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‘Trek to Yomi’ is a decent samurai descendant of ‘Prince of Persia’

(The Washington Post illustration; Devolver Digital)

Trek to Yomi

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S

Developer: Flying Wild Hog | Publisher: Devolver Digital

Release: May 5, 2022

Starting “Trek to Yomi” means managing your expectations. Don’t expect a meaty action game; instead, stick around and indulge in a game that’s as beautiful as it seems in screenshots and trailers.

Conceived by Italian filmmaker and former Valve cinematographer Leonard Menchiari, the game is less a chunky samurai combat simulator and more a roller coaster through a striking, black-and-white, classic samurai cinema greatest hits compilation. Reviews of the game have compared it to Playdead’s 2010 puzzle-platfomer “Limbo,” and I’m inclined to agree. Both games descend from the cinematic side-scrolling ambitions of Jordan Mechner’s “Prince of Persia” in 1989.

The story on paper isn’t anything special. Tragedy befalls a young samurai, Hiroki, and his village; in the aftermath, his duty toward his love and community are tested. The storytelling is saved partially by well-written and acted dialogue, all in Japanese. While the premise and story beats are predictable, the panache and drama of each line reading keeps it interesting. The team used a Japanese consultant to make sure the dialogue was historically accurate. It also helps to have an easy-to-hate villain in the demonic Kagerou, who cuts an imposing figure, looming over our hero’s life.

The game’s value, then, is entirely in its presentation. While Sucker Punch Studio’s “Ghost of Tsushima” tried to mimic legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s works with a “Kurosawa mode” filter, the game was never optimized for black-and-white presentation. The contrast, whites and depth-of-field effects present in “Trek to Yomi” are far more effective in mimicking old samurai films, complete with static shots of characters and scenery.

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The game often cuts from scene to scene as you navigate, kind of like a classic 3D adventure game with pre-rendered backgrounds, further enhancing its filmic progression. Entering a combat situation is always communicated to the player by moving Hiroki on a 2D plane; then, the game becomes an action side-scroller. When I played the cinematic “Ninja Gaiden” in 1989, I never dreamed a katana-based side-scrolling game could look as good as this. Every fight is framed beautifully, often with animated foreground elements that keep each shot active and lively.

It’s the combat where the game falls short, and that’s too bad, because besides walking through beautifully framed shots, the game really is just about fighting. There are standard heavy and light attacks along with a few special moves. Unfortunately, these abilities are gated by progression through the game’s story. Combat is only ever fully unlocked for the late game.

Worse yet, fighting doesn’t feel good. Each katana attack lands with impact of a barber’s blade. This is where comparison to “Ghost of Tsushima” is most appropriate, though not in a way that redounds in “Yomi’s” favor. Combat in “Tsushima” often felt impactful, with audiovisual feedback creating a sense of cutting and friction. “Yomi’s” action sequences, by comparison, feel limp and repetitive.

Despite the comparisons to “Prince of Persia” and “Limbo,” it’s important to note that the game barely has any puzzles or platforming. Instead, all of the game’s pacing is marked by combat scenarios. It’s a shame the game’s central engagement mechanic isn’t that engaging.

Fortunately, the game is very short, completed in about four hours. The combat, despite not feeling good, remains somewhat challenging, and it is almost always set against a stunning backdrop. And the story itself finishes in a surprisingly satisfactory way. Half way through the game, the narrative becomes about a descent into madness: It’s a tour de force of Japanese mystic imagery, layered under the haunting, black-and-white grainy filter.

Available on Xbox Game Pass, “Trek to Yomi” is a no-brainer download for anyone wanting a simple yet cinematic action game that harks back to classic PC adventures and 2D blade-action titles. At a $20 asking price, it’s a more debatable purchase, especially considering the short clear time. But at the end of the trek, I didn’t regret a minute of it, once I got over the fact that the combat was never going to be the real hook. It’s a gorgeous visual feast, and once I started it, I found it hard to look away.