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 insanity. 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.
20. 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.
19. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (Capcom, 2003)
Another underdog in the RPG genre, which is just a bit shocking as it's built on a franchise that saw several highly acclaimed entries on the PS1 and Super Nintendo. Dragon Quarter is an unconventional game in many ways, combining elements of strategy games, JRPGs and even a touch of survival horror with its limited resources and emphasis on replaying the game to unlock new content. In fact, replaying the game a few times is required in order to see the end, as you likely just won't have enough experience or time to make it through the many difficult bosses on your first visit; thankfully, the game is built for just this, letting you restart at any time while retaining your equipment, items and unspent experience points. Unconventional in many ways but surprisingly fun and challenging once you know how it operates, Dragon Quarter is another game that got a bum rap it didn't deserve.18. 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!)17. 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 PlatinumGames and continued producing top-tier action titles like Bayonetta, Vanquish and The Wonderful 101.16. 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 (some of the greatest the Atari 2600 had to offer, as well as a couple that were previously unreleased), 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. Yakuza 2 (Sega, 2008)
Yakuza was a sleeper hit on the PS2, combining open-world design with hard-hitting, surprisingly brutal melee combat and a good crime drama story following two sworn brothers and their struggles in the world of organized crime (while also partaking in plenty of optional minigames and silly sidequests to add levity). Yakuza 2 upped the stakes even further, putting series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu in the thick of a feud with the Korean mafia that quickly balloons into something much bigger and more dangerous for all of Tokyo. Fitting this, combat was also refined to be more crisp and responsive (and more brutal than ever) and some of the more irritating elements of the original were reworked to provide smoother gameplay. A great game, even if the Yakuza series wouldn't get its due recognition until two generations later with Yakuza 0 and a slew of remakes and ports.
14. Shadow Hearts: Covenant (Nautilus, 2004)
You know well by now that I'm a big fan of RPGs, and I do go out of my way to play as many as I can, even from less well-known companies. Shadow Hearts Covenant is the second game in the series (third if you count Koudelka) from the short-lived studio Nautilus, and they created quite a distinct and memorable one. Set in Europe just before the break of World War 1, the game is also peppered with a lot of fantasy elements interspersed with historical figures, and while overall rather outlandish (and not at all historically accurate), is nonetheless very charming and quite funny at times. The gameplay is quite fresh too, with the overarching "Judgment Ring" governing hits and misses in battle as well as several minigames, as well as the ability to knock down or air-juggle enemies in battle for extra damage. It also feels more than a bit like Final Fantasy 6 in some ways, giving each character unique skills to utilize and upgrade throughout numerous game-spanning sidequests. There was some genuine talent behind the wheel at Nautilus; it's just a shame they closed up shop around the time the PS2 was being phased out.
13. Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (Konami, 2006)
The third game in the series was definitely a mix-up - rather than following up on 2's big cliffhanger, they instead opted for a prequel, following Big Boss (then known as "Naked Snake" in his early days as an operative during the Cold War. The gameplay took a more realistic bent too, having you swap different types of camouflage to blend in with your environments, and having you manage your stamina by scavenging food and have to treat serious injuries via an in-game menu. Quite a bit more menu management than the earlier Metal Gears for sure, but as ever, the complex plot that meshes video-gamey elements with war drama made it a compelling experience.
12. Suikoden III (Konami, 2002)
The third game in the underdog RPG series and the last helmed by series creator Yoshitaka Muriyama, Suikoden III definitely changed things up in quite a few ways. Combat was somewhat simplified, having you control three pairs rather than six individual ones, war battles were a more simplified version of normal combat, and the game followed numerous divergent characters and storylines that would slowly weave together over the course of the game. It was also the first game to utilize a 3D perspective, and it looks quite nice, though the stiff animations are rather emblematic of the period. The soundtrack is fantastic, with the opening theme, "Exceeding Love", being one of the greatest introductory themes to any game to date. But as ever, Suikoden's strong point remains its storytelling and characters, and the way it weaves so many different tales together into one grand epic is nothing short of incredible. Suikoden never quite got its groove back after this one (though they made a good effort with V).11. Hokuto no Ken: Shinpan no Sososei Kengo Retsuden (Arc System Works, 2007 in Japan)
A game I was all too excited for, as while Fist of the North Star is one of my favorite anime/manga franchises, virtually every video game based on it ranges from mediocre to god-awful. This one is the exception; though its Japan-only status meant I had to wait a few more years to import it, I'm glad to say it was worth the wait. Retaining the colorful visuals and fluid animation that is Arc's trademark and combining it with fast-paced gameplay and brutal action (including the ability to chain combos into each character's trademark finishing moves) make it a treat for fans of the series. The playable cast is a bit small at only ten characters, but regardless, this is the Hokuto no Ken experience I've awaited for years.10. 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...
9. 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.
8. 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 musical in video game form.
7. 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.
6. 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.
5. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (Level-5, 2005)
Dragon Quest wasn't an especially popular series in the west for a long while; it survived as a niche series in the NES era, but then missed two entire console generations (well, other than a late and little-advertised port of VII on PS1, but that game... wasn't very good), so when VIII was announced for a western release on the Playstation 2, nobody quite knew what to think. However, under Level-5's banner the series stepped into a new generation in style, with colorful cel-shaded graphics, expressive character animations in cutscenes and combat alike, and even full voiceover; a very stark contrast to earlier games, which featured the bare minimum for animations and sound design. The gameplay itself remains faithful to series tradition - turn-based battles and random encounters are still the order of the day - but having a customizable skill set for each of your characters, as well as a new mechanic in "Tension" (basically, storing up strength for one or more turns and then using it to buff up one of your moves) added a new layer of strategy.
4. 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 much 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, though each now wielded two weapons as well as a special ability), 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.
3. 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 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.
2. 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.
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.