I always get a little… suspicious when non-Japanese (and Western, especially) developers claim to be trying to capture the spirit of Akira Kurosawa in their work. Too often, what that means is a generically Japanese-looking thing with a grainy black-and-white filter slapped over the top, maybe with some shakuhachi in the soundtrack and “honour” as every other word in the script, just so that, y’know, there can be no ambiguity about the Japanese-ness of it all. Such an approach is a superficial call to Kurosawa’s earlier work, and even then, one that misses a lot of the visual distinction, let alone tone and thematic complexities. I’d never suggest that a developer can’t ever draw inspiration from creators of different cultures, or even explore those stories themselves, in their own way, but it’s a tricky thing to get right and requires a lot of care.
In what I’ve seen so far of Trek to Yomi—a game created by an Italian director, working with a Polish studio and an American publisher—that care is abundantly clear. It goes beyond just meticulous accuracy in the details of the period depicted, though there is that too; Trek to Yomi captures the tone and mood of its Kurosawa inspirations in a way that no other Western game I’ve played has managed. It’s there in the framing of every shot, the lighting, the score, the sound effects, the dialogue, the narrative structure, the characterisation.
The monochrome aesthetic isn’t simply a filter layered over the top of an otherwise full-coloured game, but something that everything else has clearly been designed around. The use of a fixed camera allows a degree of visual composition and careful framing that player-manipulable cameras lack. Even after playing only the first couple of levels, without getting anywhere near the hell that the title alludes to, what’s most apparent in Trek to Yomi is how well it manages to capture the atmosphere of films like Seven Samurai, both in aesthetics and on a deeper level.
There are shades of this in the way the story unfolds, too. Trek to Yomi is the story of a lone samurai with a sworn duty to protect the people of his village, setting him on a journey to venture “beyond life and death to confront himself and decide his path forward”. The preview build only covers the opening act: a young Hiroki witnesses the death of his master, swears an oath, and then a few years later we see him trying to rout a bandit settlement that’s been causing his village no end of grief. Even in this little slice, though, the seeds of depth beneath the surface of Trek to Yomi are clear—on the surface, it’s a story about a heroic samurai fighting to protect the weak, but with the hint at something much more introspective, and set against the backdrop of class inequality, war, and a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that much of the work of Kurosawa seeks to dissect.
In keeping with such a mood, Trek to Yomi tries to employ a combat system that evokes the kinds of duels you often see in jidaigeki films: slow and methodical as two combatants size each other up, but where quick, decisive action is what claims victory. Hiroki can take a few hits, but he’s no tank, and limited stamina means holding up your guard is only a temporary defence. Instead, an awareness of the reach of your and your opponent’s weapons is important, as is the willingness to take a gamble on a well-timed parry—the counterattack that follows can kill most enemies in a single strike.
But the emphasis there is on “tries”. It doesn’t have the precision that parry-driven combat system should need, and most encounters turn out a little messy as a result. It’s not terrible, but it’s also generic, repetitive, and not particularly interesting. At its worst, it feels at odds with what the rest of the game is trying to do, missing the nuance of the duels in the films it draws from and presenting a string of cookie-cutter bad guys to thoughtlessly cut down instead. (Interestingly, in an interview with DigitallyDownloaded.net, director Leonard Menchiari said that creative compromises mean the battle system has turned out quite different to what he initially envisioned.)
There’s a lot more Trek to Yomi left, and while I’ve got my concerns about the way it approaches combat, everything else about it feels promising in a way that few “inspired by classic samurai films!” games do. The story that the opening chapters lay the groundwork for seems like a fascinating one, and with as much commitment to the substance and atmosphere as there is to aesthetics, Trek to Yomi looks like it might just be able to actually live up to its Kurosawa inspirations.
Trek to Yomi is coming to PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One in 2022.