The PS1 is known for its vast variety and quality of RPGs, games that are still played today. The PS2 generation doesn't get mentioned in the same breath of the PS1 generation in terms of their role-playing game offerings, yet there is a gluttony of high caliber games that deserve to get the same amount of love. To shed some light on these titles for the best PS2 RPGs a list is provided below and the games are provided in a tier ranking system, starting with the PlayStation 2 role-playing games that didn't quite make the list. As with the best PS1 RPG list, there needs to be significant character attribute progression, customization or both, an intricate story and not just "RPG elements" for it to qualify.
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2
Taking place in a digital world (how meta), Digital Devil Saga features a tribe called the Embryon that wields powers given to them by a demon computer virus. The broad concept is to reach Nirvana by defeating other tribes. Gameplay is turn-based as the characters take to a devil-form during the battle screens. Digital Devil Saga is difficult, but it's only because of required repetition that amplifies the difficulty and can make it frustrating. It isn't only repetitious in that you need to grind to level-up, but it's very slow to begin with. It was a large improvement on the first game in the series however, with tweaked mechanics and a better story (a complete one at that).
Suikoden II on the PS1 is an absolute classic and widely considered one of the best role-playing experiences of all-time. While Suikoden III is a good game, it doesn't quite reach the levels of its predecessor. It does share many of the same gameplay traits, multiple viewpoints, not an obvious right or wrong path and a huge party list. Suikoden III differs in several major areas, but most notably the combat system is improved. No longer are the characters stuck in two rows, as they are freely moving around the field in this game. It is still turn-based, but it does add a bit of strategy and fluidity missing from the earlier games. Graphics are also improved moving to the new console, but haven't aged as well as the previous game's sprites. In addition, the story is only average in comparison to the second game in the series, but Suikoden III still is the second best game in a franchise that has gone on to produce five in total.
Tales of Symphonia
A game that was never officially released in the United States on the PS2, Tales of Symphonia was released only later as a PS3 remaster. Originally a GameCube exclusive, it did eventually make its way to the Japanese PS2 a year later and shortly after that it sold immensely in the US. In typical role playing game fashion, the plot, which is rather weak, consists of saving the world. The gameplay is what differentiates Tales of Symphony from other games, playing out in real-time for the user controlled character, while other party members are controlled by computer AI. The other party members AI actions are instructed by the player prior to the battles, making a well balanced party essential. The PS3 remaster is the version to play now, with HD graphics helping the game age wonderfully.
Persona is a series that has gotten better with each iteration essentially, but Persona 3 is what really put it on the map. Playing as a high school student in a military school, you investigate a supernatural time period known as the Dark Hour. In battle you (and your party members) summon your inner "persona" to fight the creatures of the Dark Hour, but where Persona 3, and the series really differentiates itself is the social aspect. Most of the game is spent experiencing the day-to-day life of school in which developing relationships and bonds between party members manifests itself as more powerful personas in battle. The AI controlled party members make the right decisions, and the battles are fun, however the social aspect, if you're not totally engrossed, can be taxing.
Disney plus Final Fantasy may sound strange, but Kingdom Hearts made it work. The graphical incarnations of your favorite (or not so favorite) Disney characters come together to battle evil. Ultimately the story of Sora and his friends would be that of less than average RPG fair, but with Disney characters and their worlds hosting Cloud and Tifa from Final Fantasy VII, the nostalgia factor can overcome any story shortcomings. Gameplay is also a change of pace from traditional turn-based RPGs, instead taking control of only one character in a action RPG style with melee and magic attacks. The non-Disney inspired levels and the gummi ship level bridges are poor but not enough to detract from the litany of cool cameos for both Squaresoft and Disney fans alike.
Great PLayStation 2 RPGs
Shadow Hearts: Covenant
A sequel, Covenant has one of the most interesting settings of any RPG, taking place during the first World War while playing as a German soldier. It also improves on nearly every aspect from the first game and features an interactive turn-based system that requires skill and timing. The "Judgement Ring" is activated during each player's turn, on which, similar to the timing of kicking a field goal in Madden, timing is used to determine success or expansion of your attack, including modifiers and magic mapped to the face buttons. This keeps the battle engaging, and because it is so satisfying to nail the timing, and your rewarded with a more powerful attack, it avoids tedium. It's one of the most original battle systems for any of the PlayStation 2 role-playing games.
