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12/22/2017

Top Fifteen Playstation 2 Games

Sony continued their domination of console gaming into the next generation, and managed to hold their own very well against the heavy competition of Microsoft's shiny new Xbox.  It may not have jumped on the online play bandwagon nearly as well as its competitor, but what it lacked in online features it certainly made up for in having a huge number of great original IPs, in no small part thanks to talented new studios like Monolith and Clover throwing their hats into the ring.  So that said, let's dive right in and look at my picks for the best on the system.

HM. Stretch Panic (Treasure, 2001)


Not one of Treasure's most memorable titles on a gameplay front, but what it lacks in that it makes up for in sheer weirdness.  Stretch Panic follows the story of Linda, a girl whose twelve sisters have been cursed to become their ultimate vision of beauty (which turns them all into bizarre monsters) and who bears a demonic scarf that can stretch or distort any surface it grabs onto.  This comes into play in the gameplay, where enemies must be grabbed, stretched and snapped to damage them.  Linda can also grab the scenery, stretch it and use it to slingshot herself over gaps or headbutt the enemy for heavy damage.  Each of the twelve possessed sisters (which range from a nightmarish version of Mr. Potato Head to a shapeless blob to a spinning bird-like monster) must also be defeated by literally grabbing them and "stretching" the demonic force out of them, else you'll have to do the entire battle again.  The game is overall very short, consisting only of twelve boss battles (plus three extra stages whose only purpose is to give "points" for your ultimate attack), but it's quite a colorful, quirky title that's worth seeing just for how much weirdness Treasure packed into it.

HM. Activision Anthology (Barking Lizards/Contraband Entertainment/Activision, 2002)


Some may consider it cheating to put a compilation on the list, but Activision Anthology gets points for being quite possibly the best of its kind.  Not only is there a huge library of Activision titles available to play (including some of the greatest the Atari 2600 had to offer), but there are also fun bonuses like unlockable patches for getting certain scores, interviews, old commercials and tons of box art and manual scans to get you fully immersed in the era.  Hell, they even have some pretty great 1980s tunes on an in-game radio for you to enjoy while you play.  Activision Anthology not only collects these old classics, but truly brings you back to the era to complete the experience.

15. GunGrave: Overdose (Ikusabune, 2004)

The original GunGrave was a bit of a cult classic for the Playstation 2 due to its stylized action and a very cool, cel-shaded artstyle (with character designs by Yasuhiro Nightow of Trigun fame), though it also attracted much criticism for its extremely short length and rather shallow gameplay.  GunGrave Overdose was released two years later as a followup budget title (debuting at $15 new) and mixed up the gameplay with some new mechanics, as well as two new playable characters that had differing strengths and weaknesses.  While ultimately rather shallow, its over-the-top action and stylish visuals make it a treat to experience for the length, and at that price, you got quite a lot of entertainment for your buck.

14. Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim (Nihon Falcom, 2005)

The first Ys game released outside of Japan in over a decade was a late-comer to the PS2 era, and was overlooked by many as a result.  A bit of a shame, then as the game carried on the series' traditions quite well, introducing intense action, a killer soundtrack and just a general sense of fun and adventure for a genre that, by this point, had delved deep into dark themes and complex character exploration.  While it was a bit rough in some respects, with very precise timing required for some moves and voiceover that was at best questionable, Ys VI was the start of the series' revival.  That alone earns it some points in my book.

13. Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (Konami, 2005)


Metal Gear Solid 3 was something of a departure for the franchise.  It was still stealth-based, yes, but it was not a continuation of 2's story (instead opting to be a prequel telling the story of Big Boss) and its gameplay went from speed-based stealth to being more slow and methodical, having the player use camouflage and foliage to slip past enemies.  It also placed a lot of emphasis on its "survival" aspect, having the player forage food and supplies off the land in order to keep their health regeneration and aiming steady.  I didn't like these changes at first, but they grew on me over time, and while the game has its faults (most notably a comparatively flat cast of characters, a really corny villain and a motorcycle chase that goes on about 30 minutes too long), it still possesses that old Metal Gear charm - realistic enough to be plausible, yet quirky enough to remind you that it is a video game and shouldn't be taken too seriously.  Just be sure to go for Subsistence or one of the HD ports over the original release, as they sport a far superior controllable camera...

12. Gitaroo Man (Koei/iNiS, 2002)


The Playstation may have been the home of many a music-driven game, not the least of which were the origins of the long-running Guitar Hero franchise and its offshoot Rock Band.  To me, however, the undisputed king of the genre on the Playstation 2 was an innocuous little game released in its earliest days: Gitaroo Man.  A game which combined an amazing original soundtrack with a constant barrage of crazy visuals and a storyline that manages to be enjoyably absurd, hilarious and heartfelt all at the same time.  All presented in fluid 60 FPS animation, to boot.  Gitaroo Man was a really good animated music video in video game form.

