If you’re a fan of classic samurai movies, there’s a lot to love about Trek to Yomi. It’s a katana-swiping side-scroller with a worthwhile story that does a magnificent job of distilling old school Japanese cinema into video game form. But while it never stopped blowing me away aesthetically, the things you’re actually doing in that beautiful world are less impressive, with overly simplistic combat and exploration that only begins to scratch its surface. Even so, Trek to Yomi’s stylish presentation makes up for many of its gameplay shortcomings, making this a memorable samurai tale I’m glad I played.
Trek to Yomi’s dedication to black and white samurai movies from the 20th century is apparent in literally every moment of it, from the look of its boot-up logos and main menu all the way to the closing credits. That includes everything from the artificial sparkle dotting the screen that makes it look like it’s playing from an old film reel, to the pacing and line delivery during cutscenes, to the references to historically accurate traditions and religious practices that play a central role in the story. It’s actually hard to overstate just how great it feels to move about in such a meticulously detailed adaptation of a film style I’ve always adored, and that movie magic is the best thing Trek to Yomi has to offer without a doubt.
The story itself is your standard revenge quest featuring a stoic protagonist struggling to choose between his duty and his personal desires, complete with the good ol’ traumatic childhood massacre serving as its first chapter. It’s a cliche, to be sure, and if you’ve watched almost any vintage samurai movie then you’ll be able to see a lot of its events coming from a mile away. But with all the other ways Trek to Yomi pays homage to the classics that inspired it, an overly conventional story doesn’t end up being such a bad thing. Sometimes tropes become tropes for a good reason, and this familiar tale was like stepping into a warm bath filled with my favorite, samurai-scented candles. It isn’t entirely without its own twists and turns either, and on at least one occasion it did something I hadn’t anticipated – moments that went a long way toward redeeming the otherwise predictable plot.
You’ll spend most of this adventure ronin around and slicing your way through beautiful backdrops with a combat system that’s satisfying despite not having much to it. You’ve got light attacks, heavy attacks, a parry, and a few ranged weapons thrown in for good measure, but that’s about as deep as Trek to Yomi ever goes. Every now and again you’ll unlock a new attack combo or meet a new enemy type that requires you to mix up your strategy ever so slightly, but after less than an hour I had mastered most of the skills I needed to blow through armies of bandits and spectral samurai with unbridled ease. This was especially true once I unlocked the ability to easily stun enemies and finish them off with a bloody animation that also heals you, which you can use to bail yourself out of nearly every encounter the campaign throws at you.
It’s not that combat is ever bad, it’s just extremely simplistic and doesn’t evolve enough as you progress to keep things feeling fresh. It’s also very familiar to many other 2D action games, with no real hook or new idea to set itself apart from anything I haven’t already seen elsewhere. Most of the time, I found myself just enjoying the awesome sights and sounds while I barrelled through every enemy in my way (even on the hardest difficulty, mind you). It’s a good thing that the whole adventure only lasts six hours, because combat gets old in less than half that time, so at least it didn’t have much chance to overstay its welcome in a way that got frustrating.
Boss fights are an exception to the breezy combat though, as they usually introduce an enemy that can’t simply be decapitated in an instant. These spongey champions must be studied so you can devise a strategy for surviving their attacks and carefully counter them. Bosses accounted for the vast majority of my deaths throughout my playthroughs, since they’re one of the only parts that forced me to mix up my strategies. Even when I was getting slapped around helplessly, it was a blast figuring out how to best these dastardly warriors, but they’re so few and far between that they just made me wish more of the combat presented a similar challenge.
Trek to Yomi also dabbles in some light exploration and even a side quest or puzzle now and again, though it’s all extremely shallow stuff. Exploration usually amounts to a few samey optional rooms with a hidden collectible or an alternate path to get wherever you’re headed – sometimes you’ll even find a way to avoid a combat sequence altogether by triggering a neat environmental kill, such as dropping logs on some fools like a vengeful Ewok. It’s just too bad these ideas weren’t taken a little further as it’s currently all incredibly straightforward and opportunities for environmental kills almost never come up. Similarly, side quests usually amount to an optional area where you can slay a few extra baddies and grab some easy loot from a grateful survivor, while puzzles are little more than mind-numbingly easy chores like pushing an object or matching some symbols. As a result, these diversions all just feel like filler.
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Author: Tom Marks