When I was first asked to make a list of ten of the PS2′s best games, I thought, “No prob. That’ll be a cinch.” Within a few moments of accepting the task came the daunting realization of what I had just gotten myself into. There is a metric ass-ton of good, great, and fantastic titles in the PS2′s library, and I don’t doubt that I will alienate some reader or another forever for including the following games in my list, and not their personal favorites. In my opinion, Sony’s PlayStation 2 had the best library of any console release to date. There are so many games to choose from that my list essentially boils down to games that really stuck with me – games that I felt defined the platform or their respective genres, or games that were so polished and enjoyable that I felt they earned a spot on my list.
The following games are in absolutely no order – I wrote them down as soon as they came to mind. So, without further explanation or apology, prepare thyself for what I believe are the ten of the best games on the PlayStation 2.
Devil May Cry 3
Devil May Cry, in my not-so-humble opinion, defined twitch-based action games. Dante’s swordplay is fast and responsive, and the free-form mechanics allows players to mix-up combos with special moves and gunplay to give Devil May Cry a level of complexity and control that no other game would rival until Devil May Cry 3 and God Hand. If DMC defined twitch-based action games, DMC3 evolved the genre.
Devil May Cry 3 improves the original’s free-form combat and gunplay by giving Dante five completely unique melee weapons and firearms to fight with, as well as six very different fighting “styles” to choose from. These styles give Dante a unique function, be it additional attacks for melee weapons or firearms, dashing and wall-running abilities, parrying and defense, etc. Dante can also equip and switch between two melee weapons and two firearms on-the-fly. On top of all that, the game also introduced new combo-canceling abilities (like the jump cancel) which gave players tremendous control over how they created and customized their combos.
DMC3 does fall short in a few areas. The original game has atmosphere — the gothic castle, ambient music, and grotesque demons give it a unique “survival- horror” vibe that DMC3 lacks. The original DMC features some of the best damned enemies in any action game I’ve ever encountered, which is amazing considering how limited Dante is in that game, compared to DMC3. Those demons drip with personality, and have robust move-lists, so familiarizing yourself with their attacks is quite a challenge. Nonetheless, DMC3 expands Dante’s move-list and functions tremendously, and while the enemies are a bit lacking, beating them to a bloody pulp is loads of fun, making it a fantastic beat-em up for the PS2.
To be perfectly honest, I turned my nose up at the game when I first heard of it. I was an arrogant prick, I admit it – I was too mature, too refined, for a “kiddy game” the likes of Kingdom Hearts. But when my younger brother was shopping for a new PS2 game back in early 2003, I couldn’t help but nudge him towards Kingdom Hearts. Seeing Cloud on the back of the box with Hades and Jack Skellington piqued my curiosity, and I thought, “Well, better his money than mine, right?” Kingdom Hearts turned out to be one of the best video game purchases we would ever make.
The game’s premise is a bit silly, let’s be honest here. It tells the story of Sora, a plucky JRPG hero who journeys alongside Donald and Goofy through various Disney themed worlds infected by a malicious “darkness,” with Disney’s most popular villains orchestrating everything behind the scenes. If the nostalgia alone doesn’t coax you into playing, the fun combat and Final Fantasy draw most definitely will. Throw in fantastic voice acting all-around (Mandy Moore still makes the best Aerith, and Billy Zane is the best Ansem, hands-down), and you have an experience you won’t soon forget.
Kingdom Hearts has some mechanical issues that were corrected in the sequel, Kingdom Hearts II, namely the clunky and claustrophobic camera, the jarring gummy ship sections, the lack of proper direction, and the awkward platforming. Unfortunately, in fixing the latter two issues, Square streamlined the overall experience, and the game lost some of the original’s charm in the process. Have you ever tried casting “Blizzard” on the floating bubbles in Hollow Bastion in the original game, for example? Try it out. Awesome details like that are what I feel the newer games in the series lack.
God of War
Yep, the first one, directed by David Jaffe (who also directed the fantastic Twisted Metal: Black for the PS2). God of War tells the story of a very angry asshole named Kratos, a bloodthirsty Spartan warrior and general. When his armies fall to the barbarian horde, Kratos surrenders himself to Ares, the god of war, in exchange for salvation and power. After serving the god faithfully, Ares tricks our bloodthirsty protagonist into killing his own wife and child, so that he may sever all familial chains and serve Ares utterly. Kratos is not pleased by this, and vows revenge.
