The chillout gamer's guide to the PS2
Times are strange, to say the least. The pace of post-modern life is running headlong into the threat of nuclear annihilation, man-made plagues, and problems that never seem to end. Everyone is more than a little wound up. It is important to keep the ever-expanding oil slick fire that is our present day in your peripheral vision, but your brain needs a break every once in a while.
I’d like to take some time to talk about some video games that give my brain a break, starting with games on the PlayStation 2.
Sony’s sophomore console might have the single best library out of any home gaming console, so it had a wide variety of more mellow things to sift through. Now keep in mind this is in no way a definitive list of the most relaxing PS2 games. I just went through the library and wrote my thoughts on the games that gave me the most soothing feelings.
There are probably more than a couple I've forgotten but hey, relax, pal. Don't worry. Just roll with it.
Katamari Damacy and We Love Katamari
The Katamari games belong at the top of any list of most soothing games on the PlayStation 2, or potentially any console or game platform in history. Keita Takahashi's games are always a reward for your brain.
The plot involves the son of a space king who is tasked with remaking the stars and planets after your immense and inscrutable father has destroyed them on a bender. You do this by rolling things (all things) into a ball, which your father nonchalantly tosses into the sky.
The game's central action is a novel one. You aren't shooting or jumping or clicking on a monster, you simply roll, collect and absorb. There is a deep satisfaction to it that is a little hard to verbalize. You clean spaces and grow larger instead of gunning down shrieking beasts with abstractly complex assault rifles.
The game's creator has mentioned on Twitter that he felt some reticence about putting such a "silly" thing into the world right after 9/11. He shouldn't have been worried. I was living in Lower Manhattan during all of that, and I played the hell out of Katamari. I know of several others who had the same experience. it was exactly what we needed.
There was a string of ocean diving games running from the PS1 to the Wii, starting from Aquanauts's Holiday, that have mostly been forgotten. Of these, Everblue 2 is easily the best.
It is an RPG about making the lives of an island's people better using garbage you scoop up from the ocean floor. There is a very satisfying game loop involved with picking up lumber and glass and trash while diving, then using the materials to build new stores and homes and selling whatever is left over to a nice old man.
While you can drown and at one point there is a shark that will vaguely gnaw on you, it is in general a very calming experience. An evil corporation is trying to get to some undersea treasure before you, but there is absolutely zero urgency in dealing with them.
Go for a dip, friend. Take some pictures of a Clownfish. You've earned it.
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2
These two lengthy Japanese RPGs are a part of the ever growing library of Megami Tensei games. The most famous/popular of these has become the high school dating sim/therapy session games in the Persona series, but the larger franchise actually goes back as far as 1987 with the original Digital Devil title on the Famicom.
SMT:DDS 1 and 2 are essentially a throwback to these earlier games. Simpler and less mechanically obtuse than the later titles, they are basic, straightforward, grind-heavy roleplaying games in an extremely appealing aesthetic package.
Kazuma Kaneko, the visual mastermind behind the series, came up with some fantastic new creatures for these entries, and the music is easily some of the best on the console. It has that same appealing aesthetic style as the Persona games without that gnawing time limit pushing you constantly forwards. It is a slow and strange experience.
While it might not be quite as feature heavy as the later Yakuza titles, this is still more than likely my favorite game in the series. You are again stepping into the shoes of a calm, forceful member of the Japanese mafia and tasked with fixing the rift between crime families. In this instance, it is a war between Tokyo and Osaka organized crime.
This all sounds like an intense thing to play through and, during isolated moments, it is. You beat tigers to death in a massive golden castle at one point. This is only a fraction of the play experience, though. The vast majority of your time is spent walking the streets, tasting all the food and snacks that come your way, helping cats, learning about new sexual fetishes, and playing cards with homeless people. There is so much to do and an endless amount of time in which to do it.
It should be noted: a remake of this game is reportedly being released for the PS4 at some point domestically. Keep an eye out for it.
This game was one of the best games of this console generation and probably deserved a much wider audience. It is an intentionally laid-back (a voiceover on the title screen exclaims "A Relaxing Non-Linear Adventure!") action-RPG where you play a goofy young musician with amnesia.
You travel the extremely quaint world learning how to cook, play songs on a surprisingly wide array of instruments, and make new friends, all while traveling on a highly customizable steam powered bipedal robot chassis. It really is charming as hell. Imagine if Wes Anderson had made a steampunk Zelda game, and that is pretty close to Steambot Chronicles.
First of all, this isn't what I would call a great game. It isn't even what I would necessarily call a "good" game. It is exceedingly dumb, kind of buggy, and visually a mess. I love it though. It is Grand Theft Auto with no crime, no cars and no city. You play as a dog.
There is a cheat code to make the dog poop. You can pick up the excrement in your mouth and parade around like you own the place.
Sometimes the relaxation inherent in a game isn't intentional. I have spent hours laughing about this dumb, dumb game, and I love it for that reason.
Phantom Brave is one of Nippn Ichi's strategic RPGs that rose to prominence on the PS2. The most popular of these, the still-running Disgaea games (the fifth title of which was released on the PS4 not too long ago) created the template: grid based strategy, anime characters, and endless grinding with damage numbers reaching into the upper millions.
Phantom Brave, published a year after the first Disgaea, did away with the grid in favor of a free-form movement system that is conceptually similar to Sega's later tactical RPG Valkyria Chronicles. Also, in place of Disgaea's goofy demons and hellscapes, Phantom Brave takes place on a chain of islands populated by animal people and friendly ghosts. All this is coupled with some great, soothing music and it makes for a wonderful and extremely lengthy game.
Chulip is a game about kissing people. You play a young schoolboy that has just moved to a strange small town with your father. You have two actions you can take in this game: talking to someone and kissing them. There is a "kiss" button.
You kiss your neighbors, their pets, aliens, and mole people, all in an effort to bring the community together. In real life this boy would be put in prison in pretty short order, but in a video game context it is amazing.
I am tired of shooting at people in games. It is fun, but there are so many other actions to take in the world beyond shooting a gun. Like kissing everything and seeing what happens.
Dishonorable Mention: Harvest Moon
When I mentioned this article to someone their immediate response was that I needed to dig into one of the two entries in the Harvest Moon series that appeared on the PS2. I couldn't disagree more.
The Harvest Moon games, a long running farming RPG series by Amccus, are intensely stressful. Every day you wake up and there isn't a second to waste. You need to feed animals and water plants. You need to run to town and be a creep to the nice girl who works at the store (like you do every day). The clock is ticking. Your life is slipping away while you plant digital corn so you can earn fake money.
Anything that makes me think about my mortality and weigh the choice to play a video game with the ever dwindling moments I have left is not a great experience, I think.
Stardew Valley solved this problem by having no end point. The days are full, but you never age. It just goes on forever. Working a farm for eternity.
Endings aren't bad
Finally, a few words about escapism. Stress is built into the concept of gaming. If you do not move your Pong paddle you won’t bounce the ball back. The other player will earn a point and prove themselves your better. Competition and death were there from the beginning.
While I don’t think a game needs a fail state (an action that causes the game to end) to be classified as a game, it has become a bit of a prerequisite for the medium in the eyes of a good majority of the people who play and make them. That is fine. An ending doesn’t necessarily make something less soothing. A nap ends, and a nap is wonderful. If a nap never ended it would be a coma, and that isn’t very soothing at all.
What are your picks for most relaxing games on the PS2? Let us know in the comments below.