11. Dark Cloud 2 (Level-5, 2003)


One of the first RPG released on the Playstation 2 was Dark Cloud, a game touted as a "Zelda Killer" by Sony despite the fact that the two really played nothing alike (and Dark Cloud lacked even a fraction of the polish of the game it set out to "kill").  Dark Cloud 2, however, was a significant overhaul to the gameplay, streamlining it in some respects (from six playable characters to 2, with a variety of new abilities), giving it more polish, and just a sheer amount of content with things like challenge medals, minigames, high quality voiceover and a much more colorful, cel-shaded palette on the whole.  A long, but satisfying adventure with a constant sense of fun and wonder throughout.

10. Final Fantasy XII International: The Zodiac Age (Square Enix, 2006)


To many, the PS2 era was where Square's downward slide began in earnest.  Their merger with Enix brought about a darker side in the company, pushing them to eschew their former style, leading to an exodus of talent and a long line of uninspired sequels, remakes and prequels to games that stood up perfectly well on their own merits.  I can't really disagree, but they did manage to make one surprisingly good game in the midst of all that hubbub under the title of Final Fantasy XII. But this was not to be another formulaic title in the series; in many ways, it was "the anti Final Fantasy", eschewing many of the series' traditional characters and story elements in favor of something much grander in scale.   We were presented with an emotion-driven war drama between two kingdoms that surprisingly did not devolve into fighting some generic ageless eldritch menace by the end (though that is still a factor in the story, it does not serve as the main villain).  Instead of a mostly empty world map between destinations, there was now a seamless, sprawling game world that the player could spend hours traversing and exploring.  Even the gameplay was a departure, taking place almost entirely in real-time and with programmable party AI to ensure that the player had full control over the action and didn't have to contend with lackluster programming from his comrades.  In many ways, it represented what Final Fantasy had never been before and could very well never be again, and for that reason it's easily among the best games to bear the name.  It's just a pity we're never likely to see another game of its ilk from Square Enix as director Yasumi Matsuno left the company before production was completed...

(The International version, only released in Japan, makes some gameplay tweaks, the most notable of which is the fact that characters no longer have a unified Licensed Board.  Instead, they pick one of twelve different boards after joining the party, each with their own associated skillsets, and stick with that for the rest of the game.  Adds some diversity and replay value!)

9. The Xenosaga trilogy (Namco/Monolith Soft, 2003, 2005, 2006)


With the advent of Monolith Soft, another top-notch RPG company made its debut in the PS2 era.  Headed by Tetsuya Takahashi after his departure from Square, he set out once more to create an epic science-fiction serial drama in video game form.  In that regard he was successful, as the game bears a well-crafted storyline with some very layered and interesting characters.  On the other hand, that led to some very long droughts in gameplay where the player is watching cutscenes and dialog for 30+ minutes at a stretch (though they are slightly better about this in the sequels).  Still, those who could tolerate its pace and linearity found a very strong space opera worthy of hanging with the best of them.  Unfortunately, friction with publisher Namco led to a significant portion of the development team being reassigned or released as the series went on, cutting the story's projection as a six-part project to only three.  As a result, the third game's story ends up feeling rather abruptly wrapped up in its final chapters and it ends with a cliffhanger that may never be resolved.  Still, fans of good sci-fi epics should definitely give Xenosaga a whirl - in terms of cinematic storytelling, few games before or since have even been on the same tier as this one.

8. Grandia III (Game Arts, 2006)


After a somewhat disappointing verge into dungeon-crawler territory with Grandia Xtreme, the franchise got back on track with Grandia III.  Well, maybe not entirely, as it now sported a slightly more realistic 3D visual style, some uneven difficulty at times and a cringeworthy pop song intro that doesn't mesh with the feel of the rest of the series at all.  Still, despite those hiccups, this was a quality Grandia game through and through.  With strong characters, a story that manages to be both whimsical and dark and probably the best combat system seen in any RPG franchise, Grandia III was every bit as fun as its predecessors.  Maybe even moreso since there was a very fun new mechanic in the form of "air juggles" that gave bigger rewards for managing to launch your enemy as high into the air during a combo as possible.

7. Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance (Konami, 2003)

The somewhat controversial followup to the acclaimed PS1 classic Metal Gear Solid, MGS2 featured numerous gameplay improvements; first person aiming, tighter controls, a more innovative inventory system and intra-model targeting chief among them.  However, it also marked the introduction of Raiden, a none-too-popular replacement for Solid Snake throughout much of the game.  Still, if you could look past that, the game had a lot more of the same fun as the original - intense boss fights, well-written dialog and a mystery-laden narrative that manages to keep you guessing right up until the closing credits and really gets you hyped for a sequel.  Shame that MGS4's conclusion to the story ended up being such a letdown after that long wait...

6. Suikoden V (Konami, 2006)


After Suikoden II's lackluster sales, Konami attempted to reinvent the franchise a bit with Suikodens 3 and 4, which met with better critical acclaim but were less well received by fans for deviating heavily from the style the first two games established.  Suikoden V was a return to form, though, going back to the gameplay style of the first two games while retaining numerous improvements the latter games brought along.  While not the most visually impressive PS2 RPG and the frequent encounter rate does tend to get annoying over long play sessions, it's still a grand war epic with a great cast of characters and some very strong moments, and easily the best game the series has to offer aside from Suikoden II.  Too bad Konami's all but forgotten about the franchise these days, as I'd love to see an HD take on the Suikoden universe...

