Review of Trek to Yomi – an overdone but respectful homage to Japanese cinema | Games
EEven in the prologue, Trek to Yomi features more samurai cliches than you can throw a katana at. Three levels of joyless brutality made me believe this was going to be an exercise in gratuitous gore. Yet, after many monochromatic kills and talks of duty, honor and bloodshed, it slowly turns into something more compelling (albeit hardly underexplored in Japanese cinema): a meditation on the selfishness inherent in revenge.
Sporting a Kurosawa-inspired black and white aesthetic with a filmic grain, this game’s influences are less worn on its sleeve and more embroidered throughout the kimono. Still, credit is due — solid Japanese voice talent helps this Polish-American collaboration feel more authentic. Trek to Yomi inevitably lives in the shadow of 2020’s Ghost of Tsushima, American studio Sucker Punch’s equally respectful homage to samurai cinema. Where Ghost breaks up the bloodshed with jovial escapades chasing foxes across its open world or solving people’s problems, Yomi is a cheerful side-scroller that doubles down on the brutality, channeling the sadistic spirit of the Lone Wolf manga series. and Cub.
A disarmingly sweet introduction has you sprinting through a bustling feudal-era town, hearing the townspeople grunt. As expected, the peace does not last. Protagonist Hiroki’s katana sheds its first drop of blood around the 20-minute mark, and your blade’s thirst never seems to be quenched. Swordplay is more tactical and involved than it looks, letting you control the direction of slashes, combining parries with position changes and light and heavy attacks. Whether testing your mettle against heavily armored behemoths or dispatching mercenaries in a hail of arrows, there is only enough variety in duels to let you cut and unlock new blade skills to increase body count.
Just as killing samey bandits begins to fade, a fatal encounter sees a guilt-ridden, bloodstained Hiroki banished to Yomi – purgatory – where he fights his way through his literal demons. Leaving the generic feudal villages and terrified townsfolk behind, unsettling screams, distorted environments and scuttled undead become the new norm, and that’s when this cuddly katana finds its place. Yomi’s portrayal of consequence and remorse won’t win any awards for subtlety, but gives you a reason to complete this journey.
A handful of puzzles and the occasional chase scene provide respite from the slaughter. Taking the time to take branching paths also rewards player curiosity, whether it’s crucial ammo for ranged weapons, hidden collectibles, or coveted health and stamina upgrades. Checkpoints, however, led to some of the most infuriating moments I’ve ever experienced in a game; their totally inconsistent placement is baffling. Infuriatingly, after barely surviving several intense combat sections, there are often no save points and you end up replaying the same skirmishes over and over again. Other times they are generously placed after a single encounter, not even a particularly difficult one.
But despite its repetition and frustrations, I warmed to this gritty, bloody journey after the tedious first few hours. Thanks to a handful of player choices, the game offers just enough clues about player agency to make you feel like you’re part of the narrative as well, giving Trek to Yomi’s surreal massacre a sense of purpose. There’s a solid argument that a Japanese attempt of this kind would come close to fantastical samurai justice, but as with many Japanese takes on virtual America, there’s nonetheless a schlocky charm to the inauthenticity of the tropey of Yomi.