Trek to Yomi's demo captures the style but not the soul of Kurosawa's films

Trek to Yomi samurai action
(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

The demo for Devolver Digital's Trek to Yomi makes it clear that the team behind the game are not only in love with legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa: they've also spent a considerable amount of time studying his filmography. Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Rashomon, and the rest of Kurosawa's samurai films. Every monochrome area is a feast for the eyes, places where flashes of lightning flood the sky with intense bloom and foreground scenery is skillfully used to convey a sense of cave-bound claustrophobia, or focus your attention on a particular part of the screen. Wherever you look you'll find faux film grain and digital dirt. These effects and techniques bring texture and life to the hand-crafted beauty before your eyes in a way raw graphical power can’t ever truly match. 

Unfortunately something else became obvious as I played through this side-on sword fighting adventure: recreating that unmistakable style in Epic's Unreal Engine doesn't automatically bestow Trek to Yomi with any of the films' depth or meaning.

Trek to Yomi's demo tells yet another tale about an orphaned boy who grows into a tough-looking hero with a shiny sword, the only man in the entire village capable of fighting an endless supply of nigh-identical bandits without getting himself captured or killed. I don't mind that. What I do mind is that the creative well it's exclusively drawing from—and this even includes more recent Kurosawa homages like the Star Wars: Visions anime episode "The Duel"—tells tales of class wars, politics, and the abuse of power; of grinding poverty and the fleeting and fragile nature of existence. Trek to Yomi gazed upon those wonders of storytelling and said:

"Cool swords, bro."

There's nothing wrong with Cool Swords: I hope Dynasty Warriors' superheroic historical figures never stop fighting a thousand soldiers at once while electric guitars wail in the background. But Trek to Yomi never commits to being a katana-laden brawler that puts its influences to one side for the sake of some all-out sword fighting, nor does it have the courage to stick to its cinematic guns, where a drawn blade is the last resort of a desperate man. 

Trek to Yomi ends up straddling an awkward middle ground, another instance of well-intentioned samurai cosplay. You get all the rain-protecting kasa, large torii, and strict-but-kind sensei just itching to die in a dramatic life-changing fashion you can handle, but thematically speaking there's not much else. Trek to Yomi idolises the fictionalised concept of samurai as brave and noble defenders of the people, then presents lead hero Hiroki—a man we are led to believe has dedicated his life to this creed—with at least two opportunities to cheaply kill groups of enemies with staged environmental hazards in the beta alone, bushido be damned.

Digging further into the combat only underlines how Trek to Yomi has successfully copied the style but not the substance of its influences, offering chain combos and health upgrades in place of the gut-wrenching mind games in the best film duels. No attempt has been made to convey the tension buzzing in the air preceding the all-or-nothing slices of samurai cinema. I don't feel like I can try to out-psych my opponents, or that a fight hinges on maintaining the perfect distance before a strike as the wind howls around me. 

Counter > X > X, watch your stamina gauge, repeat four times until the next checkpoint. Toshiro Mifune never did that, or anything that looked like it.

The locations these moments take place in are always framed by whatever camera angle makes them look closest to the films they're inspired by regardless of how practical that may be for the player, at times leaving you fighting a grey man who might be all of an inch high against a grey background, even though consistently countering his tiny sword may be key to your continued existence. At other times an extremely distracting full-screen film effect appears moments before a duel starts, as if the virtual reel’s being changed for the beginning of the fight choreography, even though no serious film director would ever tolerate such amateurish cuts (and no player appreciates a jarring transition before a fight).

Trek to Yomi seems to hope players will be too awed by the visual delights to notice what they've actually been given is a rather ordinary action-slasher experience. The inescapable comparisons to landmark moments in cinematic history—comparisons Trek to Yomi has invited upon itself—only serve to highlight how far off the game is from capturing the spirit of the films the developers clearly adore.

Kerry Brunskill
Contributing Writer

When baby Kerry was brought home from the hospital her hand was placed on the space bar of the family Atari 400, a small act of parental nerdery that has snowballed into a lifelong passion for gaming and the sort of freelance job her school careers advisor told her she couldn't do. She's now PC Gamer's word game expert, taking on the daily Wordle puzzle to give readers a hint each and every day. Her Wordle streak is truly mighty.

Somehow Kerry managed to get away with writing regular features on old Japanese PC games, telling today's PC gamers about some of the most fascinating and influential games of the '80s and '90s.