The Art of good Side quests, feat. Yakuza 0.

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Forgoing twenty bear asses.

Last week, I said we’d be having a look at the brilliantly stylish and over-the-top world of Yakuza 0, and we will be doing so, but there’s been a slight change in plan. When I do a full review I want to do the game justice, and talk about as many features as I can, AND I like to make sure I have a good handle of the narrative when discussing it. Usually, after sinking enough hours into a game, I feel confident that I can talk about it to a sufficient degree (playing a game all the way through is better, of course, but isn’t always possible so soon after its release). After putting in the metric ton of hours I’ve played, I would usually be prepared to do just that, but Yakuza 0 is a bloody dense game. Ever after all this time, I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface of its combat, story, and especially its mini-games. To that end, the review is going to be delayed until next week, when I’ve had some more time to have a gander at it. Until then, however, let’s have a look at one aspect of the game that I can already confidently say I love about it: its side quests, or Sub-Stories as the game calls them.

Just so we’re all on the same page, when we’re talking about side quests, we’re talking about optional missions or objectives that often give out rewards intended to help the player on their way to completing main objectives, as well as give the player something to do when they’re not doing said main objectives. They’ve been a staple of RPGs for almost as long as the genre has been around, and are even present in some form in other types of games.

Anyone who’s played a ton of games (especially RPGs) will know that you can get some real dud side quests given to you. These can take various forms, such as ‘fetch quests,’ where you have to more or less just go from one location to another, wherein the greatest challenge to the player is the test of their patience. Or you can get gathering missions, where you have to run around and kill basic enemies/kill annoying enemies/pick flowers or whatever until you fulfil a certain quota, which can take much more time than it’s worth. Both of these problems can also be worsened if what you’re looking for is based on random chance, meaning you can go through all the effort of looking for an item, only to find that the game has decided it’s not in the mood to reward you for your efforts. Despite how harsh I’m being to it, I understand that some games do actually benefit from the ebb and flow these quests create: these side quests can give the player something to do while they move across otherwise unimportant stretches of the game, and can be handy tools for the developers to direct the player where they want them to go without intruding or bogging down the main quest. Fetch quests can be used to guide the player towards other features or areas without being too intrusive and having the player kill a boat load of basic enemies at the start of the game is a good way to make sure they understand the basic concepts of combat.

However, let’s talk about Yakuza 0’s Sub-Stories, and the simple brilliance they bring to the table. In many respects, Yakuza 0’s side quests (indeed, the entire series’ side quests) are pretty basic: it’s pretty rare for them to offer any sort of new mechanic beyond just choosing text options and beating the hell out of opponents, something you do regularly anyway. However, they accopmplish two very important things that more poorly thought-out side quests fail to do, the first of which is to offer the player rewards for their efforts that actually feel meaningful. Rather than simply offering you cash or items, completing Sub Stories will often have the person you helped come back to offer their aid to the game’s two core management mini-games. These mini-games (in addition to being pretty fun and addicting themselves) are your main source of income, and will be key in helping you to unlock more powerful and kick-ass attacks. This means that, even if it’s in an indirect manner, helping the oddballs around Kamurocho will help you gain access to the most advanced attacks the game offers, thus helping them helps you in the long term. By the end of the game, you’ll have built quite the firm of oddities and nutcases: I already have a fake punk rock-star working right alongside a man that it literally Steven Spielberg in everything but name, and the main character Kiryu more or less just shrug the whole thing off.

The second thing that the Yakuza series gets right about side quests is that they’re just fun as hell, which is arguably more important than the first reason. In particular, Yakuza’s idea of fun mostly boils down to hilarious and often bizarre turns of events. It’s a pretty simple set of reasons to enjoy something, but there’s no other way of putting it, these side quest never fail to bring a big dumb grin to my face. It’s clear that a lot of effort goes into making each situation the player stumbles across both unique and funny as hell, and even oddly heartfelt when they want to be. More than anything else, I’m constantly impressed by how on point the timing and writing is, since I found myself chortling at nearly every other line of the more extraordinary instances, and just taking in the moving character moments of the (admittedly much rarer) earnest ones.

