5) Dark Cloud 2 (PS2) - Dark Cloud 2 was the most spectacular sequel that a below-average predecessor could ever hope for. From its happy-poppy-sunshine cell-shaded graphics and steampunk atmosphere to the city building endeavors and ridiculous weapon creation system, this sequel puts a lot of RPGs to shame, its older sibling included. Those latter two bullet point features are essentially what set this series apart from the rest and made Dark Cloud 2 so memorable. There was a great deal of content that players could mess around with: building towns, synthesizing weapons, taking pictures, golfing inside of dungeons, assembling battle robots, fishing, racing said fish, etc. Admittedly, most of the diversions were stupid (seriously, dungeon golfing?), but I actually had a lot of fun partaking in these trivial little diversions. Battles were enjoyable, as well, and it was definitely rewarding to watch those weapons I slaved over come to life in the heat of battle. Dark Cloud 2 was by no means a groundbreaking experience, but it's hard to deny the game's solid mechanics and story-driven charms. Plus, the main character fights with a wrench. And that's awesome.
4) Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PS2) - I found Disgaea in a Toys'R'Us hidden behind a stack of Final Fantasy X copies. The box art illustrated a blue-haired kid (no more than thirteen years old) wearing a giant red scarf and holding a giant red sword. He was yelling at an upside down penguin and a shirtless monk that also happened to be kneeing a dragon in the jaw, and behind him was an archer readying its bow against a shark. So I bought it, played it, and loved it, and that's all I'm going to say. "But Sam! You didn't say why you liked the game so much!" Well then, my fellow gamer, read that box art description a few more times. Now wrap it in a strategy RPG battle system and tape on a card that says "To: Comedy-seeking individuals."
3) Shadow Hearts: Covenant (PS2) - Setting is important to me. I love it when a game plops me into a world full of crazy architecture and forests made out of fireballs (that's pretty zany... right?). In that respect, Covenant caught me off guard a bit. I mean, I was accustomed to games coated in fantasy paint, so for me, a game taking place in the real world was just as strange as anything I had seen from prior RPGs. So there I was, smack dab in the middle of Paris, when all of a sudden a butterfly mask-wearing wrestler—who was really a vampire—that attacked with unorthodox objects like lockers, totem poles and giant tuna fish decided to help me save the world. It was... strange. But for some reason, I accepted it. And as I traveled around the globe with my circus crew of a party, consisting of other characters that had no place battling evil (like a fortuneteller that attacks with aromatherapy), I began to fall in love with the Judgment Ring battle system, and slowly but surely, everything else. I loved tapping X every time I came across a random object within town, hoping that it would be a weapon for my wrestler friend. I loved buying items from the overly flamboyant French shopkeeper, and giving his brother collectable cards featuring naked male models so he would upgrade my weapons.
...I think I'll stop while I still have my credibility.
2) Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3/FES (PS2) - If it weren't for that bastard of a title that sits comfortably within my number one spot (don't you dare skip ahead!), Persona 3 would have undoubtedly claimed top honors. Above everything else on this list of mine, P3 is the game that tweaked the genre the most. It's as if Atlus shattered the RPG mold, picked up the pieces, and glued them back together again into a completely misshapen oddity. You'd think that the finished product wouldn't be all that attractive, but P3 somehow managed to trump its PS2 competition and completely decimate a lot of the biggies on the next-gen systems. People often cite the Social Link concept as the single greatest thing in the history of ever, and while I do agree that it is a genius addition to the formula, I feel as though the game's other aspects receive less credit than they should. We've got that killer soundtrack full of upbeat, toe-tapping sounds that perfectly sync up with the modern Japan setting, the expansive Persona catalog, and of course, the relatable cast of characters that somehow made shooting yourself in the head cooler than it probably should be. The story is a slick mix of contemporary adolescence, morbid undertones, and toothpaste comedy (for all you Junpei fans), which makes for a great 60-80 hour adventure. Persona 3 is just a great achievement and a spectacular resurrection to a genre whose hit points have long since hit zero.
1) Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga (1+2) (PS2) - I never knew that the RPG genre was a very challenging one. I really didn't. With leveling up being the central process toward character progression, I was always under the impression that everything could be solved by some good old-fashioned grinding, that my troubles would vanish by sucking in a few thousand more experience points. And until I introduced myself to the Shin Megami Tensei series, this is how I had always seen things. RPGs were easy. So naturally, when I popped in Nocturne for the first time, it punched me in places I didn't even know it hurt to be punched in! Conquering that bad boy was a true test of endurance (and my Dualshock's durability), and I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't a bit turned off by its extreme difficulty. But with the thin shred of my manhood that remained, I decided to continue on with the series and delved headfirst into the PS2 perfection that is Digital Devil Saga.
These two games are, without a doubt in my mind, the pinnacle of our genre from the last generation. Alongside a tough as nails battle system that punishes you for making even the smallest of slip-ups (heck, it'll wail on you even if you do everything right), DDS offers a dark, compelling, original storyline, knitted together with truly solid characters that will endlessly tug at your heart strings. In fact, it's the characters that make it such a memorable experience, with each game providing players with very distinct types of information. Part one of the series offers players little more than personalities, while part two smatters in crazy amounts of out-of-the-blue exposition that is anything but predictable. The order in which we gain insight is wild, and it makes for a great plot. The story is also heavily reliant upon death. It might be something we've all seen in past RPGs, but for me, DDS was the first game that actually gave weight to such a disastrous event. I could feel the impact of a character's passing; I understood the reactions, the emotions that these characters felt as they coped with it all. Developers often bend over backwards in hopes of making their characters seem even slightly human, though it hardly ever works. But man, when it does, it's absolutely chilling, and I tip my hat to the people that crafted this brilliant gem of a tale.