The influence of samurai film classics on Trek to Yomi is abundant. The latest game from eclectic director Leonard Menchiari is a loving homage to the heyday of jidaigeki cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with a distinctive tone and aesthetic that Yomi goes to painstaking lengths to authentically recreate. But there’s more to classic samurai cinema than exciting swordplay and its visual language: from Seven Samurai to The Tale of Zatoichi, Throne of Blood to Harakiri, samurai cinema was as much about deconstructing the mythical vision of samurai heroes, turning a critical eye to the notion of “bushido”, and exploring the impact of hierarchy in the age of samurai. That’s a point that too many “Kurosawa-inspired” works seem to forget, but one that’s at the forefront of Trek to Yomi.
Hiroki is, at first glance, the quintessential samurai. Though not named as being in service to any lord, he’s bound by a sense of duty to his village—a resolve forged in the fires of a bandit attack that he helped fend off as a child, taking his first lives and watching his master die at the hands of the bandits’ leader, Kagerou. Strong, resilient, skilled, driven by a pursuit of justice: a true samurai hero.
That is, until exactly that sense of duty sends a now-adult Hiroki on a mission to rout the bandits in their hideout and stop their skirmishes once and for all. A noble goal… aside from the part where it leaves his village undefended. When he returns to find the place under attack, most of it razed to the ground and his loved ones dead by Kagerou’s hand, Hiroki’s heroic facade gives way to a thirst for vengeance and a way to right the wrongs of his past—sending him on a journey into hell, both literally and figuratively.
It’s here that Trek to Yomi proves itself more than just a superficial pastiche. Hiroki is the paradox of the samurai ideal: driven by what he perceives as duty and honour, but in a way that manifests almost exclusively through violent deeds and motivations that, despite the noble labels layered on top, amount to the search for personal glory. His journey into the depths of Yomi is beset by demons and monsters, but also ghosts: of the foes he’s killed, of the people he was meant to protect, of other mystery samurai who see him and see only another demon, of himself and his own most violent, self-destructive tendencies.
It’s not quite the shocking, intense conclusion to Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966)—one of the most striking reflections on the violence inherent in the way of the sword in all of samurai film—but Trek to Yomi strikes a similar tone. As he ventures into the depths of the underworld, Hiroki is forced to reckon with his own relationship to violence and the discordant truth about the way of life he’s chosen. What does “duty” really mean, and what is the price of it? What is his role in perpetuating an endless cycle of violence, despite his genuine belief that he’s a good person fighting for peace, justice, and protection of the weak?
It’s a potent theme that Trek to Yomi approaches with a rare degree of focus and depth, even if it’s somewhat hindered by a lack of commitment and follow-through in the endings. “Love binds you. Duty binds you. Hatred binds you. Each of these is in opposition to the others. To attain balance, to finish that which remains unfinished, you must know what truly guides you,” a spectre of a younger Hiroki warns his older self, before you’re prompted to make that decision: love, duty, or revenge? On some level, a ternary narrative choice is a simple, effective way of exposing the conflict within Hiroki, and forcing that choice in the most literal way possible.
But the potential impact of it is undermined to some extent by the endings themselves. Regardless of which route you choose, things wrap up a little too neatly, forgoing earlier complexities in favour of a clean, tidy wrap-up. The revenge ending, despite being what most would consider the “bad” end, is the most thematically consistent, but even that one feels a little forced and unearned. In their own merits, these conclusions aren’t terrible—choosing duty, in particular, brings the story to a rather poignant close—but they’re a little disconnected from the more introspective, darker turns of the rest of the game.
The overall game design sits in a similar place. It’s a swift, punchy action game driven by sword fights on a 2D plane, not especially complicated in its details—you unlock a decent array of different combo attacks over the course of the game, but they’re largely interchangeable—but driven by an ebb and flow of parries and counterattacks that’s sufficiently satisfying. A steady flow of new enemy types regularly mix things up and introduce new wrinkles like ranged attacks, and boss fights are dramatic and dynamic.
It all works, and works well, but it feels a little at odds with what the rest of Trek to Yomi is going for. Something slower and more methodical seems the obvious choice: fewer enemies overall, with duels that are more deliberate and careful as each combatant tries to tease out the other and find an opening for that decisive, killing strike. Yomi achieves something sort of similar with a one-hit-kill difficulty that unlocks after completing the game once, but even that feels like a compromise, layered on top of level and enemy designs made for something more action-packed. (Alternatively, going in the complete opposite direction could also have worked: a frenzied, frantic action game that calls to mind the same sort of desperation as that final scene of The Sword Doom.)
Combat makes up the bulk of the game, but there’s a light dose of exploration and puzzle-solving, too. While combat sequences are two dimensional, you can move freely outside of those to search for hidden collectibles, secret areas, or different paths forward. The collectibles are of particular note: they’re artifacts from Japanese history that offer fascinating insights into culture, mythology, and ways of life, but with descriptions written from Hiroki’s perspective that do a great job of building his character and shedding light on his background.
Actually collecting them all can be a nuisance: with no chapter select, there’s no way to go back and clean up any missed items, and collectibles don’t persist when you start a new game, meaning you have to find everything in a single playthrough. But if you want to see the full picture of Hiroki and the world surrounding him, or even if you just enjoy a little dose of history and culture, it’s worth going to the effort of digging them all up.
But for all its “gamey” flourishes, what stands out most in Trek to Yomi is what’s stood out about it from the very first trailers: the way it so vividly captures the mood of samurai film classics. Fixed camera angles and visual design built around a monochrome aesthetic let it replicate the cinematography of those jidaigeki classics with authenticity, going beyond just a superficial aesthetic to employing the same sort of visual language and sound design as crucial components of storytelling. It even goes as far as exploring the themes that defined much of the samurai film era’s heyday, questioning the myth of the folkloric samurai hero and reflecting on the nature of humanity in a world driven by violence.
In short, Trek to Yomi is a game that lives up to its samurai film inspirations in a way that few others do. Endings that are a little too tidy and a few compromises in game design mean it doesn’t quite leave the impact it should, but the trade off is a game that’s a lot more playable and “fun” than it might otherwise have been—for better or worse. I’d still love to see how Leonard Menchiari’s original, presumably much less accommodating vision might have turned out, but Trek to Yomi is nonetheless an impressive game and a worthy homage to the samurai cinema classics.