes the game difficulty entirely. Enemies go from hitting like a sharp katana to feeling like a papercut, cutting out the need for ranged weapons, not to mention making bosses extremely easy. With no middle ground between Medium and Hard, it gives you an ultimatum of finding the game far too easy or far too frustrating, becoming a lose/lose situation. I won’t touch on Easy here as, to give Flying Wild Hog some credit, it seems that mode was designed with accessibility in mind. That’s something you can at least respect.
At the end of the day, Trek to Yomi’s combat feels like a complete squandering of what could’ve been. Had it been more tightly refined, had unnecessary mechanics removed, and done a better job of balancing difficulty, this review would be entirely different. Nevertheless, as combat takes up so much of the experience, it feels like another case of deceiving presentation. That’s a sentiment in game design that I could argue against for days.
A Nostalgic Piece of Art
Now that I’ve gotten my rant out of the way, I’m happy to say Trek to Yomi at least presents its art in such a way that honors old forms of Japanese media while using modern rendering to do it justice. The monochromatic color palette was no accident, painting an experience that classic filmmaker Akira Kurosawa would be proud of. This artistic direction serves a second purpose as well, drawing more attention to the visceral action. I could rant and rave about how poor combat feels in Trek to Yomi, but there’s no arguing that its visceral kills are an aesthetic pleasure to the senses. That’s not just the work of some strong animation, yet it helps.
It’s supported by a fine selection of Japanese action music, employing the use of traditional local instruments to enforce the cultural theme. Around three hours of tunes following the style help to give the game a unique feel that you can’t find elsewhere, helping the experience stand out. When powerful sword slashes are added on top, it mixes to great effect. Admittedly certain ranged weapon sounds could’ve had a bit more finesse thrown into them, but it’s minor by comparison.
Verdict: Trek to Yomi, in my review, presents itself as a nostalgia trip centered around themes of loss, duty, and discovering one’s self, painted with such detail and atmosphere that meld to create a visual pleasure for the senses. Once you dig beneath the surface, you find a surprisingly poor combat system that feels in stark contrast to the team’s most iconic series. Where it serves in complexity, it fails to give that complexity a sense of purpose. That, combined with many issues that affect Hard mode, results in an ultimatum where neither end is a win. While as a movie, Trek to Yomi would be incredible, its gameplay fails to do any of that presentation the justice it deserves.
- Plenty of environmental storytelling
- Japanese voice acting is excellent
- Art is a great homage to old Japanese cinema
- A wealth of traditional Japanese music
- Easy acts as a good accessibility mode
- English voice acting is hilariously bad
- Combat moves tied to movement keys
- Heavy number of issues created by Hard difficulty
- Complex moveset feels restrictive
- Checkpoints are either too far apart or too close together
- Medium difficulty trivializes gameplay