Sometimes, you have to balance pathos with something fun. It’d be easy to talk forever about the pain of loss, but sometimes it’s nice to just let go and do something fun. They might be the filler of the internet, but so help me I love top ten lists. It gives you a good view into the mind of the writer, and the context of a full list can introduce you to something you’ve never heard of. If I see a top ten list with nine of my favorite things on it alongside one I’ve never heard of, number ten is a pretty solid bet.
I started really enjoying games on the NES, with Dragon Quest being the standout on the system. I was baffled by this text representing gameplay, and intrigued by this game that could take several days to complete. I watched my mom beat it time and again before finally trying it myself. Though it didn’t have the action of Contra, or require the reflexes of Mario, I found the pace, the progression, and even the bare-bones story pull me in and never let me go. The grind for a copper sword at the beginning of any Dragon Quest game is still one of my favorite gaming experiences, and has solidified me as an RPG gamer first and foremost. As the PlayStation 2 has one of my favorite RPG libraries of all time, it seems as fine a place as any to stake my flag and shout my opinion from the mountains, certain that there is a legion below desperate to know my opinions. As an added bonus, today just so happens to be the 15th anniversary of the PS2’s launch- I had no idea when I started this list, but let’s pretend I have just stellar timing.
This list is numbered, but it’s a bit misdirecting. Depending on the day of the week, the time of year, my recently played games, the direction of the wind, the temperature, the current dollar-to-euro exchange rate, and the time since my last dental checkup, the order of this list will change. It’s hard to hack down to ten at that, so I decided to keep down to one game per franchise and give some of the underdogs a fighting chance. Besides, I’m mostly doing this for a lark, so off ya go.
10) Wild ARMs 3
I love the Wild ARMs series. Few RPGs go for an old west motif, most opting for either high fantasy or a more anime, Final Fantasy-esque aesthetic. Wild ARMs certainly leans on some anime tropes, but it brings with it the shootouts, the dust towns, and the twangy music of the old west. Also sometimes giant robots. The PS2 saw three entries into the main series, as well as a remake of the original, but for my money Wild ARMs 3 was the best of the lot.
Wild ARMs 4 and 5 took on a somewhat tactical, hex-based combat system, but number 3 worked on the more traditional turn based battles the series had used for its first two games. Truth be told, I enjoyed the deeper gameplay of the later games a bit more, but 3 had a few things they lacked. For one, Wild ARMs 3 featured an actual, honest-to-god female protagonist. They didn’t stop there- she wears a practical, fully covering dress the entire game, and despite starting rather naive to the world, she matures and becomes a competent leader for the party. She is not defined by a relationship, nor is she ever sidelined for the other characters. As your party is always the same four characters, you get to connect to each and dig deep into their back-story before the game ends.
They also avoid throwing in too many extraneous subsystems, a standard risk of the era and a pitfall later games in the series occasionally fell into. The series twists a few other standard RPG bullet points- getting rid of MP for a force gauge that fills over battle, giving each character only one upgradable weapon with its own history, and mitigating random encounters with a cancel system, among others. The whole series ranks highly for me, and gave me a long-time love of cheesy western movies.
Also, you can ride on horses and shoot goblins. That is objectively amazing.
9) Rogue Galaxy
I love Level-5, the studio behind Rogue Galaxy. They are far from infallible, even their best games struggling with cliches and over-blown sub-systems. Despite their failings, they have created some of my favorite games of all time. Rogue Galaxy was released late in the PS2’s life span, launching in America a few months after the PS3. And action RPG built around space piracy, Rogue Galaxy features wide open worlds, in-depth item crafting, a lovable and varied crew, as well as a host of cliches about friendship and how one saves the world. While not the most mature game on this list, I spent hours hunting down rare items, collecting outfits for my characters, and fighting off waves of enemies in a fairly unique battle system. Items factored into character growth as well as weapon synthesizing, requiring you to find specific items to fill out a grid for your characters to learn new abilities. While this is utterly ridiculous as a concept, it plays well into the need to spend a lot of time in areas finding hidden chests and grinding for drops on monsters.
