Highlighting Games with Small but Dense Worlds

These Games Make the Most with What They Got

Kazuma Kiryu, one of Yakuza 0's protagonists, stands in a rainy Kamurocho

Hello, wonderful readers of 25YL. Today I’m here to talk to you about size. Or rather, how size isn’t everything. With open world video games and RPGs, there seems to be a never ending parade of games attempting to 1-Up each other when it comes to the size of their game worlds. And sure, size is a nice thing when it’s used right. Games like Just Cause 2, Breath of the Wild, and Skyrim all boast massive worlds with plenty of things to keep you busy. With Just Cause, it packs the world full of explosives so there’s a seemingly limitless amount of opportunities to cause all kinds of insane, action movie mayhem. Breath of the Wild is jammed full of secrets, both big and small, just waiting to be discovered by curious players. The same goes for Skyrim. Point is, these games make great use of their own geography.

The flip side to this is games where the world feels like just another obstacle, or a reason to give players downtime between mission objectives. Just look at Ubisoft’s output for the past…I don’t know, decade? Most of the games they put out follow a formula of “moderately-sized world filled with stuff.” Granted, some of the games with this formula, like Far Cry 3, are very good. Others just feel like a never ending list of busy work with no real focus or drive.

But then there are the games with the exact opposite feelings. Games where the world is small, but fully fleshed out and packed with things to do. I’m here to talk to you today about just a few of these games that make the most of their small size. Let’s dive in.

Dragon Quest IX

Alltrades Abbey, a large temple, stands at the top of a large stairway, flanked by waterfalls on either side.
This is the place where you can change your character class, and each one has a wealth of skills to unlock.

I’m a pretty big fan of the Dragon Quest IP. I own every main title released in the states (1-9, and 11). I’ve still got to play 2, 3, and 11. Regardless, I’ve been a fan for about a decade now, and it’s all because of the ninth mainline installment on the Nintendo DS. Dropping in 2010, it seemed a weird move for the game to be a handheld exclusive, but it was to emphasize the focus on the game’s multiplayer. It blended a traditional JRPG with an MMO, with the semi-linear and lengthy story of the former, and the character customization and content of the latter.

Taken just as a mainline game, it’s probably middle to upper tier, with a decent story and good party building. The game opens up exponentially once you defeat the final boss, though. Back when it first dropped, there were weekly quests you could download that were absolutely free of charge, as well as an online shop that updated daily, presenting players with rare items you couldn’t find anywhere else. Sadly, these are no longer available, as the servers have long since shut down.

Including all of those downloadable quests, there were a whopping 184 side quests in the game total, which is a lot for any RPG. Sure, many were fetch quests or “kill x number of this enemy,” but it provided ways to grind while still working towards some kind of progression. There were other, more challenging quests that would require you to beat certain monsters under specific conditions, which provided high level players with great challenges to sink their teeth into.

While the main story is anywhere from 30—50 hours depending on how much grinding and side content you do, much like other games in the series, the world itself isn’t gigantic, especially once you get a post-game item that lets you fly through the air. The quests and absolutely enormous amount of items you can create through alchemy would be enough to keep any invested player busy for a long time. But there’s one other feature the game gave players that extends its play time into the thousands of hours.

There are randomly generated dungeons referred to as Grottoes. Early on, you get a map to an area, and from there, you can dive in to a dungeon with totally random layout, enemies, bosses, and treasure chests (which do refill if you beat the boss and come back). The great thing about them is that once you beat the boss at the end, you get another map, one that is of a higher level, and potentially contains tougher enemies and better loot. This can be repeated as many times as you want.

You absolutely need to have an appreciation for JRPG gameplay in order for this to be a significant feature, but if you love it, the Grottoes are the gift that keeps on giving. As mentioned above, there are hundreds of items and pieces of equipment for you to find, and many of the best ones come from Grottoes. Add on top of that 12 different classes (all with a whole host of abilities to learn), the 184 quests, and even secret, uber-difficult Legacy bosses to challenge for the game’s best loot, and you have a JRPG with seemingly limitless content and playability.

Deadly Premonition

Detective Francis York Morgan lights a cigarette in the rain.
The game is a hot mess, but also infinitely charming. Francis York Morgan, the odd but lovable FBI Agent, is a big reason for that.

If you’re reading this site, I’m assuming you’re fond of Twin Peaks. And if you’re also reading this article, I’m assuming you’re a fan of gaming as well. Have you ever been watching Pete discuss fishes and percolators and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could actually put the fish in the percolator myself?” Fret not, friends. Deadly Premonition is the answer to your percolator related desires.

