Image courtesy of Flying Wild Hog

Inspired by Kurosawa samurai films, Trek to Yomi is one of the most visually striking games of the year

Founded in 2009 in Warsaw, Poland, independent game studio Flying Wild Hog’s name evokes the same core feeling as its acclaimed catalog of titles — action-packed, fast-paced, and wholeheartedly unique. From Hard Reset, Trek to Yomi, Evil West, Space Punks to the Shadow Warrior trilogy, Flying Wild Hog’s titles have established a reputation for quality and care, spurring and continued growth across its three Polish studios and more than 300 talents.

Following its acquisition by Koch Media and Embracer Group, Flying Wild Hog seeks to continue delivering original, high-quality game experiences that transport players to exciting new worlds. With its proven production pipeline and immensely talented team, Flying Wild Hog is bound for delivering the unexpected!

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It seems only appropriate that a game featuring a voyage beyond life and death should take its creators on a similarly epic journey. That’s exactly what happened to us at Flying Wild Hog when we set out to develop Trek to Yomi, a side-scrolling action game that tells the story of Hiroki, a young swordsman sworn to protect his town and the people he loves against all threats.

Our team understood that a unique black and white art style would help to immerse players in the Edo period of Japan and evoke classic samurai movies like those directed by Akira Kurosawa. The challenge would be to experiment with the capabilities of Unreal Engine and iterate a unique art style, complete with custom FX and camera moves, without compromising Trek to Yomi’s fun and accessible adventure gameplay.

So, if you’re a technical artist, a real-time pipeline innovator, or even slightly interested in game development, read on to discover how we created our visually striking samurai game.

Setting the scene

When it came to composition, we stuck to the theatrical arrangement of space. This means that each shot in Trek to Yomi is divided into three planes: the “playable” area, the foreground, and the background. We had to ensure that each frame was clear and deliberately arranged to enhance the playability. Inside the playable area, the “axis of action” is bolded out with additional lighting and small details, while the depth of focus magnifies the foreground, keeping the player focused on the action.

We constructed backgrounds in a way that wouldn’t distract players from the task at hand but still looked aesthetically pleasing. In many cases, the background will transition into a playable area, meaning we had to arrange them in a way that met gameplay expectations. Our team was able to create tools for Unreal Engine that could hide any elements on the camera, giving us the freedom to create dynamic action and opening up more opportunities for scene arrangement.
Our post-process was designed to emulate the look of old movies from the 50s, but not to the extent that it would degenerate the image and ruin the player’s experience. We based the process mainly on balancing brightness, contrasts, and Blueprints that would simulate an old film reel, with authentic details like distortions, graininess, and subtle stuttering.

The toolkit

We used the Niagara particle system to create FX which, when compared to the initial Cascade system, gave us greater liberty to create parameters and set values in respective modules. This opened up the possibility of making universal VFX that could be adapted and used to arrange the game levels. Not only was this approach easier to implement, but way more optimal than creating a new particle system for even the slightest change in visuals.
Image courtesy of Flying Wild Hog
In order to facilitate the work of our Level Art department, universal Blueprints with effects for level arrangement were prepared. They encompassed dust, leaves, flames, wind, and anomaly FX. Each Blueprint contained several parameters to adapt the look of the FX to any given frame. To achieve the highest level of optimization, we used Custom Primitive Data and excluded the use of Dynamic Material Instance, which would create a separate instance of material for each additional Blueprint that was used in the level.

Special FX

Trek to Yomi presents players with several environments in which they must solve a riddle in order to rebuild destroyed objects and unlock the remaining gameplay. To achieve this within Unreal Engine, we reversed time and divided the object into two elements:
  1. We prepared the simulation of the destroyed object in a separate program before reversing it and importing it into Unreal Engine, using an appropriate Sequencer.
  2. We added additional VFX such as smoke, dust, and smaller pieces of debris.
Unreal Engine doesn’t have an optimal solution for controlling the time axis in Niagara, instead, we switched on Is Solo mode in the system and added it to a Blueprint that guided its time axis. However, this mode needed an instance of the effect in each frame while reversing time, which would result in a significant drop in frame rate. The solution to this particular problem turned out to be the creation of another system entirely, one that would only imitate the reversal of time. Using this system required the use of any additional modules that helped us achieve the desired effect.

The use of predetermined camera paths turned out to be incredibly convenient when optimizing and creating FX. It helped us forgo the use of volumetric FX by substituting them with Blueprints that were created on a simple mesh. Similarly, we created flame FX as a material with animated texture that was positioned onto the mesh. The rotation of these objects was static, they didn’t follow the camera, meaning we could freely arrange fire in each frame.

Camera, action!

We simply could not evoke the look of 50s samurai movies without incorporating their signature camera moves, so we created a system within Unreal Engine that helped us to achieve the following camera motions:
  • Dolly
  • Pan
  • Boom
  • Truck
  • Tilt
This system meant we could create static and dynamic cuts, this is based on the use of splines on which the camera moves according to the player’s position in the scene. A specific shot could be executed thanks to the appropriate setting of both splines within the scene. The two splines we used were CameraTrail (for the camera) and CameraTrack (to track the player). Keys for both were added to adequately position the camera in regard to the player. The use of the camera was based on Unreal Engine’s CineCameraActor which was supplemented with additional features.
Image courtesy of Flying Wild Hog
In order to create a complete shot, the level designer first had to add the main camera, CameraTrail, CameraTrack, and any triggers that would transition specific shots. Next, they had to set up keys in CameraTrail and CameraTrack and set up adequate parameters (such as Filmback Lens, Focus, and so on). Additionally, in each keyframe, there was a possibility of setting up additional options such as: initiating the cutscene, spawning enemies, and VFX.

Final thoughts

The ability to create new systems for Unreal Engine and expand on its capabilities meant we could realize our vision of a stylish yet accessible sword fighting game, emulating the aesthetic of our samurai movie inspirations and immersing the player in Edo period Japan. We truly undertook a journey not unlike that of our hero Hiroki, overcoming hurdles and staying true to our vision. We realized that even if Unreal Engine doesn’t offer a solution for something out of the box, you can work to create one. The only limit is your imagination.

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