I don’t play a lot of video games. Mostly it’s because I’m too busy and there are other things I need to spend my time doing. Along with that, the games I like are mostly turn-based RPGs, and most of those take a lot of time to get through. It’s not that unusual for RPGs to have 60+ hours of gameplay. Since I don’t spend a lot of time playing, those 60 hours get spread pretty thin, which makes it difficult to get involved in the story.
Even though I don’t play a lot now, I’ve gone through quite a few games, mostly on the Playstation 1 & 2. These are the games that I find myself going back to and playing again and again:
Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2 (PS2)
It took me a little while to get into these games, but I’m really glad I did. The Digital Devil Saga is one of the highest quality games I’ve ever played. The first game is brilliant. Everything in the game is top notch. The graphics are excellent, the gameplay is well done and intuitive, and the story and characters are unique and memorable. It’s not perfect, since it is a bit of a dungeon crawler, and the pacing of the battles can slow the game down. The battle system helps with that. The auto battle feature is really nice to have for easy fights, and the strategy used for more difficult battles keeps things interesting. It does take some time to figure things out, but as the story is revealed the more engaging it becomes.
The second game is just as good. It maintains the excellence in graphics and gameplay, but shifts the story and characters in very different, but compelling directions. This is about as true of a sequel as I’ve ever played, with very few changes to functionality and a story that picks up right where the first game leaves off. The only real issue is that very little transfers from the first game to the second, so you have to start over in terms of character skills and abilities. The way the story is set up, it makes a little sense, but it was also frustrating. Overall, there’s a reason I’m listing these first, they’re possibly the two best RPGs on the PS2 system.
Shadow Hearts & Shadow Hearts: Covenant (PS2)
I actually played these games out of order, so when I first played Shadow Hearts, I was a little disappointed. I thought the graphics and gameplay were a little clunky in comparison, and I missed the humor found in the 2nd game. Fortunately, I gave it a chance, and now I can’t decide which game I like more. The story in Shadow Hearts is fantastic, and the way it includes real people and events is great. What really makes the game special though, is the judgement ring battle system. I’ve played this game multiple times just to try and improve my ring stats.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant was one of the first games I ever played on the PS2, and it’s been a favorite ever since. Covenant is a lot lighter than its predecessor. There’s more humor, and the characters are more colorful. As I mentioned above, the graphics and gameplay were also greatly improved in this installment. The story isn’t quite as good as it’s predecessor, but it’s close, and I actually liked the characters in this game more than the original. One of the best things about the game, though, is the pacing. This is still one of the only games where I felt like every boss battle was challenging, but beatable, even if I didn’t do any level grinding.
Chrono Trigger (SNES/PS1) & Chrono Cross (PS1)
This is another series I played out of order (in fact, I didn’t even know Chrono Trigger existed until several years after I played the second game). Looking back now, I was probably a little confused during a few parts of Chrono Cross, but on the whole, I’m glad I played them in the wrong order. Chrono Trigger has a huge reputation, and I’ve occasionally seen it listed as the greatest RPG of all time. Chrono Trigger is an outstanding game, and I still love playing it, but if I had started playing Chrono Cross with those expectations, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the sequel as much as I did.
Chrono Cross is also an outstanding game, and, in my opinion, improved on a few of the things that made Chrono Trigger so great. The percentage/strength based battle system is fantastic, since it adds a strategy element to attacks. I also think the customizable magic system is better than Chrono Trigger’s magic. Where Chrono Cross falls short is in the characters. Serge and Kid are great, but beyond that, the cast is just too large to really connect with many of the recruitable companions.
Growlanser Generations (PS2)
I debated whether or not to include this collection. The games are a lot of fun, but nothing spectacular. The main reason why I’m including them is the replay value. After finishing Sense of Justice, I immediately played through it again. It’s a quick game, and it can be challenging to get all the available endings. I loved the battle system, and even though the game seems to be very linear, that’s just the surface appearance. There are a lot of choices to be made, and some of them have very large impacts on the story.
The Dual Darkness is very different from its predecessor. The battle system is the same, but the story has a lot more freedom of movement. My first time through, I wasn’t a big fan. I recently replayed the game, though, and it was awesome. There were so many little events and sidequests that I missed my first time through. I also took full advantage of some of the items and the arena mini-game, which was a lot of fun. I still think that Sense of Justice had the better story, but The Dual Darkness vastly improved the gameplay.
The first Suikoden game I played was the 3rd, which is a solid game, but the original is the one that I’ve played multiple times. The cast of characters is huge, but somehow each one is unique and likeable. The battle system is pretty basic, as are the graphics, but that adds to it’s charm. The focus of the game isn’t about innovating new gameplay features, the focus is on the story, and Suikoden has one of the best stories ever. I hear that Suikoden 2 is even better, but I’ve never been able to get very far into the game before life gets in the way, and I stop playing.
