Bigger is not always better – at least, that’s what I try to tell myself every time I hop in the shower. Alright, I’m probably lying to myself: after all, no one orders a single patty from Five Guys, do they? I do believe, however, that in the case of open world games, a smaller, denser environment is preferable to gigantic open spaces. Hear me out on this one.
I’ve played two very different open world games back-to-back in Death Stranding and Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and I don’t want to compare the two directly because they’re very different. Hideo Kojima’s divisive hike-‘em-up is obviously designed around its traversal, and so it relies on expanses of open space in order to function. Ryu ga Gotoku, on the other hand, is more of a traditional JRPG.
I like both games a lot, and I think they both have unique strengths and weaknesses, but what I really appreciate about Yakuza is that it does so much with so little space. Isezaki Ijincho, the city area where you’ll spend most (but not all) of your time can be navigated from top to bottom in under three minutes if you avoid random battles, and yet in 45 hours I barely feel like I’ve scratched the surface.
This is because rather than rely on giant expanses, the game instead packs each of its high streets with interesting things to discover. For those of you who haven’t played it, there are restaurants you can eat at, shops you can explore, minigames you can play, and side-quests to complete: it’s dense with interesting things to do.
Now the developer does have a leg up on its competition here, because I’d be remiss to at least acknowledge the fact that the Yakuza games share assets and even content between entries, and so the sheer number of activities you’ll find in Like a Dragon are a culmination of a decade of iteration. It’s not all that different from the way sports games iterate annually, if we’re being honest.
But if we ignore that and take Isezaki Ijincho on its own merits, it’s a textbook example of what I personally want from a sandbox: imagine if rather than expanding the scope, Grand Theft Auto consolidated its efforts into a small space, and provided you with a near limitless number of buildings to explore and areas to discover. I think I’d prefer that.
Now, as I alluded to earlier, I do realise that not every open world game would benefit from this kind of structure: many sandbox games make traversal a key component, and you’re never going to get much satisfaction flying a harrier jet over a tiny map, of course. Yakuza, in this sense, benefits from the fact that its open world is very much designed around a cast of characters travelling on foot.
But, ever since Shenmue, I’ve always had this fascination with sandboxes that have a much smaller scope but a greater sense of place. Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s larger-than-life open world is microscopic by modern standards, but for as much as I enjoy the Assassin’s Creeds and Horizon Zero Dawns, this is the kind of sandbox where I truly want to spend my time.
Do you prefer epic open worlds that are enormous in scale, or smaller maps that have a lot of density to them? Rescale the sandbox in the comments section below.