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Editorial: Five PS2 JRPGs I need to play, before it's too late

10 January 2013

Only time will tell if 2013 becomes the stage upon which the PlayStation 4 will make its long-awaited debut, but history tells us a bit about how the landscape of gaming will change if it does. One look at your online retailer of choice will tell just how rare and (generally) expensive your favorite original PlayStation games have become during the current generation, while a majority of PlayStation 2 titles are still rather easy to come by.

It's an undeniable trend. The last generation is "old", but the one before that? Classic. The market follows suit, which is why you can buy the original God of War for $19.99, but Mega Man Legends 2 will set you back $350. Admittedly, these disparities fluctuate - a new copy of Final Fantasy VII goes for $219 on Amazon, while a new copy of IX can be had for $15 - but there's a central idea to stay mindful of.

If there are PS2 games you've always wanted to play, but never got around to, you're running out of time.

I'm not saying that every one of your backlogged gems will become artifacts spoken of only in the darkest recesses of gaming-dom. The PlayStation 4 (Orbis?) won't automatically spell the end of every PS2 game you've ever wanted to play, but many will become harder to find and, as a result, markedly more expensive. There's never been a better (or, more urgent) time to go back and play what you missed, which is why I've set out to name the five last-gen JRPGs I most regret not playing; five games that I will acquire and finish post-haste, so my chance is not forever lost behind financial walls.

DARK CLOUD

Release date: May 29, 2001
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB: T for Teen

The PS2's first several months on the market were nothing if not peppered with titles that would go on to become legends. Among the likes of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Final Fantasy X were gems much easier to miss, including Dark Cloud, a 2001 Action-RPG and the debut effort of Japanese development studio Level-5.

During a time when gaming magazines were still the go-to publication, great press brought Dark Cloud into the PlayStation fan's consciousness. So too did knowledge of this game's existence rest within me, but not acting on instinct and seeking this title is a regrettable oversight. An innovative RPG even today, Dark Cloud places emphasis on dungeon-crawling for a variety of items that are used to rebuild the world after its pieces are scattered by a priest seeking to save it from the Dark Genie. The depth of weapon customization and development was unprecedented. In fact, weapon upgrades were EVERYTHING in Dark Cloud. Weapons leveled up as enemies were slain, and the ability to fuse two weapons to create a new, more powerful hybrid took Level-5's PS2 genesis to another level entirely.

Dark Cloud is becoming increasingly rare with each passing year, but its sequel is perhaps even more so. If you've any interest in experiencing a truly unique PS2 JRPG, it would be wise to act fast.

SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: DIGITAL DEVIL SAGA

Release date: April 5, 2005
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
ESRB: M for Mature

If you only know Shin Megami Tensei for its remarkable offshoot series Persona, you're not alone. What started as a moniker for a new kind of demon-infused RPG gaming in 1992 has since become a worldwide media brand with games on a staggering number of platforms. Eight of these titles landed on the PlayStation 2 in North America, and amidst the company of Final Fantasy X, XII, and their ilk, it's easy to draw comparisons with one in particular.

Digital Devil Saga brought a fresh take to JRPGs with a minimal, anime, sci-fi aesthetic and a narrative that infused post-apocalyptic desperation with demon summoning. This formula, when combined with the trademark Press Turn battle system of other Megami Tensei games (including Persona), made for a classic adventure that's further distinguished as only part of the entire tale - Digital Devil Saga 2 directly continues the story, and is necessary for any gamer seeking the journey's true end.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly why I never got around to playing Digital Devil Saga, but I have little doubt that Shin Megami Tensei's limited Western clout had more than a little to do with it. 2005 was a busy gaming year for me besides, with Soulcalibur III and Shadow of the Colossus planted firmly in my disc tray. That's a poor excuse for a game whose character customization apparently closely resembles Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid (a thought which has me ready to drop everything and play this game immediately).

ROGUE GALAXY

Release date: January 30, 2007
Developer: Level-5, SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB: T for Teen

Level-5's space opera didn't come to North America until 2007, the first complete calendar year of the PlayStation 3's existence and a time when many PlayStation gamers were beginning to eye up the future and turn a blind eye to the last deluge of great PS2 games. Rogue Galaxy is one of them, for boundless depth, a soaring narrative, and an innovate approach to battles that saw a seamless transition between exploring and fighting. No random encounters, no loading screens, and no limits to the places you could go and things you could see.

Thankfully, there was plenty to do AND see in Rogue Galaxy. Gameplay systems abound, and a yarn was spun of adventure and pirating on the high seas of the infinite unknown. For these reasons and more, I regret not tearing my eyes away from my shiny new PS3 to give this one a shot. While I ripped through games like Resistance: Fall of Man and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, my RPG-loving inner self yearned for the chance to play Rogue Galaxy. I never made that leap, and as the game continues to fall into obscurity, there are few gaming oversights that I more deeply regret.

DRAGON QUEST VIII: JOURNEY OF THE CURSED KING

Release date: November 15, 2005
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Square Enix
ESRB: T for Teen

The eighth installment in the venerable Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest franchise is actually a bit misplaced on this list, for I HAVE actually played it. In fact, I own it, having purchased it in 2005 not only for the gorgeous artwork of Akira Toriyama and its time-honored turn-based gameplay, but for the included demo of Final Fantasy XII. To my great shame, I have logged dozens of hours in Dragon Quest VIII over multiple attempted playthroughs, but never have I finished it, nor even advanced past the halfway mark.

In this case, I can testify for the sheer quality of the game, and the fact that it stands tall as one of the most polished JRPGs of all time. It's a sweeping epic across a wide-open world just waiting to be explored. That same world is populated by a cast of genuinely funny, relatable characters. The localization is impressive, the battle system is accessible yet challenging, and the game's cel-shaded visuals positively pop nearly a decade later.

Level-5 has never failed to impress on PS2, and Dragon Quest VIII might be its very best. I absolutely cannot wait to begin this game anew, and this time, see it through to the very end.

XENOSAGA (Ep. I - III)

Release date: February 25, 2003 (Episode I)
Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Namco
ESRB: T for Teen

PlayStation veterans will recognize the name "Xeno-", but while Xenosaga is the spiritual successor to the original PlayStation's Xenogears, it's another beast entirely. That beast is one of cinematic splendor and narrative ambition, of philosophy and science-fiction. The former two are things I cherish in modern gaming, and the latter two make Xenosaga one of the most unique JRPGs around.

That said, with uniqueness comes divisiveness, and not every critic fell hard for Xenosaga's brand of insanely long cutscenes and heavy story exposition. The philosophical underpinnings of Friedrich Nietzsche are referenced heavily throughout the trilogy, and anyone with a desire to play all three should be ready for a somewhat weak second installment. Still, everything I've read about the story of Xenosaga has me itching for a chance to experience all three episodes, especially alongside three battle systems that each make changes to and innovate upon that of the prior installment.

A war with an alien race, a mysterious power held by a legendary artifact, tensions and relationships wrapped up in a plan to change humanity's fate; the stage is set for a JRPG masterpiece, and I can't wait to find out whether Xenosaga followed through with its potential.
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I've shown you mine; now you show me yours. What PS2 games do you regret not playing? Titles you plan on picking up before the PlayStation 4 shifts the game economy? Sound off in the comments below with your personal list, or join the conversation on the official PSU forums.

 


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