And grind you will, as the encounter rate in Rogue Galaxy is no joke. Encounters take place directly in the world, and they happen pretty much everywhere. Even town exploration can be regularly interrupted by angry dogs aching for a fight with three heavily armed pirates, regardless of their level discrepancy or the fact that you’ve just burned through about eighty of their cohorts. Despite these flaws, the game was a fine sendoff to the PS2. The battle system saw each character equipped with both a ranged and melee weapon, allowing for quick swapping and unique mechanics to defeat particular enemies. A shielded enemy might require a specific gun type, or a defender might be susceptible to heavy attacks. The worlds were full of life, and utterly devoid of load times. It was packed with meaningful side quests, and the game’s graphics were a bright and colorful contrast to an otherwise darkening aesthetic in gaming. It was a game many missed out on, due to its late arrival on the console, but it really showed what PS2 RPGs had to offer.
8) Kingdom Hearts 2
This is where the list starts feeling like picking your favorite child. Granted, that child is dressed like the 80’s went crashing into the 90’s and tripped over the emo movement on the way down, and it keeps telling you stories you know for a fact it’s making up as it goes, all the while trying to create fanart where Mickey Mouse somehow looks like a total badass, but man does that kid know how to make some lovely music. And it’s gameplay is satisfyingly punchy and flashy, with sidequests that quickly descend into fan service in the best way and OH SHIT MY METAPHOR IS FALLING APART SOMEONE HELP M
Kingdom Hearts 2 defines an era of Square Enix games. It emphasizes style and flash, but does so with a heart that speaks to the teenager inside all of us. It celebrates the history of the company, while inexplicably mixing in Disney characters and somehow making it work. The music is instant-classic through and through, with a surprisingly melancholy about it all that can still make me feel a bit teary when I listen to it cold. Yeah, I know that sounds a bit childish, but listen to this.
Listen to it. Listen to it and weep, lest I feel less a man!
The game really has the goods. Mechanically, it works by alternately tugging at nostalgia strings and making you feel like a superhero, which is not too shabby as far as gameplay mixes go. Journeying through some of the most beloved Disney worlds complete with renditions of their iconic music is a joy, and there’s a solid sense of progression as you unlock new weapons, abilities, and forms. Though the first game features a plot that is easily comprehensible upon first playthrough, I prefer number two for the faster pacing and polished mechanics. Well, faster pacing save a pretty lengthy prologue that’ll take up the first hour or two of gameplay. Despite a few blemishes, the game holds up to this day. The semi-recent HD re-release of the game for PS3 is still a joy to play, and as a bonus packs in the even-better-or-at-least-I-say-so-and-it’s-my-show-here-so-who’s-gonna-fight-me-on-it Birth By Sleep.
7) Final Fantasy XII
Yeah! XII! Not X, because fuck X! Take that, popular opinion!
For reals though, I enjoy FF XII far more than FF X. It’s actually near the top of my list of all FF titles, despite its divisive nature. So why pick it over the much more popular Final Fantasy X? Well, that requires knocking X down a few pegs. I won’t take any joy in this.
I’m gonna take some joy in this.
I loved Final Fantasy X when it came out, and some of that love sticks around as a kind of nostalgic free pass. It also features a pretty stellar soundtrack, with To Zanarkand remaining one of the best pieces in FF history. That said, I’ve picked up the game a few times since my first playthrough, and I’ve never made it through. Even the recent HD remaster, which I really looked forward to, lost me by the halfway point. The visual aesthetic never clicked with me, with character designs looking either unnecessarily cumbersome or awkwardly revealing. The next time you play, keep track of all the characters that have ass-windows in their outfits, it seems like a good way to catch a cold on a windy day, or to get goosed by a creepy passerby.
The story never really clicked into pace for me either, with most characters spending a majority of the game jamming on a single note for all its worth. The whole game is just filled with odd asides, like shoopuf wranglers and animal hybrids with musical instruments built into their bodies. Really though, it was the progression system that made the game tedious. Each character is effective against a very specific type of enemy, and the need to make it obvious by appearance means you get a lot of very samey-looking enemies. Four legged dog-like beastie, bring out Titus. Evil dessert, it’s Lulu’s turn. And Kimahri? It’s never Kimahri’s turn. The time you spend leveling him is time you could have been leveling someone else, because characters only get experience if they are in the party. This left me with characters who were far behind the rest of the party, but thanks to a lack of a level count, I could never tell and level them appropriately until I realized I needed them and they were getting one-shot.
