Since its initial reveal at last year’s Devolver Digital conference, I’ve had my eye on Trek to Yomi. Its beautiful trailer promised a cinematic samurai tale with brutal 2D combat and gorgeous visuals. After getting to play the first two chapters, I’m completely sold on its beautiful style, even if some elements of its gameplay leave a bit to be desired.
My preview took me through the first two chapters of the game, showing Hiroki’s childhood and budding samurai skills at the training of his sensei, before the village is invaded and his sensei killed. The next chapter was a timeskip showing Hiroki as a young samurai as he leaves his village to seize a chance and take down the village’s enemies while they’re preoccupied.
From what I played, the story doesn’t seem to be a huge focus of Trek to Yomi. The tale it’s telling is one you’re sure to have seen at some point, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing and might just be evoking the wandering samurai tropes, but I wasn’t particularly invested in its characters or the tale it was trying to tell by the time my preview ended.
One of the most immediately striking things about Trek to Yomi is its visuals. It’s presented all in black-and-white recalling Kurosawa’s earliest, most samurai films like Seven Samurai and Rashomon. When I first saw Trek to Yomi, my simple brain wanted it to include some sort of filter to make blood show up and ‘look cool’ as the kids say, but I realise from playing it that it’s much more beautiful without.
Strangely, up close Trek to Yomi has some pretty unremarkable character models, but its clever use of camera angles and a lack of colour make it beautiful. Of particular note is how it handles lighting in natural environments, such as in the game’s second chapter that takes place in the forest looking downright beautiful.
You might think that the black and white style would be Trek to Yomi’s signature move, but there’s another trick up its sleeve – its camera angles. Levels have vintage fixed cameras, a la Resident Evil, but how Trek to Yomi frames them and gets creative with the idea is second-to-none.
One early example is when a young Hiroki first goes to fight an invader. Instead of just showing us Hiroki’s perspective, we see it from a crack in the building across from them, along with the shadows of whichever scared townspeople are watching the fight. Another example, and my favourite, can be found in the second chapter as Hiroki fights other samurai on a bridge. The camera is positioned far away from the action on a boat just down the river, and bodies start floating past as you deal with the enemies in front of you.
I’m not usually one to say you should play something entirely based on visuals or art direction, but after seeing how clever some of these shots are, I’m excited to play more and see everything else it has to offer.
Although I’d argue that the visuals are Trek to Yomi’s strongest element from what I played, the minute-to-minute gameplay has its strengths too. Trek to Yomi is split into two gameplay types; 2D combat sections and 3D movement around the environment. You’ll be swapping between them as you move around, although it’s clear 2D is the bigger focus.
Combat is a fun, if simplistic, affair that mostly relies on timing blocks to parry, keeping an eye on your stamina so you can keep attacking, and performing short combos to take out enemies. Like I said – simple. By the second chapter I’d figured out that most enemies go down with two fast strikes, with the only challenge coming from the occasional armoured enemy that needed a few more parries.
One thing that stood out is that you need to manually turn yourself around with a button press to face enemies from behind, rather than automatically being adjusted when they come near. Like most of the combat, it’s simple, but it’s effective for making battles feel like you’re constantly watching for enemies and waiting to turn around and face them.
Beyond that manual turning, it’s nothing you’ve not seen before, but cutting tons of warriors down has a nice flow to it. I was given access to a few new combat moves and usable items as I kept playing, which has me hopeful that things will get a bit more interesting in the final game. As it is now, it’s entertaining enough to keep you going through the gorgeous environments, and that’s enough for me.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the 3D sections. Movement here feels sluggish and imprecise, often getting Hiroki hitched to corners and standing around like he’s not desperately trying to stop an enemy invasion. There’s not much to do in these sections beyond running to wherever you need to go next, or slowly pushing something out of the way to proceed.
I’d initially thought that Trek to Yomi was strictly a 2D game and was happy to see the third dimension rear its uncertain head, but now I can’t help thinking that it’d be better off without it. Seeing more of the world is nice but all of the best moments in Trek to Yomi take place in 2D.
Even with that weaker side to its gameplay and a story that hasn’t quite gripped me yet, Trek to Yomi’s beautiful graphics and simplistic but satisfying combat have me excited to continue Hiroki’s journey when it launches later this Spring.
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