Following FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan, or York for short, Deadly Premonition sees players investigating the mysterious death of much loved teenager Anna Graham, who was strung up in the woods with her chest cut open. York must work his way around the oddball town and interact with the quirky inhabitants as he tries to find out who killed Anna and bring them to justice. The thing is that he keeps having hallucinations (or perhaps visions?) of going to a room filled with flower petals where different characters whisper secrets to him. Additionally, reality is unstable in Greenvale, and York frequently finds himself in a bizarre, otherworldly version of the town where he must fight off ghostly inhabitants and avoid the mysterious Raincoat Killer.

This game borrows more than a little bit from our beloved Twin Peaks, but there’s a certain hands-on approach to the finer gameplay details and storytelling that help give it an identity all its own. For one, the story, despite the achingly familiar set up, eventually veers sharply into its own territory, telling its own weird, but emotional and satisfying, tale. More than that, the game has many life sim elements like hunger, fatigue, and even doing laundry that give it a weird, unique charm.

Granted, the game’s ambitions often extend beyond its reach. It was a low budget title, with dated graphics and plenty of bugs that can make playing it a chore. And while things like bugs can certainly be quite obnoxious, the game somehow manages to rise above its clunky gameplay and shoddy performance to become something truly special. And that’s largely thanks to the writing, which is genuinely top notch.

Another thing about this game that stands out, though, is that it makes the most of its moderately- sized town of Greenvale. While bigger than you might expect, it’s jam packed with secrets and side activities, many of which offer unique, powerful rewards such as infinite ammo weapons or new costumes that grant York certain benefits. There are 50 optional side missions, and most of them feel significant thanks to the way they flesh out the world. In one, you explore a seemingly haunted house looking for a treasure. In another, you interact with Anna’s mother, an equally funny and sad endeavor.

These quests go a long way to making Greenvale feel like an interesting, real place. This is ignoring the rather lengthy story, which can clock in somewhere between 20- 40 hours depending on how much of the side content you choose to do. And despite its length, the story is paced very well, teasing mysteries and delivering both intentional and unintentional comedy in the first half and paying off everything expertly in the second half. It does a good job of making the world feel lived in and filling it with things to do, and the unique tone of drama and comedy the game balances give each side mission a fantastic sense of personality and importance.

Yakuza 0

Kazuma Kiryu, Yakuza 0's deadly serious protagonist, looks at a chicken named Nugget.
I was going to make the image of this section a cool action shot of fighting bad guys, but then I remembered you can unlock a Property Manager that’s a chicken named Nugget.

I mentioned in the first entry of our new series We’re Just Playing that I was playing through this game, and after 40 hours, I’d finally beaten it. Billed as an open world crime game, you take on the role of Kazuma Kiryu, a young man who willingly leaves the Yakuza to solve a murder he was framed for. You also play as Goro Majima, a well-meaning but troubled young man who wants back in to the organized crime game. His task to get back in his bosses’ good graces is to kill a certain individual for reasons that are at first unclear.

The story is great, with both Kiryu and Majima’s tales weaving together in some unexpected and fantastic ways. The story itself is rather serious, too, with lots of cinematic posturing and rather dark moments. Then, of course, the time comes to fight, and everyone in the room throws their shirts off to reveal their crazy tattoos and some sort of awesome rock song plays. This balance between dead seriousness and over the top action somehow works.

This is an open world game, though. Playing as Kiryu, you can explore Kamurocho, a fictionalized version of Japan’s red light district. Alternatively, playing as Goro, you can explore Sotenbori, a place filled to the brim with clubs and other diversions. Neither district is particularly large; you can easily run from one end of a district to the other in maybe two minutes, admiring the small details the developers put into the world.

Even ignoring the length of the narrative, which can last anywhere from 20-40 hours, this game makes the most of these rather small spaces. For one, there are tons of in depth mini games at your disposal, many of which can earn you a ton of Yen in the process. There’s mahjong, darts, race cars, Sega arcades that feature full emulations of classics such as Space Harrier, which is, in and of itself, a fantastic addition if you’re into classic gaming. There are even silly mini games like disco dancing and karaoke, both of which are never endingly hilarious to see Kiryu or Goro participate in.

Then there are the side stories. Just walking around town opens up a whole host of endlessly entertaining tales of Goro and Kiryu helping people with various problems. Sure, you might be inhabiting the role of a super serious former Yakuza member, but look, there’s a dominatrix who needs a pep talk and coaching on how to be a domineering force. See, she just lacks confidence in herself. Then there’s a TV crew who needs to have a stand in producer so the diva director doesn’t get huffy. Shouldn’t you find time in your busy schedule to dress Kiryu up in a ridiculous sweater and ascot and help film a scene of a girl eating fast food?

There’s 100 of these suckers available, 60 for Kiryu and 40 for Goro, and you never know quite what to expect from each one. A huge highlight for me was seeing Goro infiltrate a goofy ass cult to save someone’s daughter, and proceeding to beat the stuffing out of the cult leader when he reveals himself for the fraud he is. Another great one sees you subject yourself to personal searches by a cop with a sad back story, then proceeding to help him regain his confidence by beating a bunch of guys over the head with bicycles (don’t worry, no matter what insane, bloody thing you do to bad guys, including driving a sword through their torsos and snapping their necks, Kiryu and Goro never actually kill anyone because video games).

