To call the PlayStation 2 an epic console really does not do the machine that much justice. It is not only the best-selling system ever made, but it also has one of the deepest benches when it comes to quality games that you would not be remiss in just passing up the current generation entirely and just delving into the PS2 library instead.
But, unlike its predecessor, the PS2 has decidedly more Western tastes when it comes to a lot of its games. That is because the JRPG explosion initially kicked off by Final Fantasy VII was largely passed by the time the PlayStation 2 came out. Even so, the PS2 had some amazing titles when it came to the role-playing game genre, and I am going to explore that today.
In this article, I am going to talk about the 10 best PlayStation 2 RPGs. These are some of my favorite role-playing games on the system and represent a good swath of what it had to offer. Naturally, each gamer will have their own particular list but I think this is a fair representation of the PS2 at its RPG best.
Ready? Let’s get the party started!
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10. Champions of Norrath – (developed by Snowblind studios, published by Sony for NA and Ubisoft for Europe 2004)
A hack and slash role-playing game set in the EverQuest universe, Champions of Norrath gives players the option to quest solo or work together with three other players for four-player co-op gaming. Using the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance engine, CoN is not easy by any estimation.
A classic role-playing game engine that takes inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons, Baldur’s Gate, games that are iconic for their old-school approach to fighting and player hand holding. The addition of other gamers, though, changes this fundamentally and makes it really shine.
Perhaps that is because the Dungeons and Dragons engine itself was made for a crowd and the co-op gameplay makes those mechanics emerge in organic ways, or just because the game is fun on its own, Champions of Norrath was before World of Warcraft and its many, many clones and was many a gamer’s first experience of playing an RPG with friends that was not a board game.
9. Final Fantasy X (developed by Squaresoft, published by Squaresoft NTSC and Sony PAL; 2001 JP and NA, 2002 AU and EU)
The game that took Final Fantasy into the realm of cinema and voice acting, Final Fantasy X is an interesting exploration of classic FF themes in a bright, colorful world plagued by a terror that causes tsunamis and which has kept the world in a relatively techno-lite state.
Gone are the brooding heroes of FF VIII and the eco-concerns of FF VII: Spira is a world of myth, mystery, and some kind of weird awkward romance between two of the characters. A decidedly East Asian-inspired installment, FFX is the series at its absolute best which means it is not trying to be like any of the other games before it.
That said, it might not be everyone’s thing. The voice acting is cringe at points and the battle system is not Square’s most complex. Modern releases have given Western gamers access to all of the content originally received for Japan gamers only but, even so, the game was still pretty massive before that.
You cannot really talk about PlayStation 2 RPGs without mentioning Final Fantasy X and that is because, in many ways, it helped bring the genre into the modern age.
8. Tales of the Abyss (developed by Namco, published by Namco JP 2005 and Namco Bandai Games NA 2006)
Namco’s Tales series has legions of devoted fans, and it is not hard to see why. Tales of the Abyss was a revelation when it came to the PlayStation 2. Here was a game that many of us imagined when we were playing 16-bit JRPGs on the Super Nintendo.
The graphics are beautiful, the gameplay mechanics are immediately understandable to anyone who has played this type of game, and the story is engrossing and epic. Namco might not be the first name you think of when it comes to RPGs, but Tales of the Abyss will certainly change that opinion and for good.
7. Rogue Galaxy (developed by Level-5, published by Sony JP 2005, NA, AU and EU 2007)
Rogue Galaxy is a game that wears its inspirations on its sleeve proudly. Graphically it looks like a more powerful version of the engine that powers Final Fantasy VII, while mechanically it is very much in line with other JRPGs. The game is also heavily inspired by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest and it pulls off this imitation extremely well.
The only problem with Rogue Galaxy is that it does not do a whole lot of stuff that is new. If you want something that plays paint by the numbers when it comes to a JRPG, Rogue Galaxy will not disappoint. It does get huge points for being a new IP but it does not really do a lot new with it. For some JRPG gamers, that is great news.
6. Dragon Quest VIII (developed by Level-5, published by Square Enix 2004)
Dragon Quest VIII defines what it means to be JRPG long and tough. This game is not a light romp through a fantasy world, but instead is a full-on all-encompassing epic that will leave you both exhausted, but still wondering what happens next. Dragon Quest games have always been a love it or leave it thing for a lot of us, and Dragon Quest VIII is not going to change that status for us.
You see, DQ really, really loves its traditions, like in the sound effects, that are even the same as those employed in the Famicom era. Transitioning this type of tradition to the modern format has always taken some time, but we typically get an astonishingly modern product that honors the series’ traditions, but does a little bit new each time.
A veritable institution in Japan, there is a lot of institutional as well as market-based momentum behind the reluctance to change. Dragon Quest VIII is not modern, despite its graphics, but it is not trying to be. This is classic video game goodness and it is a title that will stand the test of time no matter where it appears. If you are a hardcore JRPG fan, you need this in your library.
5. Odin Sphere (developed by Vanillaware, published by Atlus 2007)
A beautiful game that combines side scrolling beat ‘em up mechanics with role-playing game systems, Odin Sphere is a revelation when it comes to just how beautiful 2D sprites can be. Like many games on this list, Odin Sphere has seen release on other formats, but its original PS2 outing is still worthy of play even now.
The combination of timeless graphics and really compelling gameplay also helps it age well. The only problem with OS is that it can fit into many categories, and this is probably why it largely got lost in the wash back in the day.
