Japanese Role-Playing games are a staple of the genre. So many timeless classics have been attributed to JRPGs that they’re a totally unique sub-genre at this point, and one that spans so many different styles and settings. You have Steampunk JRPGs, JPRGs set in high fantasy worlds, the future and there are even Mario themed JRPGs. Now enter the PS2, that glorious black and blue brick. Some consider this the golden era for JRPGs. We all know the classics; your Final Fantasy X’s, Dragon Quest VIII’s and Kingdom Hearts of the world. But what about those underrated gems, the ones that flew under the radar? The PS2 has such a massive library that there are probably a billion games you’ve never even heard about. I’m here to list my top 10 underrated JRPGs on the PS2. Keep in mind, when I say underrated, I don’t mean in terms of critical ratings. I mean that these games are underappreciated or obscure diamonds in the rough that don’t get the attention they deserve.
10. Rogue Galaxy (Level-5, 2007)-
To say Level-5 was on a hot streak during the PS2 generation is the understatement of a lifetime. The Dark Cloud games, which could very easily be on this list, are must play dungeon crawlers in and of themselves. Then you’ve got Dragon Quest VIII which a lot of people, myself included, believe is not only the best DQ game, but one of the best JRPGs ever made period. But there was another underappreciated gem they released very late into the PS2’s lifetime called Rogue Galaxy. Rogue Galaxy is a mix of sci-fi and fantasy RPG that follows the adventures of a gang of space pirates as they get involved in a galactic conflict. The game borrows a lot from Dark Cloud, and is a fairly standard action RPG, but there are a lot of cool gameplay systems that allow you to personalize characters to your liking. Much like Dark Cloud, there is an insane amount of content in this game, but all the systems and different ideas mesh really well together. Visually it is one of the best-looking games on the console. I don’t think Rogue Galaxy is necessarily obscure any more, as it did get a PSN re-release, but it’s worth having on this list because it doesn’t get nearly as much praise as it deserves for being one of the best JRPGs on the system.
9. Soul Nomad and the World Eaters (Nippon Ichi Software, 2007)-
Soul Nomad is an amazing strategy game developed by the creators of the Disgea games and is a criminally overlooked gem. The gameplay is mostly similar to the Disgea franchise, but where Soul Nomad really differs is that the story path you take during the game changes based on your decisions and actions. The story is pretty great with some entertaining characters, but what I really like is the world that it creates. There are a lot of easter eggs and secrets to unlock, even one that opens up a side quest involving a character from the Disgea series, which is really cool fanservice for the fans of both franchises. Plus, the voice acting is amazingly over the top and you can tell everyone was having a great time. Yes, it has a generic “anime” aesthetic, and is pretty lo-fi even by PS2 standards, but if you can overlook that, Soul Nomad and the World Eaters is a really fun game. I think this is one Nippon Ichi Soft title that definitely doesn’t get the love it warrants, probably due to how late it came out in the PS2’s lifecycle.
8. Growlanser Generations (Career Software, 2004)
The Growlanser series has an… Interesting history in North America to say the least. The first and fourth games were never officially released outside of Japan. Growlanser Generations is a compilation of Growlanser 2 and 3 which is the sole NA release of both games. But, it’s not to be confused with the fifth game which is entitled “Growlanser V: Generation…” Yeah, once you’ve wrapped your head around this inane naming scheme, you’re free to experience one of the coolest JRPG series on the Playstation 2. The game has a pretty unique combination of turn-based strategy and real time action, much like the Grandia series. But, instead of having typical turn-based combat that most SRPG’s go for, it has a more of an active-time based approach which makes for some very tense and split-second decision making. This keeps the pace very quick and while it can be frustrating at times, it’s an interesting take on the genre. The story and characters really aren’t much to write home about, but if you want to play 2 very interesting and underrated Strategy games, then Growlanser Generations is worth checking out.