A swashbuckling RPG with lovely cel-shaded animation and action-rpg gameplay, Rogue Galaxy has aged particularly well. The action is similar to Kingdom Hearts, locking-on to one enemy at a time with several types of attacks available. Attacks are limited by a gauge, that once depleted requires a wait period before the next attack can be commenced. It's a nice touch because it prevents button mashing and adds an element of defense in terms of the down period between attacks. Rogue Galaxy does falter in some areas, battles do become monotonous against lower level enemies, and with random encounters it is frequently annoying. Perhaps the largest issue is with the story; characters are shallow, and despite being fully voice acted, the story telling is very flat along with the performances.
Kingdom Hearts II
Kingdom Hearts II is not drastically different from its predecessor in any one significant way, but it does improve in basically every aspect. The best improvement is in the gameplay. It's not revamped by any means, but it is tightened. It simply makes the combat more enjoyable. And even with some new additions to the battle mechanics, it's the fine-tuning that really improves the experience. All of the elements that made the Final Fantasy plus Disney hybrid great in the first place, return here. There are new Disney worlds and characters to explore, and overall, the storytelling is much better. The characters have matured just enough whereas the story is at least worth following, compared to the first Kingdom Hearts where it was not.
Dark Cloud 2
The first Dark Cloud was the closest thing that PlayStation 2 owners had to Zelda. The sequel not only improved on the original, but also differentiated itself from the Zelda comparison. Leveling up is done by weapon, and unlike the first game, when a weapon can be repaired if it is broken, it isn't lost for good. It is more forgiving in this respect, and while this makes the game "easier," it is more about limiting frustration and making the game more enjoyable. The graphics also get an upgrade in the form of a cel-shaded style (as mentioned before, this helps the game age considerably well). The primary goal of the game is to rebuild the world, which requires Geostones, found within the many of the randomly produced dungeons. The rebuilding aspects aren't for everyone, as it is a Sim City-like part of the game, but it's done well nevertheless.
Persona 4 has a lot to do and it can be overwhelming, but the content that is provided is deep, meaningful and only adds to the characters, storytelling and gameplay. Admittedly, this isn't for everyone. Go to school, have free time to spend building relationships, battle a monster in a dungeon and repeat. Each one of these segments can be very differentiated though, offering a change of pace. The unfortunate part can be if one of these segments isn't of interest to you, you are required to play it. The dungeons are absolutely phenomenal and the battle system is improved from the previous game with a quicker tempo, but the school portion and free time is hit or miss unless you are really devoted. The Persona series is definitely an acquired taste, and for those, Persona 4 is the cream of the crop.
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria
It's not often you'll find a side-scrolling RPG, but this game is exactly that. Each character you control possess specific platforming skills such as jumping, use a sword, projectiles, wall-jumping, switch places with enemies or freeze enemies altogether. These are used for traversal and puzzle solving while battle is done in a completely different screen. Ironically, the combat takes place among a 3D field, contrary to the previous games in the series. Battle gameplay is still similar to other entries in the series, with each character assigned to a face button for their action. What makes this entry different is the ability to break off enemy limbs, creating strategy in targeting specific parts for more damage. Valkyrie Profile 2 also boasts beautiful graphics in both the side-scrolling and combat, again, another PS2 RPG title that stands the test of time due to its art style.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Its precursors were released on the SNES, so the jump in graphical quality to the PlayStation 2 helped to finally realize the creator's vision. Like most of the Shin Megami Tensei games, you are a high school student with an alternate fighting form, a demon. And gameplay isn't much different either, but everything is honed to the best in the entire Shin Megami Tensei series. The story is crazy, and without the science-fiction setting the plot is amplified in the crazy department, but it's also sharply done. It comes down to combat in differentiating its quality though. The battle system is based one each one of the field having one turn, but certain types of attacks, such as a critical hit can trigger more hits (or loss for the one attacked). This combined with the ability to have demon adversaries create the best battle system in the franchise.
Balder's Gate: Dark Alliance
Dark Alliance has the best coop mode of any of the PlayStation 2 RPGs on this list. It's also one of the most action-oriented of them with it's hack and slash gameplay. With three classes to choose from, each with a different style, physical attacks, archery and magic, replay value is high, but with the cooperative mode it also makes for fun strategy. Drawing enemies to the doorway as a Dwarf with a shield halts their progress while an archer lays them to waste safely from behind the dwarf is a fun strategy. The role-playing elements are similar to many RPGs in that experience is gained through defeating enemies. Points are earned through raising your level and these can be spent on magic and feats, and after a certain level is reached (and a factor therein after) those points can be spent on any number of attributes such as strength or wisdom. Balder's Gate: Dark Alliance is a great single player game, but the coop experience is what sets it apart from other role-playing games on the PS2.
