The trek in Trek to Yomi isn’t much of a trek at all. It is undertaken by Hiroki, a samurai-in-training, who sets off for the nearby village of Kamikawamura—a fifteen-minute walk at best—hearing of bandit attacks there. He runs into trouble en route; or, rather, trouble steals from the trees and rustles Hiroki’s allies like cattle. He sees that Kamikawamura has been razed and, fearing for his own village, heads back again. The whole thing, minus the murder and pillage, is a sunlit jaunt. And what of Yomi? Hiroki finds himself there not long after arriving home, and there is no trek involved. He is spirited there in the blink—or the close, at any rate—of an eye. Yomi, in case you didn’t know, is the underworld.
The rest of the game is, if anything, a trek through Yomi. Hiroki must hack his way back to the living, but, like Orpheus, he encounters his love while he is down there, and finds it tough to let go. She is Aiko, and she is a vision of the dolled up: swathed in many-splendoured robes, porcelain pale, with hair in an artfully contrived updo, and a habit of dangling above the floor, as if being held by an unseen hand. Aiko is but one of various apparitions that perturb Hiroki. He is also greeted by the wraiths of men he has felled, along with his former comrades, who have a confusing beef with him. Plus, he talks with his old master, Sanjuro, whose august presence is a reminder that all samurai are samurai-in-training, and that death is less an undiscovered country than a termless school, harbouring yet more lessons to learn.
If the name Sanjuro caused your ears to prick up with excitement, then you are in for a treat. The developer, Leonard Menchiari (in partnership with Polish studio Flying Wild Hog), has a thing for the earlier work of Akira Kurosawa. This is evident not just in the black-and-white colour palette, or the bursts of sylvan bloodshed, but the camera, which cuts between doomy angles and draws alongside Hiroki, tracking his desperation with a peaceful glide. Compare Ghost of Tsushima, which gave us the tacky option to turn on “Kurosawa mode”—little more than a filter, muffling the audio and scrubbing the world’s hues to a dappled silver. If Menchiari’s method exerts a richer hold on our imagination, it is because he understands that an authentic style cannot be switched on and off; Kurosawa’s mode was a constant, and, though playing Trek to Yomi is hardly comparable to having your afternoon swept away by Rashomon or Throne of Blood, its images pour out in a concentrated stream.
Why, then, did I begin the game leaning forward, stropped for pastoral action, and wind up stretching back on the sofa? I have to confess, my heart sank a little when I realised that Hiroki would be spending most of the game in Yomi. Not that there aren’t sights there, in its unsounded depths, that claw at your memory like a bad dream; did I really see a pair of spider’s legs uncoil from a sac and caress the air? And what of the forest, veiled in feathery greys, with silken strands glimmering between its branches? Menchiari owes as much to Limbo—with its humming shadows and its sticky-threaded anxiety—as he does to Japanese cinema.
But there is something weightless to the place. The fights lack the heft and consequence that they bore up on the earthly plane; your enemies, rather than crumpling amid a lead-dark spray, melt away in a milky shimmer, and Hiroki wonders, “How is it that I can slay the dead? Where do they go, if not to Yomi once more?” Indeed, and where do we go from here, if not to the opening minutes once more? We first see Hiroki as a kid—in his early teens at most—and the landscape through which he bounds is steeped in halation and hard-grained light, as though we were peering at it through smoke. Menchiari’s coup lies in this faintly threatening blend of the brightly rural and the narcoleptic. Long before the place is besieged and set ablaze, it seems to smoulder with the ghosts of the slain. The problem is, this stunts the power of the later scenes; how can we be stirred, or surprised, by the hereafter, when Hiroki’s days appeared already to be haunted by the herebefore?
Chief among the besiegers is Kagerou, a brute with a sleeve of tattoos and a nose like a vampire bat, given to him in a duel by the young Hiroki—before the lad’s master steps in and finishes the fight. “This village has a habit of failing to keep me in the grave,” says Kagerou upon his return, years later. It’s a nice line, but I’m still not totally clear on how all this works. How come Kagerou, a villain through and through, whom, we are told, “means to sit upon a throne of blood,” gets a second try? “Yomi grants us one last breath,” says Aiko, “then we shall return here, in harmony for all eternity.” Does everyone get a do-over, like the hero of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, or just those with unfinished business, regardless of whether that business is foul or fair?
In any event, the plot of Trek to Yomi is plainly only there to frame its combat, which doesn’t disappoint. By the end, Hiroki is armed not only with his katana but with a bow, a clutch of throwing knives, and a portable cannon, which he loads in a crouched position, the better to tamp down the gunpowder. Clashes unfold in a side-on perspective, and entail the usual liturgy: the evasive roll, the parry, the guard, the growing bank of combos. You also have to face your opponents—trickier than it sounds—and control your space. It recalls Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, in which the mechanisms of a larger series were stamped flat, into 2.5-D, and pressed with purposeful weight, gaining currency as a focussed riff. That game came alive in those small flourishes—blending into crowds, hurtling into carts of hay—that put it in synchronisation with its parent series.
Trek to Yomi has no official forebears, but it isn’t wholly unattached. Just as Salt and Sanctuary crunched FromSoftware’s unsavoury Dark Souls into two granular dimensions, and was sprinkled with spiritual nods, Menchiari looks glancingly at those works, too, opting for a stamina meter and moments that call on your patience. If you find yourself frustrated, you can either whack the difficulty down from “Bushido” to “Kabuki” and cruise to victory, or you can take heed of Hiroki’s advice: “Fall seven times, and stand up eight. That is what I was taught, and that is how I shall endure Yomi.” Not that this is something that has to be endured. The underworld may be outglowed by the freaky fogs above, but so what? If you want a transporting reverie, a game you can slip into as if you had closed your eyes, then here it is. No trek required.
Developer: Leonard Menchiari, Flying Wild Hog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: May 5, 2022
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