There’s also a lot to admire about these side quests that aren’t immediately obvious at first: for one, they tie very well into the fact the game has an overall pretty small world. Having a small map is often considered some kind of failing point of an open-world, sandbox game like this one, but what Yakuza lacks in size it makes up for in denseness, and the game’s Side Stories are a big part of that. Usually, the player has to be given explicit directions to where the heck a side quest even is by a marker on the map, since they would be next to impossible to find. Yakuza manages to avoid this problem by placing Sub Stories along vital travel routes on the way to key locations, or along the paths to save points. This creates the impression that the player is coming across these events by pure chance, which is incredibly appropriate to the tone of the game. Rather than having to travel miles across other empty areas just to find what content there actually is, it feels like there’s some kind of strange escapade waiting around every corner, which is pretty appropriate to the tone of the game. The fact that these Sub Stories aren’t overly long is another factor to appreciate, since the developers often squeeze out all the potential they can from the situation, and then end them before they over-stay their welcome. Because of this, the Sub Stories make nice breaks from the much longer and involved main story.

And the sheer variety of situations that make up the Sub Stories is nuts! I’m pretty sure the last time I played the game, I watched Majima accidently create what would later become the standard for Japan’s taxes, and not too long later Kiryu was teaching a demure dominatrix how to be more worthy of the title. And those two are on the more normal side compared to what our heroes get accidently involved in. I’m not saying this is the only way to do side quests in games, but I have to admit that I god damn love how they’re done in this particular example.

So, what can we draw from Yakuza’s side quests in order to figure out what makes a good side quest in a more general sense? Being fun and entertaining is the easy answer, but one has to consider that different games will probably need different methods: Yakuza’s writing/translation is strong enough that just watching events unfold is a barrel of laughs regardless, but there may be games that would benefit from focusing more on its core game play to be at its most entertaining. This is especially true of other genres of games, such as shooters, that might ask a player to use weapons or tactics they wouldn’t have otherwise. Another factor for more general purposes would be that side quests should never be a pain to actually find or get to, and that their location should be carefully considered. If you absolutely must put a side quest or activity miles away from where the player will be spending most of their time, it might be prudent to add some kind of quick travel mechanic to the game, for example. Most important of all is that a side quest shouldn’t just be used to pad out game time, it should serve some sort of other purpose, such as expanding on a game’s lore or helping to teach the player a mechanic. Or, as is the case in Yakuza, sometimes a worthwhile purpose is to just have an excuse for the main character to fight zombies while defending a red-coated pop star by the name of “Miracle Johnson.” In many ways, what makes a good side quest is something that needs to be considered on a larger scale than the quest itself, and might need to take in the necessary evils that certain design choices require, i.e. using a fetch quest in order to bring the player to a location they wouldn’t have visited otherwise.

To sum it all up, Yakuza 0 has some fantastic side quests which succeed in being hilariously entertaining, helping to flesh out the world and its characters and even rewarding the player in actual gameplay terms, giving both an emotional and mechanical pay off. They make up for their relatively simple nature (most will be simply choosing text prompts or resorting to good ol’ head bashing) by being extravagantly over the top in their actual premises, as well as being a great way to break up the much more heavy and serious main story.

Tune in next week where I will continue to inevitably gush over Yakuza 0 in its own review, for real this time. Assuming my life hasn’t been consumed by Nioh after that comes out…

(Also, just to explain the sub-header: whenever someone needs to give an example of the tedious collectathon side quests that we talked about, a pretty common joke is use ‘bear asses’ as an example. This might be because bears are common enemies is a lot of RPG/Open-World games, or it might be the inherent hilarity that comes from ‘bear asses.’)

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