7. Wild Arms 3 (Sony, 2002)-
The Wild Arms series is one of the most unique and interesting JRPG franchises available. It eschews the standard high fantasy or cyberpunk backdrops these types of games tend to be set in and instead dedicates itself completely to a Wild West aesthetic. The series started on PS1 and moved onto the PS2 as well, including a remake of the original game titled “Wild Arms: Alter Code F.” 3 is a completely different monster though. It’s the first and only game in the franchise to be a hex-based strategy RPG. I think it makes the transition from standard turn-based game to full on strategy game extremely gracefully. The game’s Wild West mixed with some elements of steampunk aesthetic permeates into the battle system as you’re fighting with revolvers and cavalry swords, it’s a really great change of pace from the usual settings of other RPGs. While the story isn’t the best, I really like how they fleshed out each character in the party so that everyone’s story plays out alongside each other and the characters all grow together throughout the game. The cell shaded graphics are wonderful, and I personally really like the soundtrack as well. Wild Arms as a series is definitely getting more attention nowadays, but I don’t think 3 necessarily gets as much credit as it deserves, especially for being brave enough to change up the formula so much and sticking the landing. This is probably my favorite game in the series and is another underrated PS2 game you can pick up on PSN.
6. Radiata Stories (Tri-Ace, 2005)-
Tri-Ace has been a cult RPG sweetheart since the PS1 era with franchises like Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean, but they also released a cult classic on PS2 with Radiata Stories. This game is not only one of the most beautiful cell-shaded games on the system, but it’s a fantastic RPG as a whole. Radiata Stories is a fairly standard Action RPG, but what makes it unique is that nearly every NPC in the game can be recruited to your party. Not only do they all have great backstories, but each have their own abilities and skills they can teach to the player. That means that instead of leveling up to get new skills and abilities, you instead have to learn them from the NPC’s that you recruit and do a side quest with. It makes the game feel like a living breathing world because each character in the world is important. The game is incredibly light-hearted and humorous with some fantastic characters and writing. When it does need to tackle more serious themes though, it is mature about them without being a jarring shift in tone. Also, there’s a really silly feature where you can just kick everything in the world which never stops being funny. Tri-Ace are no strangers to making cult hits, and I think Radiata Stories fits perfectly alongside the others and deserves more plaudits than it has received.
5. Metal Saga (Success Studios, 2006)-
There are a metric ton of turn-based role-playing games out there, so it’s important for a game to stand out if it wants to get noticed. Unfortunately, Metal Saga doesn’t do a lot at first glance to catch the audience’s eye. It’s a rather traditional turn-based JRPG that is set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world, and the character designs are kind of just generic anime style. But if you look past that very cliché exterior, you’ll find one of the most soulful and fun JRPGs available on the system.
Instead of attacking using swords and bows, the game places you in a squadron of tanks, controlled by a platoon of amiable and lovable characters. All of the battles take place using these tanks, so your character’s roles are based on their job within the limits of operating said vehicle. Despite it being in an apocalyptic world, the game is actually incredibly lighthearted and humorous. The enemies are all robots with giant guns for heads or evil sentient helicopters. One of the party members is a dog with a rocket launcher strapped to his back, how are you not already running out to buy this game? There isn’t really a strong story path here, it takes almost a collect-a-thon platformer approach to RPGs. The main goal is to go around exploring the world collecting bounties, finding upgrades for your tank and diving into dungeons to find supplies for your camp. This laid-back approach to the game really fits well with the humor and light-hearted nature of the characters and tone. Metal Saga probably got overlooked because it came out near the release of the PS3, and at first glance, it doesn’t really separate itself from a lot of other JRPGs available at the time. Past that generic veneer though, there is a charming and fun JRPG to experience underneath.
4. Eternal Poison (Atlus, 2008)-
Eternal Poison is a turn-based strategy game that is part Pokémon and part Fire Emblem. This is easily one of the most well-presented games on the console. The graphics, especially the cutscenes, are downright gorgeous for a PS2 game, and the overall dark gothic noir aesthetic is amazing and has some of my favorite character designs in any game. The voice acting is sensational, and the soundtrack, while repetitive, has some really great tunes in it. The gameplay is more or less your standard Tactical RPG fare, but you also have different animals that you can catch and level up, which will no doubt pique the interest of Pokémon fans out there. The story isn’t that great and the game certainly isn’t the most polished available. The menus and systems can be a bit confusing, and it can have some pretty harsh difficulty spikes. In fact, the game as a whole is pretty damn challenging and can knock you on your ass like an epileptic at a rave if you aren’t prepared. But I think overall it’s still a game that’s well worth your time, especially if you like things with a Victorian visual style. It’s easy to see why this game is probably mostly unheard of; it came out well into the PS3’s lifetime, and it would have mostly released to almost no fanfare or hype as it’s already a very niche game. If you’re a fan of strategy games, you can do a lot worse than this PS2 deep cut.
