By the mid-2000s, the classic JRPG formula was giving way to new innovations intended to keep the genre fresh.
The best PlayStation 1-era JRPGs were largely defined by the ways that they built upon the turn-based combat a menu navigation mechanics of their predecessors (with the most famous example being Final Fantasy VII's Active Time Battle system, which put turns on an always-running timer instead of a set order).
PlayStation 2-era JRPGs largely benefitted from the fruits of these labors, keeping the things that worked and playing around with the things that didn't. As such, the PS2 featured a diverse catalogue of JRPGs that ran the gamut from classic throwbacks to entirely new combat systems that seemed to throw the entire playbook out the window. These are the best of the best.
Final Fantasy X + Final Fantasy XII
Water is always wet, the sun is always hot, and Final Fantasy games will always be the defining JRPGs of whatever console they happen to be on. Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII are no exception, still ranking amongst the best JRPGs of all time, even to this day. Both games feature unique combat and progression systems and very distinct worlds, but ultimately, both games are still defined by their wonderful stories and casts of deep, lovable characters. Final Fantasy games will always be must-plays for JRPG fans, and luckily, they're good enough to be re-released on newer consoles time and time again.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Dragon Quest games have always stayed relatively close to their classic roots, but Dragon Quest VIII is arguably the single-best implementation of those mechanics. The adventure is incredibly fun and the main characters are distinct in their personalities and combat styles. By the end of the game, you know all of them like the back of your hand. But the best part of Dragon Quest VIII is its aesthetic. Cel-shaded animation coupled with Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama's art design makes Dragon Quest VIII one of the rare 2000s-era games that still looks just as good now as it did when it was released.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
While Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne gets a very honorable mention, it just can't compete with Persona 4. To be fair though, Persona 4 very well might be the greatest game on this list, and perhaps even one of the greatest games of all time. Revolving around a small town murder mystery plot that devolves into the bizarrely supernatural, Persona 4' s gameplay is just as much about actively managing character relationships as it is about duking it out with monsters and mythological figures. Persona 4 is one of the most unique video games you'll ever come across, and it's worth playing regardless of whether or not you even like JRPGs in the first place.
In a sense, Suikoden III is a bit like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, except it came out nearly 20 years earlier. Suikoden III centers around a deep, wonderful plot that plays out across three warring factions, none of which are necessarily "bad" or "wrong." The massive cast of characters is incredibly likable, and the game allows for enough story (and gameplay) complexity that you can experience scenarios from all different points of view. And while it's still primarily a traditional turn-based RPG, it even switches to grid-based tactical combat at points.
Xenosaga Episode 1: Der Wille zur Macht
As the spiritual successor to the deeply beloved Xenogears, the Xenosaga trilogy had massive shoes to fill. And while Xenosaga never quite reaches the lofty heights of its predecessor, it's still a wonderful franchise in its own right. The first entry, Xenosaga Episode 1: Der Wille zur Macht, is the most accessible in the series by far, with each subsequent entry being a direct and more complex continuation of the story. That story, of course, is a science fiction epic involving biblical mythology, Jewish mysticism, and sexy robot girls, so yeah, it's worth checking out.
From a gameplay standpoint, .hack//INFECTION is easily the weakest entry on this list. In fact, there are other PS2-era JRPGs that aren't included here that are much better from a technical standpoint. But at the same time, what .hack lacked in polish, it made up for in creativity. The game is a single-player video game designed to mirror a mass multiplayer online role-playing game wherein your character gets sucked in and becomes stuck. It actually draws a lot of parallels to the anime series Sword Art Online, although .hack came much earlier. This is a game with a lot of issues, but it's worth checking out as a very distinct take on the JRPG genre.
Kingdom Hearts + Kingdom Hearts II
Here we are at last, the crown jewels of PS2-era JRPGs: the Kingdom Hearts games. Kingdom Hearts was an absolutely unprecedented venture when it came out, the product of a wild team-up between Final Fantasy publisher Square Enix and f*cking Disney. We're talking about a game where Donald Duck and Goofy can fight Sephiroth. These games would be treasures even if they sucked in every aspect other than that. Except, here's the thing: They're great games, too. Kingdom Hearts was one of the first games to properly blend action combat with JRPG-style menu navigation, essentially inventing the Action-RPG sub-genre that would eventually go on to eclipse classic JRPGs in the modern gaming scene. The Kingdom Hearts games have been ported a bazillion times, so there's no excuse not to play them.