While the mini games are great diversions, it’s the wealth of side stories that really help flesh the world out and extend the play time of the games. It also helps breakup the rather dour story beats with their liberal doses of just ridiculous comedy and surprisingly sweet pathos. It makes the two small city districts you explore feel more lived in than most game worlds, and each one offers hugely entertaining ways to spend 15- 20 minutes at a time. Not only that, but they tie in to major financial side gigs as well (real estate for Kiryu and running clubs for Goro) in that often times, those you help will join your cause, unlocking new personnel for the elaborate side tasks and increasing your profit potential.

I was warned going in to Yakuza 0 that it would be easy to lose yourself in the game. I shrugged the warnings off, thinking I would just concentrate on the story, but now I’ve completely bought out two of the Five Billionaires’ turf and make about 120,000,000 yen every few minutes. I own grocery stores, arcades, strip clubs, restaurants, and more. Somehow, the game manages to suck me back in even though I’ve finished the main story. And for a game with such a small overworld, that’s impressive.

Marvel’s Spiderman

Spidey crouches, preparing to attack a thug wielding an assault rifle.
The game smartly uses its fun systems to pack the world with enjoyable content.

I’ll fully admit that I’m not a huge superhero guy. I like the Sam Raimi Spiderman movies, I love Batman, and that’s about it for heroes for me. That being said, I’ve enjoyed a few different Spiderman games over the years, so when I recently got my PS4, and saw that Marvel’s Spiderman was on sale for twenty bucks with all of its bonus content included, I swept it up and immediately started playing.

It is in many ways a refinement of what makes the adaptation of Spiderman 2 so beloved. Above all else, that game nailed the web swinging in a way no other game had up to that point, and this 2018 entry in the Web Head’s canon made it even better. There’s a tremendous sense of locomotion that ensures swinging around New York City during hour 1 of the game is just as fun during hour 25.

More than that, though, the game offers a fantastic sense of progression. At the start of the game, you have some basic brawling and dodging mechanics, as well as access to Spidey’s web shooters to wrap up goons. As you go on, you unlock a whole host of new, powerful moves, and awesome gadgets to dispatch foes. Things like a web trip mine, a web bomb, a drone, and even an anti-gravity machine that suspends enemies in the air, help round out attacks like swinging and kick an enemy, using a web to strike the ground with enormous force, and disarming enemies and throwing their weapons back at them.

There are even a whole butt-ton of costumes to unlock, which, beyond serving as really cool aesthetic options taken from all over Spidey’s history, give you access to powerful, unique abilities like briefly quadrupling your attack, shredding an electric guitar and sending your enemies flying with the power of punk rock, gaining total invulnerability to bullets, and even launching quips at your enemies (obviously the most useful of the bunch).

To earn experience and crafting tokens for all of these wonderful unlockables, the game packs in a bunch of different side activities, like stopping random crime, completing combat, stealth, and locomotion challenges, various side story quests, gang hideouts, and other things. Most importantly, aside from radio frequency and line matching mini games, the side content is fun because it makes you participate in web swinging, combat and stealth, and the developers ensure that all of that is fun as well.

To top it off, the games boasts an impressive script, with a good main story, and great side stuff, such as a podcast hosted by J. Jonah Jameson that almost always got a chuckle out of me. Basically, regardless of what you’re doing in the game, you’re having a good time doing it, and there’s a lot of it to do. Walking across New York City would probably take a while, but since you’re the web head, swinging from one end of the other takes a matter of minutes. Rather than making the world gigantic, it gives the player a ton of side tasks to complete, and each one is enjoyable and ties directly in to powerful character and cosmetic upgrades (seriously, I’m a sucker for costumes in any game, and there are over 30 to acquire, and most of them are gorgeously detailed).

A Final Shout Out

Another game I feel belongs on this list is Majora’s Mask, but I’ve written nearly 3000 words on what makes that game amazing for this site before. It too packs a relatively small world with an insane amount of quests and detail.

These are just a few games with small worlds that manage to be dense and meaningful. If I’m being honest, I often prefer games that make the most with what they got, rather than using a sizable game world to pad out the run time. Of course, the best games are big and packed with meaningful content, but more often than not, a large world can often feel empty and pointless. These are by no means the only games falling under this criteria, but are just a few of my favorites. Sound off in the comments on other games deserving of recognition for making the most of what they got.

Written by Collin Henderson

Collin enjoys gaming, reading, and writing. He would love to tell you all about his two books, the crime thriller Lemon Sting, and the short horror story collection Silence Under Screams, but only if you find yourself unfortunate enough to be in a conversation with him. He lives in Massachusetts.

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