Sure, FFX had a great iteration of the battle system, using a natural evolution of the ATB system I’d only seen before that in the mostly-unknown Evolution games for the Dreamcast. It had some really interesting boss fights, and a few genuinely powerful emotional scenes peppered throughout. Weapon progression left a little to be desired- the lack of a base stat boost on equipment means that I never even saw half the weapon models in the game, instead opting for whatever had the highest Strength or Magic boost. But all in all, the game was a solid enough entry. I enjoyed it at the time, and those memories stick around to this day, giving me the desire to go back, even if I know I’ll never finish it.
But the risks taken in FF XII just paid off better for me. The Final Fantasy series has seemed willing to go off the deep end since the jump to PS2, eschewing previously fundamental systems to try something new. And generally, I love this- the old games are still around when I want a classic, and smaller developers have been willing to step in and fill the void that Final Fantasy vacated when it started moving from the standard format. XII plays almost like an offline MMO, complete with expansive areas, high level bosses roaming in otherwise safe areas, a myriad of sidequests, and… well, plenty of grinding. The game had its own faults, with the story occasionally taking a backseat to gameplay, necessary level grinding, and an awkward license system requiring you to pay for the ability to wear a new hat. All in all though, this is the PS2 Final Fantasy I can keep coming back to. There’s always something else I haven’t done, some new area I’ve barely scratched, or a new strategy I hadn’t considered before. Many of the faults with the game were fixed in the updated (and awkwardly named) Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System, but America has yet to see the release. Maybe an HD re-release for us, Square Enix? On your own time, I’ll wait.
6) Tales of the Abyss
Have I mentioned my love for the Tales series? I feel like I’ve mentioned my love for the Tales series. Maybe I should mention it again.
I love the Tales series.
Now there’s a fair chance I might not love it so much if I were a solo player, but playing with friends has always elevated these games. I so rarely get to share my favorite genre with other people, any opportunity to do so brings me great joy. In my ranking of the series, existing solely in my head, Abyss hits the number 2 spot. 2 is pretty good, there are a lot of games there! Not only does the game feature possibly my favorite opening in the series- in fact, hold on a second.
Watch that real quick, I’ll wait.
Got it? Listen, I know you’re feeling weird about that foreign language happening in your earholes, just let it happen.
All done? Cool, carrying on.
The game also features one of my favorite casts and stories. The main character starts out as one of the least likable leads in fiction, shouldering the winning combo of selfish and whiny like a rich, entitled champion. His progression over the game shows a lot of heart, as he has to deal with the consequences of his ill-informed and naive actions. Other characters recognize both his horrible side and his attempts to grow, and no characters really get shoved to the side. Each gets their time to shine, focusing on their background to tell you where they’re coming from, as well as their trials forming who they will be after everything is done. It also pioneered a few innovations in the Tales battle system, but none so large as free run. Is a fireball headed for your face? With the innovative free run system, you are granted the brilliant tactical flexibility of moving out of the fucking way. Innovation!
In case you’ve heard of .hack, I’ll wait for your sighs and guffaws before I carry on.
In case you haven’t heard of it, .hack is a multimedia series that has spanned across games, anime, movies, comics, novels, audio dramas, improv performances, flash mobs- shit, I did the list gag already, didn’t I?
The series focuses on an MMORPG, cleverly named The World. While the story evolves over time, there is a running thread that Shit is Going Down™- people can’t log off, people killed in the games are going into comas, odd characters are sighted, etc. The players also take the game way too seriously, but let’s chalk that up as part of the charm.
The games cast you as a character in the game, solving one of the mysteries going on in the game as you level your character, find new loot, forge friendships with other players, as well as treating you to a desktop outside the game. This desktop lets you customize backgrounds and music, and through email and news (in both article and video format) tell you the state of the world outside the game. It was a fresh idea at its time, before book series like Log Horizon and Sword Art Online took the idea for their own spin.
The games have a… less than stellar reputation. To hit a few of the low points:
- The games are repetitive
- The games are in two series, featuring 4 and 3 games respectively. They reuse assets, mechanics, and side quests to the point of being more expansion pack than sequel
- Each individual game is repetitive without sequels, featuring less than ten dungeon types each repeated near infinitely
- No, I mean it, you can generate a new dungeon based on three keywords, and there are hundreds of these things
- The plots can get pretty cheesy, with characters melodramatically pontificating on that dude that PK’d them once
- The games are repetitive
- The combat is pretty much button mashing until completion. If you can’t beat a boss, you just need to grind
- Characters range from utter stereotype to unrealistically bizarre
- The games are repetitive
So why is the series so high on my list? I have no idea.