In truth, God of War did little to “reinvent the wheel” so to speak. As far as action games go, God of War plucks elements from a variety of games (Onimusha, Devil May Cry, Prince of Persia) and polishes them brilliantly. Combat utilizes a two-button combo system, though Kratos can cancel into a block or dodge at almost any time. He can inject special moves, grabs and magic attacks into combos on-the-fly, giving players plenty of opportunity to free-form. God of War also makes good use of platforming and puzzles to break up the combat and keep the experience fresh. The underlying ancient Greek mythos also gave the game a uniqueness that made it stand out among other action titles. The game is highly cinematic as well, featuring great FMV scenes and impressive and visceral scripted finishers (the now-banal Quick-Time Event), which gave it a Hollywood-esque flair.
God of War II improves on many of the original’s solid elements, making the set-pieces more grandiose in scale. Weapon switching is more viable, magic can be more easily comboed into melee attacks, parrying is polished up, and more. With that said, the original God of War left a stronger impression on me, which is why it’s on this list and not its sequel.
Are you an action game fan? Have you played God Hand? No? Shame on you. Not only have you denied yourself a campy, over-the-top action game by Capcom’s former Clover Studio (Okami, Viewtiful Joe), you’ve denied yourself what I believe is the best action game developed to date. Yes, that’s a pretty big claim, but hear me out. Nevermind the low critical reception or the bland, low-res levels and super-cheesy story. What God Hand does right is combat, and it does it so damn well I still use this game as the standard by which I compare every new action game.
You play as Gene. He possesses a demon-slaying arm called the God Hand, which he uses to beat thugs and demons. End of story. In essence, you have a basic combo, plus several special attacks you can use to string combos together on the fly. You can customize any of these attacks to your liking with a variety of crazy kung-fu moves. Toss in a few context-sensitive attacks, and stun/counter Quick-Time Events for good measure, too. Oh, and ridiculous super attacks; you can’t forget those. Rather then blocking, you use the right analog stick to weave (tap forward), sidestep (tap left/right) or backflip (tap back) away from incoming attacks. Each evasive ability has unique properties, and utilizing all of them effectively is critical to getting good at the game. Did I forget to mention that the enemies and bosses are hard as balls? And that the game has a dynamic difficulty that adjusts to how well you’re doing, so the better you do, the harder the game gets? Oh man, are there good times to be had.
God Hand is the definitive brawler-style action game. So robust. So responsive. And so damn good. If you haven’t picked it up, the game was recently released on Sony’s PlayStation Network. No excuses, folks. Play this game.
Yes, two Clover Studio titles. Call me a Clover fanboy if you like (that’s not too far from the mark, in truth). Imagine, if you will, a large scale adventure game, like the Zelda series. Now, instead of a green fairy-boy, you take control of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, in wolf form. Instead of a bag of special items you use, you paint whatever you need into existence. Set this game in a fantasy Japanese world, chock full of myth and fable references. Depict the world in vibrant, Japanese watercolor-styled cel shading. Throw action combat, puzzle-solving and platforming into the brew. That’s Okami.
Okami isn’t revolutionary, but oozes polish and atmosphere at every level. The combat is fast paced and quite complex, since each weapon has two different functions when used as a primary or secondary attack. The world of Nippon is massive, with four enormous fields full of NPCs, enemies, treasures, puzzles and secrets to find or interact with. Mini games? Optional quests and bosses? Hidden techniques? Okami‘s got all of that in spades. Sure, it’s not perfect – the intro sequence can drag on for a bit (kinda wordy) and the NPC’s speak in a gibberish language that some may find bizarre, and even annoying. I say it’s all part of the game’s charm. If you can find a copy, definitely pick it up. If not, have no fear; Sony will release an HD version on its PlayStation Network at the end of October. Okami is a must-buy for adventure fans.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
You want an open-world sandbox of a game? Well, look no further than San Andreas. GTA fans all have their favorites, and truth be told, I feel that the series took a wrong turn right after Vice City, when the more somber plot elements began to overshadow the silliness of the games. With that said, San Andreas doesn’t stray from what makes the series so fun to play – causing mayhem in the streets as you complete missions, all the while outrunning the law.
