Leonard Menchiari is the creator of the upcoming samurai side-scroller: Trek to Yomi. Working with Flying Wild Hog and Devolver Digital, Menchiari watched his project evolve over time into the game that fans will see when the game launches in Spring 2022. Trek to Yomi follows the young swordsman Hiroki seeking to protect his village while honoring a vow made to his dying master.
Before we talk about Trek to Yomi, tell me a bit about yourself, Leonard. How long have you been in game development?
I’ve been in game development since 2011, even though I always made short films and experimented with games since I was in elementary school. After working on a small side project with Valve, I first decided to make my first complete game about protests and revolutions called RIOT ( https://apps.apple.com/us/app/r-i-0-t/id1516724761 ). After that one, I made the remastered version of The Eternal Castle classic DOS game just for fun with a few friends ( https://www.theeternalcastle.net/ ), Neo Dusk as an experimental choose-your-own-adventure before Netflix made it a thing ( https://youtu.be/1EaFjeP0q9w ), all while writing a lot of other video game concepts on the side. One of those concepts was Trek to Yomi.
Are you working on the game solo? What does working with Flying Wild Hog mean?
I came up with that idea with my partner, Araceli Garcia, while I was introducing her to some of the most popular Kurosawa movies such as Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and 7 Samurai. I always wanted to make a black and white, old-school film looking game, so I spent a few months learning Unreal Engine and working on a prototype until something interesting came out. The Samurai genre ended up being a perfect fit for this kind of idea. I then polished the prototype with a friend of mine, Chris Curto, and eventually presented the concept to Nigel Lowrie from Devolver Digital before anyone else. I’ve been in contact with Nigel since 2013 when he first noticed RIOT, and I wanted to work on something with him and Devolver ever since. This was the project that they ended up accepting.
It took about a year or so before all the contracts were in place and we could finally start. Devolver provided a great writer, Alec Meer, to help out; I found great music by Emperia Sound; and I had the option of working alone or with FWH, so I chose to work with them.
While the design of the game ended up being quite different from what I initially planned, the art, story, level design, and production turned out to be much higher quality than expected. During production I started by doing a bit of everything (from storyboards and script, to pre-production, to drawn out maps, visual effects, lighting, level design, etc.), and eventually I focused my energies more on the cinematic aspects while keeping track and guiding the team towards the right creative direction.
With a larger team it gets very hard to make everyone steer into the correct way, so in the end being able to not have the project go off track was one of the hardest tasks I had to focus on throughout production (especially considering that we only worked remotely).
Elevator pitch: What kind of game is Trek To Yomi meant to be?
Trek to Yomi is a cinematic experience about life and death set in Edo Japan through the eyes of Hiroki, a young swordsman who is sworn to protect his town and the people he loves against all threats. Faced with tragedy and bound to duty, the lone samurai must voyage beyond life and death to confront himself and decide his path forward.
Of course, we see the incredible images of what look to be 1950’s and 60’s inspired Kurosawa films. The presumption is that was the goal. Is that true and was it always the goal?
Yes, this was the goal from the start.
Can you speak a bit on the music and sound design of the game? What process did you go through in gathering specific sounds to match your vision?
I initially met Emperia Sound in Tokyo while I was presenting the remastered version of The Eternal Castle at Tokyo Game Show. One of the members, Yoko Honda (with samurai heritage from the 12th century), had an immense knowledge about Japanese musical culture. After listening to some samples of Emperia and Yoko’s work, I immediately wanted to have them on board. Sound design was more challenging as there was only one sound designer in the team, plus a second one which arrived towards the end of production.
However, despite the sfx difficulties and because of the authentic music that was produced, the overall result turned out to be very satisfying. We researched and focused on several regions of Japan, which instruments they used, what kind of scales were popular, melodies and lullabies from specific areas, all mixed into one impactful experience. Some of the instruments such as the Gagaku and original rare flutes, some hereditated by many generations from centuries ago, were key elements to provide the exact sound and atmosphere that we were initially looking for.
When did development start? Were you always intending to arrive on multiple platforms?
Development started before Ghost of Tsushima came out, and actually some months before they publicly announced the “Kurosawa mode.” So for all the people out there that think that we did a Kurosawa game because we copied Ghost of Tsushima’s idea, think twice! But yes, since we planned all this with Devolver Digital, who is very good at planning, we had anticipated the release on multiple platforms ahead of time.
Did the release on multiple platforms change development time?
It only added a few extra months of production. FWH is very good at delivering material on time, so when it comes to tasks such as porting, they did not let us down.
How did Xbox Game Pass factor into this?
Devolver presented the idea to the team after Microsoft contacted them directly, and we all accepted immediately.
How did the game change through the course of development?
Initially, we had many more ideas that had to be discarded to respect the deadlines. Also, the game design turned out to be very different from what I initially envisioned. The idea of the cinematic camera angles, the story, the atmosphere, and the different endings were something that I fought hard for, and eventually those were able to remain intact from the start. Of course, the production grew more in certain aspects than others, so the direction became more towards visual quality rather than more focused on combat like initially planned.
Do you believe the game to be difficult, easy, or somewhere in between?
I’m a fan of creating one single unique, elegant difficulty curve progression, but that requires a lot of skill and time. In the end FWH decided to create different difficulty modes that can be switched in-game. I was not a fan of that, but this approach turned out to be scalable for a larger audience.
My approach on difficulty depends on what you’re trying to communicate emotionally to the player. During moments of struggles, the player should feel more stressed and threatened, so the difficulty should be higher, while when you want to make the player feel empowered, you should reduce the difficulty to give them more satisfaction. Of course, you can’t get enough satisfaction if the challenge isn’t there, that’s why you need some struggle at times. This is probably one of the hardest things to achieve in this type of artform, so I hope that I’ll be able to improve myself continuously on this particular aspect over the years and projects to come.
Was the length of the game a factor you considered when designing it?
Yes, as it usually happens in games, the length factor comes in play during the pitch phase, when you present the project to the publishers. Initially, my idea was to have a shorter game with a much larger replayability value. The result we achieved works as a single-run, but you can’t really play it more than a few times expecting a very different experience. Sure, there are multiple endings; you can fight a bit differently, but there is no sense of progression after finishing the game once, so I suggest just playing it as if you were watching a movie or a short series rather than a standard videogame.
In the end I’ve always hated the fact that videogames had to be judged and valued based on their length. Having been a film fanatic since I was a kid, the idea of considering an artform better or worse based on how long it is doesn’t make any sense at all. The reason games are valued based on their duration is just because the best way to sell a game is to have players play it as much as possible. I’m not a fan of forcing the player to keep playing; I’m more in love with the idea of making a very good piece of work, focused on quality rather than duration. In that, I think we did manage to do a pretty good job.
The dreaded question: are you happy with it?
As much as a creator can be happy with their creation, of course! But because the game wasn’t created just by me, but by a team with several people, some of them incredibly talented, ultimately the result didn’t feel entirely mine, but more a collection of many creative spirits gathered into one single piece. So in the end, despite the flaws, missing ideas, etc., I take a step back, and I do admit that there is some unique beauty in what we’ve done that can’t be found anywhere else.
Trek to Yomi launches in Spring 2022 for PlayStation, PC, and Xbox including Xbox Game Pass. Stay tuned for more coverage soon!