5. God Hand (Clover Studio, 2006)


Most Playstation 2 fans have strong memories for a little studio called Clover, founded in 2004 from Capcom alumni.  They first worked on the Viewtiful Joe franchise before branching out into original IPs that met with great acclaim, including the highly beloved Zelda clone Okami.  Unfortunately many of their games, though well received, met with low sales, and their last title before being dissolved was God Hand.  Fortunately, it still ended up being a very strong sendoff.  A beat-em-up largely based around an irreverent sense of humor and some physics that can best be described as "cartoonish", God Hand proved to be not only a hilarious experience, but one of the most challenging games for the system.  Enemies were brutal and relentless, bosses were downright fierce and you were given extremely limited resources to work with, ensuring that even when you got the hang of the game's controls and mechanics you were barely hanging on.  Still, those who loved a challenge found a lot to like here, and it provided enough laughs in between all the frustration to keep players engaged.  Clover's story also had a silver lining, as many of its members later joined Platinum Games and continued producing top-tier action titles like Bayonetta, Vanquish and The Wonderful 101.

4. Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening Special Edition (Capcom, 2006)


The original Devil May Cry was a runaway hit in the early days of the Playstation 2, sporting a unique blend of intense beat-em-up action and puzzle solving with a high level of challenge and some boss battles that were amazing in scale.  After a rather poorly botched sequel in DMC2, Capcom put the series back on track with 3, which not only sported tighter controls and camera angles, but a much greater variety of gameplay as there were now four distinct gameplay styles to choose from, each with their own unique advantages.  Swordmaster would grant the player additional moves with all melee weapons, for example, while Trickster made the player more agile and better able to avoid enemy attacks.  There were also a much wider variety of weapons and firearms to choose from, including an electric guitar that could summon swarms of bats and lightning bolts, a pair of swords that summoned fire and wind, and my personal favorite, a flail wielded like a nunchuck.  The Special Edition also added in Vergil as a playable character, lending even more variety to the gameplay, and alleviated some complaints about the original's difficulty by including mid-stage checkpoints and changing the difficulty levels to be more akin to the Japanese release's.  While far from the strongest game in terms of storytelling, Devil May Cry 3 provided a strong blend of strategy and action, and while its style has been often imitated, there's nothing else quite like it out there.

3. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (Atlus, 2004)

Before the PS2 era Atlus was largely known for publishing a lot of niche RPGs, but their work on the Shin Megami Tensei series would be largely unknown until the Playstation 2 era came around and the Persona games launched them to the forefront of the genre's consciousness.  Before that, though, we had Nocturne, a game that encompassed a lot of what the series had begun as while adding some new twists of its own.  Ultra-difficult dungeons, the ability to recruit randomly-encountered monsters into your party, freedom of choice that led to six possible endings and a unique "press turn" system that made elemental weaknesses a large liability for both you and opponents were the highlights of its gameplay.  Its story didn't disappoint either, with a heavy dreamlike atmosphere and a twisted setting that had numerous factions vying for who would ultimately be the creator of the new world.  Dark, haunting, difficult and strangely appealing, Nocturne is a standout RPG.

2. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (Atlus, 2007)


Amidst a sea of claims that the JRPG genre had stagnated and was on its way out, Atlus decided to prove them wrong with their latest game in the Persona series.  A strange blend of dating sim and dungeon crawler elements, Persona 3 had the player attending school and strengthening their "social links" with other characters by day and fighting through randomized dungeon floors full of monsters by night.  A strange idea to be sure, but it's executed very well here thanks to some excellent writing, great voice acting and the clever interplay between the two halves of the game; by strengthening Social Links, new Personas you form will gain a boost in power, and maxing them out will unlock "ultimate" Personas.  Which of course gives you a slew of new powers and strategies to utilize when fighting through dungeons or facing off against the game's big boss monsters.  Pair that up with a unique soundtrack (combining elements of rap and funk) and a few clever plot twists throughout, and you have a very unique and very fun title to play through.  The FES version of the game even adds in a new bonus story called "The Answer" that expands upon the plotline and gives a bit more backstory on all of the characters as a very delicious cherry on a classic RPG sundae.

1. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (Atlus, 2008)


While not a direct story continuation of Persona 3, Persona 4 kept the gameplay style intact while introducing many improvements.  Most notably that there is now a much greater emphasis on your characters and the bonds you form with them; raising social links now benefits them as well, enabling them to power up their Personas and learn new moves in the process.  There are also numerous other sidequests, challenges and character storylines to experience, as well as some of the most well-written, funny, touching, sad and suspenseful writing put into any game I've ever played, period.  Persona 4 is a great game, an absolute classic RPG and a perfect sending-off for the old Playstation 2.  A definite must-play for anyone who dares call themselves a fan of the genre.