What separates gaming as an artform from the likes of literature or cinema? Is it the writing? The presentation? The inclusion of fun gameplay? Is it even possible for gaming to successfully emulate another form of art?
Many games have certainly tried, with varying degrees of success. David Cage, for example, is renowned for trying to make his games effectively like a work of cinema – but ultimately fails on varying fronts.
Trek to Yomi succeeds at being the closest a game can be to being a true interactive movie, even if it does come at a cost.
Many thanks to Devolver Digital for the game code.
*note that screenshots are from the press release and are not of the Switch version, since the game bizarrely lacks even screenshot functionality!
I SAID YOMI
Right from the opening menu, it’s clear that this game has a lot of love for the work of Akira Kurosawa. Presented in black and white with an old timey grain filter, its pure Japanese Samurai film stylings are hard to ignore. Even as someone who isn’t hugely familiar with the bulk of his filmography, it’s hard not to be reminded of the few I have seen just from these opening moments.
This love becomes even clearer as the game opens up, revealing a young boy and his master during the midst of training. He (and, as an extension, we) have a lot to learn but the respect and adoration of his master is palpable. This is cut short by a sudden attack on the village by bandits, leading to the death of his master at the hands of the bandit chief.
With some time passed, we cut forward to the Hiroki, who is no longer a young boy but a young man, and he is now the protector of the village that is now run by his old Sensei’s daughter. After a mission to protect the town goes wrong, he finds himself on a journey of revenge that sees him traverse through both life and death to fight for what he believes in right.
A LONG TREK
Trek to Yomi plays as a mostly 2D hack and slash game, with you wandering through fairly linear set-pieces and taking our opponents with your trusty sword. Swordplay is relatively basic, with quite a fair few combos at your disposal – yet with very few being actually essential. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find a few that work well and just stick to those. More useful is a parry/block button, as well as the ability to switch the side you’re facing at the press of a button. Many will no doubt lament that you can only turn during combat with a button press, but facing your enemy feels more authentic for a game all about Samurai. Turning around and running away during combat would just be silly.
Combat is lamentably quite basic with very few foes requiring more than a simple parry followed up by a stab or two, and the long distance arsenal that you require only really prove useful against bosslike opponents that put up a little bit more of a fight. The difficulty can be increased for more of a challenge, but the problem with the gameplay lies in its tedium rather than its difficulty. On the rare occasion the game throws in a cart to push out of the way or an extremely simple matching puzzle, but it does little to make things more exciting. It’s clear that the developers had the story and its presentation at the forefront of their mind rather than focusing on an engaging gameplay loop.
What makes the story work so well is not just that it has a rather authentic Samurai plotline complete with excellent Japanese voice acting, but that the Mise-en-scène is the work of a professional. Like with survival horror games, areas are mostly self contained and moving offscreen will result in a shift to a new one, complete with its own camera angles and styling. It’s beautifully done and I found myself gobsmacked by just how stunning some areas can be, leading to some breathtaking fights. Add in the inclusion of some rather dramatic scenery, such as collapsing burning trees and you have one gorgeous game.
What adds to all that the areas are not quite as linear as they appear to be. There are lots of secret pathways leading to optional encounters, upgrades, or simply alternate ways to approach a fight. One early game pathway saw me enter a building from above, where I was able to chop down a suspended woodpile on top of an unsuspecting group of bandits. Sure, I could have taken them on pretty easily with my blade, but finding this secret route felt far more rewarding. These little snickets aren’t quite enough to make up for the repetitive gameplay, but they’re a nice diversion regardless.
It may be apparent by now that the game is very much a game of two halves. On the one side, you have the rather unrewarding and repetitive combat and on the other you have a stunning work of art that really shows off how cinematic camera angles can really work to make an epic story feel really epic. Environments in both the land of the living and of the dead are all really stunning, as are the foes you fight and the music that accompanies it. That’s why it pains me that I found myself forced to play the games in smaller chunks in order to truly enjoy it. Whilst being a game you could probably beat in one sitting, it’s also one that absolutely shouldn’t be if you actually want to enjoy it.
Trek to Yomi is one of the most beautiful games I have played in a long time. It’s visual style is cinematic and really shows off how well the developers understand the work of Kurosawa. That’s what makes it all the more unfortunate that there just isn’t that much to the gameplay, which leads to it feeling a little long in the tooth by the end.