San Andreas introduces lots of RPG-like stats into the sandbox formula, which actually compliment the open-ended nature of the GTA games. Customization is a huge part of San Andreas. CJ’s appearance and style affect his gang respect and sex appeal. He has tons of skills and abilities he can develop, from physical strength and stamina to weapon and vehicular proficiencies. All of these attributes directly impact how well CJ controls and maneuvers. Fortunately, CJ develops naturally throughout the course of the game, so you will rarely need to grind to take on missions practically. But the min-maxing element is there for players to utilize, all the same.
The game takes place in fictional San Andreas, which itself is comprised of three smaller cities based on the West Coast’s own Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. (Yes, I know Vegas is not on the Coast). It tells the story of CJ, who returns to San Andreas in the wake of his mother’s death and learns that his street gang has been overtaken by rival gangs. So the object of the game, obviously, is to restore the Grove Street Families back to their former glory. San Andreas also plays on the criminal activity and whitewashing committed by agents of the LAPD during the 90′s, which enrich the story and add an eerie element realism to the game. But you don’t need to be engaged by the story to enjoy this title. If you’re just looking for a game where you can muck around a virtual sandbox for hours on end, San Andreas has you covered.
Shadow of the Colossus
There’s a beauty in the simplicity of Shadow of the Colossus. You play a wandering warrior who trespasses upon an ancient shrine within a forbidden realm, in hopes of reviving his dead… girlfriend? I think? Some strumpet the hero likes, I suppose. The only way to accomplish this is to destroy 16 stone behemoths called colossi. That’s all you’re told, but that’s all you really need to know. Aside from a few curious scenes throughout the game, the only real story developments take place during the introduction and conclusion. The rest of the game is a purely personal experience between you, your faithful steed Agro, and the world of Shadow of the Colossus.
Each colossus encounter is highly cinematic and grandiose, without ever taking control away from you. The wanderer has unique and detailed animations for how he manipulates the environment around him, and this is especially true for the climbing and physics mechanics. Colossi will do their best to shake you off of them, flopping the wanderer around like a rag doll. Yet you can always use momentum and gravity to your advantage while climbing (or being thrown around by) colossi and even riding on horseback, which adds a cinematic element while still giving players the utmost control.
Much like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the world of Shadow of the Colossus is one big fantasy sandbox. True, Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t have a whole lot going on within its world outside of hunting the colossi. You can hunt lizards and pick fruit to improve your stamina and health, but there are no people to interact with, or side-quests to undertake. Rather, the bulk of your time is spent exploring the fantasy world on your own, soaking in the game’s ambiance and mystery. And as bland as that sounds, it’s a major part of why this game is such an amazing experience.
Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII tells the story of a deposed sovereign, Princess Ashe, who leads a resistance against her Archadian conquerors. The plot follows Ashe and her ragtag party as they search for a power that will help her overthrow Archadia and restore her nation of Dalmasca. The story is much more political than earlier titles in the series, though it does delve into the supernatural much more heavily as the plot progresses.
Final Fantasy XII uses a peculiar real-time/ATB hybrid battle system that allows you to engage enemies in the same environments that you traveled on, giving the world a truly integrated and seamless feel. The game’s “Gambit” system lets players “program” what actions their party members would take based on a list of prioritized commands – this was an amazing feature, and would have been most welcome had it been used in future titles. *cough* Final Fantasy XIII *cough*
While the game suffers from story pacing issues, and its characters aren’t as fleshed out as they deserve, Final Fantasy XII‘s strength lies in its massive world and optional content. Exploring the enormous fields, decaying ruins and ancient crypts of Ivalice makes for a sprawling and wonderful adventure, and the monster-hunting side-quests ensure that you will explore every nook and cranny. Throw in a lore-rich data-log (which compliments the story, rather than explain it), amazing art direction, and an excellent translation, and you have an great game, overall.