3. Shadow Hearts: From the New World (Nautilus, 2007)-
The Shadow Hearts series as a whole is pretty underrated. The series takes place over the course of an alt-history World War I campaign and are really good RPGs in their own right. But these games are very serious and deal with some very heavy subject matter. Shadow Hearts: From the New World is a spinoff that takes place concurrently to the second game with new characters that takes a more lighthearted approach. The setting is the same, but instead of dealing with the grim realities of WW I, you’re fighting prohibition era mobsters, bootleggers and corrupt politicians. While WW I isn’t a particularly unique setting in the genre, moving it away from the war and instead to the domestic conflicts taking place during Prohibition and the Great Depression is a really nice change of pace. The combat is basically the same turn-based system with wheel-focused button presses that you have to time to get the maximum effects out of your attacks as the other games, but it’s the setting and story that really sells it. The Shadow Hearts series has gotten quite a bit of attention over the years, but this really cool spin-off is a diamond in the rough that probably never got the adoration it should because by the time it came out in 2007, the next gen consoles had already produced several classics like Portal, Mass Effect and Bioshock.
2. Shadow Tower Abyss (From Software, 2003)-
Once upon a time before they hit mainstream success and fame with games like Demons Souls and Bloodborne, Fromsoft was a little-known niche developer that used to make incredibly obscure games, many of which never came out in the west. Shadow Tower Abyss is a sequel to another little-known game that only came out in Japan, so I’d be shocked if anybody had even heard of this game in America. In fact, the game is so obscure that physical copies of it are super rare and fetch prices of up to $400 dollars. The only reason I know about it is because I was trying to find the title of the survival horror game they made (Kuon) and downloaded Shadow Tower Abyss instead. Well, I’m glad that my accidental discovery turned out to be one of the best obscure games on the system. A deeply atmospheric and interesting dungeon crawler, Shadow Tower Abyss is a fantastic and unique game. It tasks the player with climbing the titular tower. It’s a standard first-person dungeon crawler, except for the fact that medieval fantasy swords and magic exist alongside modern assault rifles and pistols. What you get is an interesting mix of combat, and alongside the amazing number of unique weapons makes for a really fun and immersive JRPG, especially if you’re a fan of games like Legend of Grimrock or Etrian Odyssey. The game is also fairly short at around 8-10 hours, so if you want a game to blow through quickly between big releases, you can probably knock this one out in a few days.
1. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga (Atlus, 2004)-
The Shin Megami Tensei series has a ton of spinoffs and great games at this point, many of which are popular in their own right. The Persona games, and the main series have seen an explosion in status over the past decade as more and more people are introduced to this phenomenal franchise. One spinoff that never got the due respect it deserves is the Digital Devil Saga games. Released in the prime of the PS2, it’s easy to see why this game is so overlooked. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world and is considerably darker than most of the games in the series, spinoff or otherwise. It has a very mature story and deals with a lot of heavy themes. The characters don’t have Personas, they turn into hellish demons and monsters. The soundtrack isn’t the series’ usual upbeat orchestrated tracks or catchy vocal melodies. It’s heavy and dark with distorted guitar driven songs and grungy tunes. It doesn’t do a lot to innovate on the franchise’s formula, but it’s a fantastically polished RPG and the story, sound design and characters are a high point. The game does end on a cliff hanger, but you can jump right into the second one if you want to continue the story right away. SMT Digital Devil Saga isn’t just an unnoticed gem, it’s one of my favorite games of all-time and I really hope that more people chose to experience it.