It was an amazing game, no doubt, but it did not quite achieve the spotlight it should have given its quality. Fans of anime and manga need to have this title in their library, if for no other reason than its artwork.
4. Final Fantasy XII (developed and published by Square Enix 2006)
Maybe Final Fantasy X was a little too experimental for you and not complicated enough when it came to its battle system. Fine. Square heard your complaints, and delivered FFXII in response. Undoubtedly inspired by Star Wars, FFXII is beautiful, traditional FF fare in glorious 3D.
Everything smacks of a traditional Final Fantasy game until you start to play. Here we see the beginnings of Final Fantasy’s complex MMORPG battle system. You could move and position characters as well as preset strategies before the fight even began.
Based in the world of the Final Fantasy Tactics franchise, FFXII is a mind-blowingly deep game when it comes to gameplay and is easily one of the most solid titles in the entire series pantheon.
3. Persona 4 (developed by Atlus, published by Atlus for JP and NA and Square Enix for EU 2008)
The Persona series has been a slow burn when it comes to sales. While it is now a fairly wide known series, back in the day it was a fairly obscure title that was most widely known among anime, manga, and Japanese culture fans. Atlus specializes in bringing over Japan market games, so that is not really that shocking and, given Persona’s sometimes racy subject matter (from demonology to Jungian psychology and interpretations of sex), that is not really shocking.
Persona 4 is mechanically solid, graphically unimpressive, and narratively superior to pretty much anything on this list that was not made by Square. Seriously, if you have not played a Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game you should at least give it a try. I promise it will be a revelation for you, one way or the other.
2. Kingdom Hearts (developed and published by Squaresoft 2002)
Disney’s partnership with Square produced a series that has grown to rival Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy in the JRPG space. Kingdom Hearts brings the characters of Disney’s classic animated films into a world of pure manga/anime-inspired adventure. It is epic, it is charming, and it is utterly iconic in its seemingly effortless blending of the two universes.
But where this game really shines is in delivering a compelling story. That is a tall task when you consider the source material – as well as the desire to not alienate or upset Disney – but, given the constraints, Square really spins a good yarn here. That is probably not surprising since the game has gone on to spawn multiple sequels, each more anticipated than the last.
If you want to know why Kingdom Hearts became such a foundational game for the RPG genre, dust off your old PlayStation 2 and pick up a copy of this game. I promise it is still as good now as it was then.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (developed by Atlus, published by Atlus for JP 2003 and NA 2004, and by Ghostlight for EU 2005)
Shin Megami Tensei is another genre standard-bearer that people either love or hate. Predating Pokemon’s monster, collecting mechanic by years, Nocturne is pretty much the same thing that the other games did but with the space and unlimited freedom provided by a PlayStation 2.
Like Dragon Quest, Shin Megami Tensei really sticks to its traditions and you are unlikely to get a game that is radically different from the last title. Still, it is undoubtedly one of the best games on the system in the RPG space even if the themes and general atmosphere are not for everyone.
Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories (developed by Nippon Ichi Software, Published by Nippon Ichi Software for JP and NA and by Koei for the rest of the world 2006)
I had to include a tactical role-playing game on this list somewhere, and Disgaea 2 is that title. Sure, you could make the argument that Final Fantasy XII is that game, but, really, it is not. Disgaea II is that classic Tactics Battle Ogre style of game that used to be the rage on the PlayStation, but has almost died out completely now.
Like any other tactical strategy game, this is not a small commitment. You are going to have to master its systems and really learn what you are doing when it comes to positioning etc. Still, it is immensely rewarding and the story is more than epic enough to satisfy even the pickiest gamer.
Kingdom Hearts II (developed and published by Square Enix JP 2005, rest of the world 2006)
The sequel to the game that started it all, Kingdom Hearts II does a lot to improve on the first game but not enough to change the formula, fundamentally. What will probably come as a shock to modern gamers is just how quick Square’s turnaround on this sequel was.
Today, we are lucky to get one of these games every six years or so, let alone two on one system. That said, does it do anything better than the first game to merit a higher ranking and/or replacing it on the list? No. But it does deserve mention, because it is impossible to deny how important Kingdom Hearts is to the JRPG genre now.
Below is my number one pick… Coincidentally, it is also my kid’s favorite RPG. The apple does not fall far from the tree. 😉
1. Dark Cloud 2 (developed by Level-5, published by Sony 2003)
An immediately beautiful game, Dark Cloud 2 improves upon its predecessor in almost every single way except for the story. Why is Dark Cloud 2 at the top of the list? Probably because it does the best job of bringing together the old and the new. It takes full advantage of the improved graphics, sound, and gameplay experiences that the PS2 brings to the game while holding true to established JRPG traditions.
You know how much I love classic games, and DC 2 seems like the perfect update of a classic formula, and one that is largely gone in today’s games. And there is just so much to do, from photography and inventions to the Spheda minigames, you will easily spend 150 hours trawling through everything this game has to offer.
What makes it particularly special is that it is told in the style of a modern fairy tale or legend and the result is a truly magical experience that will go beyond the generations. If you are looking for a game you will want to play time and again, as well as a world filled with characters you want to know and revisit, then you cannot get any better than Dark Cloud 2.
Another stroll down memory lane is over retro folks, hope you enjoyed it. As a true PlayStation 2 fan and rpg lover, this is probably one of the posts I have taken the most pleasure in writing.
But now it is your turn: do you have any favorite PS2 role-playing games that you think belong on this list? What are they? Please share your thoughts in the section below, I cannot wait to hear from you!