Talking Trek to Yomi with Lenardo Menchiari
The last several years have seen something of a samurai renaissance in gaming, but the indie scene has been relatively quiet in this regard. Enter Trek to Yomi, a new Devolver Digital-published action-adventure game that’s aiming to replicate the feeling of playing a classic samurai film as much as possible. With painstakingly faithful visuals and a story that could be ripped straight from the annals of ’50/’60s samurai cinema, Trek to Yomi is already shaping up to be promising for samurai film buffs and action-adventure game fans alike.
We caught up with project visionary Lenardo Menchiari to discuss the research done to stay authentic to the look and feel of feudal Japan, how the team balanced cinematic storytelling with gamefeel, nods to different figures in Japanese mythology, and more.
GS: The most immediately striking aspect of Trek to Yomi is its dedication to replicating the look of classic samurai films, right down to a convincing film grain filter and static camera. What was the inspiration behind taking this artistic approach to the game? Are there any films in particular that you referenced?
Lenardo Menchiari: Absolutely. The initial idea came from old-school cinema from the 1930s, such as Buster Keaton’s action movies and classic samurai fights such as Orochi. Only later I connected this idea with Kurosawa films and gave it a more 1950s-1960s approach. The cinematic look and inspiration was mostly from Hidden Fortress, 7 Samurai, and Yojimbo, but also from some more modern animations such as Sword of the Stranger and Ninja Scroll.
GS: It’s clear that the team took great care to depict 19th century Japan as accurately as possible. What kind of research did you have to undertake to get everything just right?
LM: One of the toughest challenges had to be the work that was put into this project to maintain historical accuracy. Despite the story being completely fictional, I really wanted it to feel authentic. Me and the writer Alec Meer did a lot of personal research initially, starting from Hokkusai Manga, books such as Musashi, as well as me and my partner Araceli Garcia taking piles of notes at the Edo museum in Tokyo. Eventually we decided to hire a historian–Aki Tabei–to fill in all the gaps. We needed someone that knew the history of Japan very accurately in order to achieve the type of feel and truthfulness that we wanted.
Every update over the production timeline would be shared through videos and pictures with Aki; we then received that feedback and implemented the changes as we continued the development of the game.
GS: Maintaining a certain cinematic quality is obviously important for a title like Trek to Yomi. Were there any specific challenges that came with trying to maintain that experience while also offering players fluid swordplay and exploration?
LM: This aspect was one of the most challenging parts of the journey. Initially the idea was to have both fighting and exploring mixed into one. The reason was to keep the player unsure about when he was supposed to fight, which would create tension and suspense. The way Flying Wild Hog implemented it was a more divided approach, which presented the player with a clear distinction of when the player is fighting versus when they’re exploring for items or dialogues.
To maintain the suspense and keep things interesting, we had to constantly trick the player through camera angles and deceiving cuts into believing that some of the combat moments could be exploration and vice versa. Lower camera angles kept the players on their toes during uncertain danger events, while choosing between left and right could mean finding a special item versus being surrounded by a group of enemies.
The crowd behaviors while fighting on a 2D spline was also tricky, but it worked. Enemies ended up surrounding the player with some subtle morale system in place, so that rather than seeing every combat on a flat line you can get a more immersive feel while being circled around by multiple enemies that would feel threatening, but also scared. The reason some historical legends were able to fight crowds of a hundred people on their own was mainly because each single fighter was scared of them. That’s why we needed enemies to also feel scared rather than just aggressive.
GS: As a samurai game, the combat obviously revolves around swordplay. From a gameplay perspective, how do you ensure that using one weapon for the majority of the game stays fresh and entertaining? Might we see Hiroki wield other weapons or gain special powers throughout the campaign?
LM: Keeping only one weapon throughout the entire game gave the game designers more freedom to focus on the actual sword fights rather than more and different weapons. There are some additional secondary weapons such as shuriken, bow and arrow, and Osutsu: an ancient heavy hand-cannon used in Edo Japan before firearms became more commonly used.
GS: The music in the preview build is absolutely beautiful and sounds authentic to the time period. What was the process like for recording the OST and accurately capturing such distinct soundscapes?
LM: We put a lot of work into the music. Lots of credit goes to Yoko Honda and Cody Johnson, who combined their forces to create something that sounded very authentic, as well as powerful and professional. Scales, tunes, even instruments are all taken from the specific time and regions of the surroundings of Edo Japan. In the underworld, Yomi, things were more broad musically since that specific underworld mythology was shared among many areas of Asia, including China. That’s where the composers had more freedom to explore sounds with even more interesting instruments, without as many restrictions, while still keeping everything truthful and original.
GS: Most of the collectibles that you find around the game world have roots in Japanese mythology, and characters often reference spirits and the afterlife in conversation. Why were these references important to include, and are there certain mythological elements that we can look forward to in the full release?
LM: The mitama spirits are part of the whole balance of the characters in the story. Hiroki needs to rebalance his soul after the struggles that he had to face in the past. Other than the linear branching narrative that the game has on the first layer, the whole world presents many story pieces that can be found and read as part of the experience. That side will help whoever is interested into going much deeper into the lore of the world and background of the characters.
GS: Aside from being a classic samurai revenge tale, are there any other themes you hope players will walk away with from Trek to Yomi?
LM: More than the samurai revenge tale, I hope the players will be able to experience an inner spiritual journey that can be fully understood only by going through the whole experience. That’s the beauty of this kind of artform and what I hope we were able to achieve.
Trek to Yomi launches on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC, and Game Pass later this year.