Hello, and welcome back to Silver Linings where I've leveled up in my quest for the maligned, forgotten, and ignored.
I'm a huge RPG nerd. In fact, I've already done three articles spotlighting RPGs on the original Playstation, the original Xbox, and the Sega Saturn that either didn't get enough attention at the time or have been largely left behind by history. Now, it's time to do the same for the console named as one of the greatest ever... the Playstation 2.
The PS2 is an RPG lover's goldmine. Just the fact that it had four numbered Final Fantasy games, four Suikoden games, and four Wild Arms games (one of which was a remake of the outstanding first game) is enough to make it the greatest system to own for fans of the genre even over the Super Nintendo. However, it also saw a lot more chances taken with the genre including kooky ideas, genre mixes, and distinctly Japanese games that never would have made it to the U.S. before the PS2. With so many RPGs rushing to the system, it's only natural that some skip past people's notice.
Well, that's what I'm here for. Here are 20 RPGs that deserve space on your shelf next to that Final Fantasy XI that's still in the box.
Please note: Not all of these games are completely exclusive to the PS2. Some got digital re-releases on the PS3 or PS4, and some were available on the other consoles of the time, the GameCube and/or Xbox. If I noted everywhere that these games can be played, we'll be here all day.
Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits
The Arc the Lad collection on PS1 is one of the best tactical RPG collections ever released, and the first entry on PS2 enhanced the series wonderfully. Even without the typical grid or hex-based set-up, the game still allows for any number of complex strategies. When a plan comes together, it's just magic.
Champions of Norrath
Everquest was THE MMO to play in the early 2000s until World of Warcraft came along, and making a dungeon crawler in the same universe that also had co-op (online or local) was a stroke of genius. Though the sequel Return to Arms has more classes and abilities to play with, the original Champions of Norrath has the better story and dungeon design. It still is one of the best dungeon crawlers ever.
While reviewers preferred the sequel, I actually like the original Dark Cloud a bit more. Remember what I said about genre mixing? This game is part dungeon crawler and part city builder. In fact, the city builder part even has puzzle elements as you can rebuild the world to be better than the way it was before by following various clues. It's the update of Soul Blazer we didn't know we needed!
Drakan: The Ancients' Gates
PC-style RPGs were starting to show up on consoles in the early 2000s, and the second Drakan (the first was PC-exclusive) was the closest the PS2 got to Morrowind on Xbox. This game pushed the PS2 hardware as far as I've ever seen, and the mix of on-foot and dragon-based combat kept things exciting. Just make sure you have plenty of room on your memory card.
Eternal Poison feels like the result of a crazy three-way involving Shining Force, Saga Frontier, and Pokémon. The grid-based tactical combat feels familiar, but the ability to capture monsters to add to your army adds tons of depth. The different story arcs depending on which protagonist is chosen add more replay value than typical for the genre.
Gladius came out during that wonderful time when Lucasarts didn't restrict themselves to Star Wars games. This is a tactical RPG revolving around Ancient Roman-style gladiatorial combat with lots of fighters and beasts to recruit. It even takes cues from Super Mario RPG with timed button presses increasing damage.
For those who want traditional 2D Arc the Lad rather than the 3D upgrade I mentioned before, Growlanser Generations has you covered. It's the smooth difficulty curve of Shining Force mixed with the pitch-perfect writing to be expected from Working Designs.
Jade Cocoon 2
While the original Jade Cocoon was little more than a blatant Pokémon rip-off, the second expanded and enhanced the gameplay, giving it its own identity. Whole squads of captured monsters can be put together to enhance each other's abilities in combat, and there are more cross-breed options than ever before.
Legaia 2: Dual Saga
The original Legend of Legaia is one of my favorite RPGs, and the mostly ignored sequel is almost as good. The combat revolving around combining attack directions to perform Combat Arts has been enhanced to provide more options and quicken the pace. The lead character Lang is a well-meaning screw-up I enjoyed following. There's even a well-designed crafting mechanic that's far beyond the annoying ones in modern games.
The Legend of Alon D'Ar
This was an attempt to combine Eastern and Western RPG styles, and it mostly succeeds. Subquests can be found all over the place; in fact, I came across most of them by accident. Jarik can build skills in a variety of combat disciplines. It's likely that no two people will play the same way.
Magna Carta: Tears of Blood
Leave it to the Koreans to find a fresh take on Japanese RPGs. Magna Carta is one of the most gorgeous games on the PS2 but also one of the most difficult. Like Gladius, its combat revolves around timed button presses, but they're more difficult with heavier penalties for screwing up. With practice and determination, it can be one of the most rewarding RPGs to play.
Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome
After the success of the original Disgaea, Nippon Ichi started spamming tactical RPGs on to the PS2. Most of them are very similar, but Makai Kingdom managed to stand out. There's more interaction with the environment to add to combat strategies, and the dialogue has a very dark sense of humor that I found hysterical. I actually didn't want to skip the very long cutscenes because I didn't want to miss any of the jokes.
Mega Man X: Command Mission
Mega Man X is one of my favorite games of all time. Its story went way beyond just blasting robots and taking their weapons. Command Mission managed to take the story and feel of the X series and put it in a turn-based RPG with style. X gets a number of Maverick Hunters on his side and a whole arsenal of weapons that even have alternate fire modes.
MS Saga: A New Dawn
While most of the games based on the Mobile Suit Gundam universe have been straight-up action games, MS Saga put the story in a turn-based RPG and did it damn well. The use of energy adds additional strategy to the combat as you can use a little for small hits or let it build up for stronger blasts at greatest risk to your mechs. Its story is also a great introduction to the whole Gundam universe.
Koudelka had a cool idea of making an RPG feel like a Hammer horror movie but was limited by the aging PS1 hardware. The follow-up Shadow Hearts didn't have that limitation and went insane with the idea. I mean that literally; your characters can go insane during battle, making them uncontrollable and increasing the tension. This is a good RPG to load up for Halloween, but the sequels are not as good.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 1 & 2
While most of the Shin Megami Tensei games were turn-based, the Devil Summoner subseries is the only time I'm aware of where they went the action route. Your character Raidou has a number of attacks at his disposal, but he can also summon captured demons to aid him. It also has a great look with a stylized take on post-World War 1 Japan.
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2
Now we go from Megaten post-World War 1 to Megaten post-apocalypse. While the more famous Persona series had plenty of goofiness to offset its heavier themes, the Digital Devil Saga two-parter went for a more atmospheric tone. It's a dead world that easy to lose yourself in with combat that highly rewards learning and exploiting enemy weaknesses.
Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity
Speaking of heavy themes... while the gameplay in Stella Deus is pretty typical for a tactical RPG, the look and story are anything but. The game is gorgeous; every moment looks like a painting come to life. The story deals with the idea of destiny determined by God versus self-determination. This game definitely doesn't pull any punches on its subject matter.
The Xenosaga Trilogy
While Xenogears is a PS1 classic and people are going ga-ga over the Xenoblade Chronicles games now, the Xenosaga trilogy has been largely forgotten, which is a shame. All three Xenosaga games share the gameplay style and anti-religious overtones of Xenogears but with an extra helping of anime polish. If only Namco would do an HD remaster of these to go along with all those Tales games...
What do you think? I know there are plenty I didn't mention. Which one would you add? Let me know, and game on!