Sure, I love the world, eagerly devouring any piece of media I find. The breakdown of mechanics in the game within the game is always interesting, the surreal goings on are intriguing, the lore is deep, and the world drips with style. But it’s more than just world building- I love the games themselves, warts and all. The GU series especially, with its quicker battles, more streamlined UI, and lower reliance on micromanagement is a series I still revisit and play through regularly. It’s like gaming comfort food. I know what’s coming, but I get to see a story I love unfold again. I get to watch my characters grow stronger, unlock new content for the real world, and catch small details about the greater world. Since you only interact with characters within the game and through email, there is some mystery about who they are in the real world. The answers are not always given in-game. Finding out how many members of my party in GU were players from other pieces of the series was exciting, and there are always more pieces of the plot I can dig into and figure out. Every year that CyberConnect2 announces a new game is coming, I hold out hope that it’ll be a new .hack.
So far, it’s always a Naruto game.
I knew this series would hold a high spot on the list, the real trouble was choosing between the first episode and episode three. The games are the spiritual successor to Xenogears, originally planned as a six part series (with unfounded rumor placing Xenogears as part five), the series was cancelled after three. Despite this, the characters and plot threads were given a proper sendoff- the series was going to span a longer history, so the tightened scope on a smaller group of characters and their journeys allowed the early cancellation to flow nicely.
More importantly, the series combines two of my favorite things- turned based RPGs and giant robots.
The first game won the edge for me based on story and a killer soundtrack, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The third game contained some great gameplay evolutions and more well-rounded mecha combat, but the first game introduced a universe and the cast with aplomb. It told an intriguing tale about faith, loss, and what it means to be human. While less dense than its predecessor Xenogears, the games still came off as mature and thoughtful.
But who cares about that it has a card game and there are booster packs with actual opening animations and you can battle your friends in the card game (oh man Simon and your stupid Gnosis deck) and I spent ALL OF MY IN-GAME MONEY ON IT.
3) Dragon Quest VIII
Oh man, I’m still not sure this shouldn’t be number one.
Dragon Quest is quite possibly my all time favorite game series. It is the series that really got me into gaming, starting with the original (localized as Dragon Warrior due to an existing trademark on Dragon Quest). It is a console RPG in its purest form, with the series rarely deviating from the given formula. That said, Dragon Quest VIII made the most concessions to modern game design, and is probably my favorite in the series. Not only is it an uplifting, colorful adventure, filled with unique characters and deeply satisfying progression, North America got an improved version of the game. Featuring not only updated menus, but full voice acting and a symphonic soundtrack, it was the first time I really didn’t mind waiting for localization. Tell me this doesn’t scream “adventure”:
The game features exactly what you’d expect out of a Japanese RPG. Random encounters with turn based battles, grinding to get the money for that next sword, clearly evil clowns, slimes, skeletons, and dragons aplenty. As Level-5’s second entry on this list, it also has a few of their hallmarks- specifically, a robust alchemy system for creating new equipment and consumables. While handling like a more modern game, it packs the nostalgia in early and often. Rather than succumbing to the doom-and-gloom aesthetic prevalent in a post-FFVII world, it dares to be bright, chipper, and packed with puns.
Really, there aren’t any jokes here. This is my happy place.
2) Persona 4
As I’ve been writing these entries, I’ve been listening to the soundtracks for each game. I have been waiting for this one.
Shin Megami Tensei was a rough one to cut down to one game. It’s a huge series, and most of them are spinoffs. The Persona series is only marginally related, but I chose to count it to leave some room for other games. If you’re interested in other games from the series on the PS2, you can’t go wrong with Digital Devil Saga.
But what is Persona 4? The game plays as half dungeon crawl, half high school simulator. With a heavy sense of style and one of the best soundtracks in gaming, you seek to uncover a series of murders. People showing up dead in TV antennae, and the murders seem tied to a strange channel that only comes on at midnight. You find yourself pulled into investigation, blessed with the power to summon demons called Personas (based off of real mythology and religions) and look for the killer, all the while trying to keep up with normal high school life. The game puts most of its focus on relationships, as becoming closer with your party members and other townspeople allows you to fuse bigger and badder Personas for use in battle. The game wraps an intriguing murder mystery up with incredibly interesting characters that you get to know over the course of the game, while heaping on the feelings that come along with being a teenager on the verge of adulthood. For my age range, it’s a true dose of nostalgia, even though it all takes place in Japan.