And yes, Final Fantasy XII is on this list, and not Final Fantasy X. Why? Well, if you’ve listened to our Final Fantasy podcasts, you might know that I didn’t really care much for X. If XII suffers from underdeveloped characters and plot, X suffers from excess cliché, depicted in both sappy and obnoxious ways. The dialogue in that game is bad, its cast is irritating, and some story scenarios make no damn sense at all. Its battle system is fun, but that alone isn’t enough to justify sticking in on my list. So Final Fantasy XII it is.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of my favorite turn-based RPGs on the PlayStation 2, and its way, way up there on my list of top RPGs of all time. Though set during the first World War, Shadow Hearts: Covenant takes a few liberties with its cast and plot, telling a story of religious and political intrigue set about by ambitious humans and power-hungry demons. Yet, Shadow Hearts: Covenant maintains an air of humor throughout most of the game, playing on character and scenario clichés to lighten up some of the bleaker story events. After all, we’re talking about a plot where a demon-channeling brawler, a sword-wielding female German captain, a sentient white wolf, a gay superhero vampire wrestler (with his own theme song and all) among others, set out to save the world from Rasputin, and worse. Hilarity and hijinks abound.
Covenant uses the “archaic” gameplay elements that modern RPGs tend to distance themselves from, such as random encounters and purely turn-based combat. Gameplay in Shadow Hearts: Covenant feels engaging and fresh despite this. The “Judgement Ring” attack system demands that players precisely time their button inputs to execute attacks and critical hits, giving combat a technical element. Shadow Hearts: Covenant also uses an attack chain system (simply called a combo) where players can bunch characters together to chain attacks consecutively.
To top it off, Shadow Hearts: Covenant has excellent voice acting, great FMV scenes, and a fantastic soundtrack. If you’re an RPG fan and you happen find this treasure at a game shop, do not hesitate to pick it up – it will absolutely be worth it.
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
As you have no doubt noticed by perusing this list, I am a fan of campy, light-hearted games and stories. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is one of those games that doesn’t takes itself seriously, and happens to be a damn great strategy RPG to boot. The story follows a young demon prince named Laharl, who seeks to claim his father’s throne. He sets off with his vassal Etna to take down rival demon overlords and claim the throne for himself. The ridiculous story scenarios and character interactions that ensue have earned this game a place in my heart.
Battles in Disgaea seem very much like standard SRPG-fare, at first glance. The “geo panel” mechanic adds variety and difficulty to the gameplay by manipulating the rules of the game or providing buffs or penalties within their zone on the field. This forces players to throw-around or destroy these geo symbols to avoid their penalty. And yes, throwing is another interesting mechanic that Disgaea makes use of during gameplay. Throwing geo symbols, enemies and other party members around the field is both absurd and crucial to securing victory in battle.
Disgaea has an absurd amount of content. There are dozens of classes players can experiment with, as well as 9,999 experience levels to grind, if you’re so inclined. There are plenty of monsters and characters to recruit, weapon and ability leveling mechanics, and even an advanced stat-boosting level-reset function for the hardcore completionist. Disgaea offers up great dialogue, novel gameplay elements, an awesome cast of characters (with great voice acting), multiple endings, and tons of optional content. It’s a game you can sink massive amounts of time into. Long story short, Disgaea is fun, bizarre and an all-round awesome title, doods.
That ends my list, and I know what you’re thinking. “Gabriel, you talentless hack. How could you create a ‘top PS2 games’ list without such and such game?” Well, as I mentioned initially, we all have differing tastes and experiences, and my list will probably not look like your list. I’m sure Metal Gear fans are grinding their teeth down to the gums at the lack of any Metal Gear love in this article. They’re not bad games at all – I just couldn’t get into the series, and thought it would be disingenuous to put Metal Gear in my list. And I’m sure Final Fantasy X fans are horrified that I included Final Fantasy XII over it. We’ll just have to agree to disagree there.
Hell, the longer I dwell on the matter of awesome PS2 games, the more titles will pop into my head. Here are a few games that could easily have made my list:
Persona 4. Dragon Quest VIII. Rachet and Clank: Up your Arsenal. Crazi Taxi. Killzone. Katamari Damacy. Klonoa 2. Silent Hill 2. Guilty Gear: Accent Core +. I can go on for quite a while if I really dwelled on this, but I won’t. This list would swell into a top 25, and then a top 50, If I let myself get carried away. But please do share your own favorites and “top 10″ games with us in the comment section below. We’d love to hear what PS2 games, both mainstream and obscure, you believe belong in the top 10.