Star Ocean: The Second Story (PS1)
This game is surprisingly addictive. I’m usually not a big fan of real time battles (I like the control I get with turn-based battle systems), but Star Ocean does it well. The first time I played through the game, I think I finished with the bare minimum number of party members. The last time I went through, I made sure to get every character I could. It made the game a lot more enjoyable. That leads me to one of the things that makes this game so much fun, the choices matter. Unlike a lot of the other games on this list, Star Ocean rewards you for making certain decisions. Usually the reward is simply an additional side-quest, but without making the right decision early on, that sidequest, and sometimes an entire map section, is inaccessible. At some point I’ll go back through the game and make some different choices to unlock areas or characters I haven’t played yet. I’ve heard that there are 80+ variations to the ending. I doubt I’ll ever get them all, but it’s nice to know that my experience will be at least a little different every time I pick up the game.
Arc the Lad 2 (PS1)
I played through the entire Arc the Lad Collection, and firmly believe that the second installment is vastly superior to the other two. Arc the Lad is short and a little clunky in its storytelling and gameplay, and Arc the Lad 3 didn’t feel like it belonged in the same storyline. Arc the Lad 2 improves on every part of the first game. The battles are smoother, the story is better, the graphics are improved, and the characters are more interesting. What really sold me on the game, though, was the Hunter’s Guild. Being able to pick and choose jobs added a lot of depth to the gameplay. Even on my first time through the game, I would keep going back to different guilds in an attempt to find every possible job.
Dragon Warrior VII (PS1) & Dragon Quest VIII (PS2)
I haven’t played any of the preceding games in the Dragon Quest series, so these two games are my only exposure to the popular series. Dragon Warrior VII is a game that just seems mediocre on the surface. The graphics aren’t great, the story is okay, the gameplay is dated, but for some reason, I go back and play it over and over again. Maybe it’s the episodic nature of the story, or maybe it’s that the game looks like it should be on the SNES. I don’t know, it’s just a lot of fun.
I was really excited when Dragon Quest VIII came out. It was one of the very few games that I considered buying new rather than used. (I didn’t I picked up a used copy off eBay a few months after its release and saved a few bucks.) The game looks phenomenal, and maintains a lot of the charm of the previous game. The story is a lot better, as are the game mechanics. Even though it improves upon DW7 in almost every way, I haven’t found it to have quite the same replay value.
Final Fantasy VII-XII (PS1/PS2)
Pretty much everyone who plays RPGs has gone through the Final Fantasy series, so I’m just going to hit my favorite parts of each of these.
- FF7: The Materia system is great, as are the limit breaks, but it’s the characters that carry this game. Every playable character is memorable, which can’t be said for many of the other Final Fantasy games. Combine that with an excellent story, and it’s easy to see why so many people think this is the pinnacle of the series. Not only that, but it has, arguably, the greatest villain in the franchise. Sephiroth strikes a great blend of menacing, crazy, and sympathetic that’s pretty hard to match.
- FF8: This has long been my favorite. I like the precise control that the junction system gives, and the fact that enemies level up along with the characters means that grinding isn’t needed. The story and characters aren’t as good as 7 or 9, but they’re okay. The gameplay and graphics are fantastic, and Squall’s gunsword is probably the best weapon in the whole series. The opening movie is also the best in the franchise.
- FF9: I like this game more every time I play it. don’t think the graphics are much better than 8, but the story is better, and the characters have a lot more personality. The mini-games are fun, and some of them are even needed to progress the story. Gameplay is similar to the previous games, and no real innovations were included. That familiarity was a good thing, since, unlike the previous two games, FF9 is not science fiction, but an actual fantasy.
- FF10: Specialized weapons, fluid battle lineups, and a fantastic mini-game make FF10 a great game to play. The story and characters are pretty good too. Despite its popularity, this may be my least favorite Final Fantasy game. The dialogue can be really wooden and forced, and the story’s a little too linear for my taste. That said, it’s still one of the best RPGs on the system.
- FF12: A lot of Final Fantasy staples changed in this game. Battles became real time and used gambits rather than manual controls. Random battles were eliminated and enemies stopped dropping gil. I actually liked these aspects. I thought they preserved the control I like while streamlining the gameplay. I’m also glad they adjusted how characters level up. FF10 had a nice idea with the sphere grid, but the license board refined that idea into something great.
I know I haven’t hit on many games, but these are my favorites. If anyone has any suggestions for other games to try, leave them in the comments.