Top Tier PS2 Role Playing Games
Final Fantasy X
FFX was a milestone for the franchise. After three successful outings on the PS1, the first game on the PS2 needed to rise above, an unenviable task. In many ways, it met these lofty goals; the graphics both in-game and the spectacular cutscenes are some of the best on the system, it was the first Final Fantasy to feature voice acting, the music was terrific as always and the new turn-based battle system that utilized the whole party (by changing them in and out on the fly) and sped up the pace is one of the best in the series. There were several features holding it back from being one of the top PlayStation 2 role-playing games, however. Despite the new voice acting, some of the voices are misplaced (namely Tidus and Rikku) with generic, exaggerated anime style acting. This was also one of the most linear Final Fantasys to be released, and certainly was a change from its predecessors. Lastly, the faceless enemy, while menacing, has no character. This is replaced by the protagonists facing their inner demons, important, but not ideal.
Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra
This series has an intricately woven yet convoluted storyline. Only playing this game and not the two before it, would make it much more so. But if you've played the previous two, and the second one is especially a slog, then Episode III has by far the most structured, pointed and well told narrative in the series. It is a mature look at both religion and technology and it's a plot much too hard to explain and fully understand without a much deeper look but that doesn't mean that it isn't extremely impressive or rewarding. Gameplay has improved from the earlier games despite it being the same basic system. The customization available is one of the best aspects, and it is always cool to fight with mechs (mechas as they are called here). Despite the convoluted story and the almost necessary requirement to play the previous two games, Xenosaga Episode III is a different experience than other game on the PlayStation 2.
Star Ocean: Till the End of Time
Despite the rudimentary storytelling and poor voice acting, the plot itself is very fun. It's the space romp that doesn't exist anywhere else on the platform, traveling to planets unknown with a relatively simple plot. The graphics are colorful but not particularly impressive. The visuals and character models are "cartoony" without the added benefit of being cel-shaded. The standout is the gameplay. Like all the games on this list, the gameplay is what makes it better than the sum of its parts. It's the real-time battle system from the PS1 entry and is essentially only updated to 3D for this new entry, and that's OK. The biggest change is that there is no longer a menu for choosing actions and the AI-controlled party members can be switched onto for more specific tactics. This is a system that made The Second Story one of the best games on the PS1 and it makes Till the End of Time one of the best on the PS2.
The Very Best PS2 RPGs
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Easily the most charming of any game on the list, Dragon Quest VIII oozes with enchantment from your first encounters with your main party to the stunning cel-shaded visuals that make this game timeless. Everything is just so positive here, the colors are vibrant, there is no downtrodden hero and there is such an infusion of humor that is not seen in any of the other RPGs here. The voice acting is the antithesis of Final Fantasy Xs. It's more professional and the tone fits the story and the characters, there is no forced comedic relief. Gameplay is pick up and play for anyone who is familiar with a turn-based RPG. It offers intricacies as you progress and the gameplay is solid but isn't the selling point. You'll learn to love the characters, not for their attacks or abilities, but for the actual characterization. In many ways, Dragon Quest VIII is more enjoyable to watch than to actually play, but the simplicity of the gameplay is perhaps what allows for this focus, and that's the genius of this game.
Final Fantasy XII
Even with a difficult development cycle, which saw many key people and components change over time, FF XII is the most impressive RPG on the PS2. Final Fantasy XII departs from series norms in several ways, but the most impressive is its battle system. More akin to MMORPGs than the traditional turn-based fare of the previous games, the strategy, exploration and tactics are all new. Only one character can be directly controlled at a time (although you can switch to any one of the other two at any time) which means AI controls the other character's actions. In this, a Gambit system was developed (which is a series of "if" statements) that gives specific instructions within certain scenarios. Many times this means the battles will play out on their own if you're so inclined (though tougher enemies require the human touch). The Gambit system provides so much strategy in itself on top of the conventional RPG features, it adds an entirely new layer of "role-playing." Add to this one of the best stories that balances a deeply characterized party, giving them all the limelight at certain points, the best graphics and design on the console and all the classic trappings of a great RPG.