The combat is no joke, forcing you to consider elemental weaknesses and status effects rather than just grinding levels all day. Strategy is important in a big way, with weaknesses allowing you to knock down enemies and granting you super-powerful extra attacks if performed correctly. Each dungeon is a manifestation of the innermost desires of the next victim, and always lets you see behind the mask that character puts up in public. This allows the characters to really come alive, and show more to their personality than a single trait or archetype.
The focus on character is why I picked Persona 4 over its PS2 brother, Persona 3. While the aesthetic of 3 was more stylish, taking place in a bigger city rather than the county, I found the small town characters in Persona 4 more charming and relatable. The sequel also packed in a lot of quality-of-life gameplay improvements and a refined visual style.
Also one of your party members is a hollow bear mascot costume who speaks primarily in bear puns and tries to flirt with any female he meets, despite not really understanding what flirting is.
There’s a reason this game was hitting RPG of the Year lists even when competing against Fallout 3.
1) Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Alright, I love Dragon Quest VIII and Persona 4, but there’s no way Shadow Hearts was ever going to be anything but number one. The game drops Lovecraftian horror into a World War I time period, then jams it full of heart, sorrow, humor, and a profound sense of loss. It also has you collect gay porn so you can craft dresses for a doll modeled after the deceased granddaughter of one of your party members.
Maybe I should give some context. But not about the gay porn, just let that one percolate for the rest of your life.
Shadow Hearts was a series with three releases on the PS2, though the third game was only tangentially related. The series is actually a successor to the PSOne game Koudelka, which stars the mother of Shadow Hearts protagonist Yuri. Koudelka was something of a tactical RPG/survival horror hybrid, and the series mostly kept that horror-drenched aesthetic throughout. The first game in the series was plenty of fun, though the graphics are pretty woefully outdated. The series also features a battle system requiring timed button presses as a marker rotated about a circle, and for a colorblind person, the first game was… well…
Let’s just say it wasn’t friendly.
The second game improved it, and the third game really perfected it, but Covenant is handily my favorite in the series, and even one of my top three games of all time. The story follows directly from the original Shadow Hearts, but actually follows one of the worst endings from that game. Every character in the game seems to suffer from a profound sense of loss in their life, most of them having lost a loved one to illness, supernatural baddies, or even just ongoing World War. The game takes you around the world, as you find yourself at odds with Rasputin in Russia, visit shrines in Japan, and head to Wales to meet Lawrence of Arabia. Many of the enemies are arcane horrors straight out of HP Lovecraft’s playbook, but the real enemy comes with how people deal with the mundane horrors around them. The villain juggles between characters throughout the game, but ultimately your main antagonist isn’t some power-hungry dictator; it’s a person willing to go to any lengths to undo a painful loss. I have loved antagonists in games before, but never have I felt so conflicted fighting one, never have I so readily been able to relate to them.
The gameplay is phenomenal as well. Your main character is a rare person with the ability to transform into a variety of demon forms. Throughout the game you power these up to bigger and more impressive forms, and unlock more demons in both story progression and through side quests. Sidequests abound, as each character has their own full quest line to unlock their best abilities, weapons, and even to find out more about their history. While the game can dig deep into its horror roots and get pretty deeply melancholy, it doles out levity on a regular basis. One of your characters is a vampire professional wrestler with a penchant for using whatever he finds lying around as a weapon- be it a table, a mailbox, or a giant frozen tuna. During an encounter with an imposing mystic late in the game, your characters spend his entire evil speech questioning the mechanics behind the flying pillow he gets around on. Not to mention the main character is, by his own admission, a bit of an asshole- usually to his foes. He taunts them mercilessly, often to great comedic effect.
This is a game I go back to nearly every year. It can tug pretty much every emotion possible out of me, and make me enjoy every second of it. It also features the last song I have to share here- if Kingdom Hearts can make me feel a bit teary, this one can straight up wreck me:
Now, moreso than ever, as I start to understand and get my head around what it means to lose someone, this game is just what I need.