The PlayStation 2 is considered by many to have one of the best libraries in all of gaming, thanks to a plethora of unique one-off titles and massive franchise starting hits. In an age before we could see every single detail on someone’s face, the graphics for the PS2 era still had a lot of growing to do. However, that didn’t stop developers from pushing this machine to its limits, as some seriously impressive looking games came out on this system. Now we wont be just looking for sheer graphical quality but also art direction and how that works within the title itself.
ICO is one of those adventure titles that makes players stop and stare in awe at the gorgeous lighting and level design. While having a more minimalist approach, it’s the soft details and almost washed out color pallet that brings this world to life.
Kingdom Hearts 2
Kingdom Hearts 2 is one of the most beloved games to release on the PlayStation 2, some of which has to do with the fantastic cartoony design of its characters and world. Looking like it was ripped straight out of a late 90’s Disney animated movie, this RPG shows off a spectacular use of colors, scenery, and creature designs. Plus, the cutscenes look quite stellar and really haven’t aged as poorly as other titles.
Grand Turismo 4
At the time Grand Turismo 4 was one of the best-looking racing games to release on the PS2 thanks to its fantastic lighting and detailed vehicles. Even driving at night or in foggy conditions looks good even to this day, despite our clear advancements in technology.
Resident Evil: Code Veronica X
Yes, yes Resident Evil 4 has better graphics we’ll get to that, but Code Veronica still has one of the best atmospheres of any horror game released in that era. Even though the title was iffy at times, its arctic setting let to some memorable showdowns.
Sly Cooper 2
There were a lot of games released during the PS2 era, but one of the most memorable was Sly Cooper 2. This cell shaded adventure game had some of the best level design in the genre and it still looks as quirky and amusing as ever. Characters were rendered nicely, enemies had interesting animations, and the actual worlds you visited looked great both up close and at a distance.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
MGS3 is an absolutely gorgeous video game that is still visually stunning to this day. The use of color, lighting, and effects really work nicely with the forest theme and help compliment the superb lighting throughout. Seriously, we are still stunned at how gorgeous that fight looks with The Boss which is only enhanced by a terrific score that compliments the color and tone.
God of War 2
It’s rare that brutality and beauty can coincide, but God of War 2 has done a fantastic job of this. Not only is it graphically impressive, but the design of the creatures and architecture are visually stunning when not covered in buckets of blood.
Speaking of fantastic level design there is an argument to be made that Psychonauts has some of the best of this entire generation of consoles. Not only does the art direction work well with the wacky and weird story, but it creates unique and instantly memorable areas from an artistic standpoint.
Ape Escape 2
While Ape Escape 2 may not have photorealistic graphics, the distinct cartoony design, animations, and models all blend together exceptionally well. Colors pop where they need to and they clever levels reflect a variety of different locals like a casino, Italian village, and haunted house.
This on-rails shooter has perhaps one of the most distinct visual style of any game on this list, as the techno styled art direction molds perfectly with the rhythmic electronic music. It’s a near perfect blend of gameplay and design working together to create an incredibly memorable experience.
Odin Sphere feels like a pop-up book come to life thanks to an absolutely stunning use or colors and a 2-D plane. This title is a perfect example of how a specific art style can perfectly match the gameplay in a way beyond pushing for every character to look as real as possible.
Devil May Cry 3
For as hectic as battles could get in Devil May Cry 3, they never looked awful on the PS2. Much of this is due to the great character models and fluid animations that gave DMC3 solid visual appeal. Plus, many of the cinematics looked fantastic thanks to some great lighting and design choices for enemies.
Final Fantasy X
While FFX didn’t have the best-looking cutscenes of this series, we are giving it a mention thanks to its art direction and use of colors. Environments always had personality too them, which allowed FFX to compliment their characters and enemy designs nicely.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
At the time of its release MGS2 has some fairly impressive graphics, with its characters looking great in cutscenes and in the actual live gameplay. Even though we spent most of our time in blue hued corridors, Raiden at least great exploring them.
Need for Speed Underground
Need for Speed Underground had perhaps some of the best-looking nighttime graphics of any game on the PS2. Colors and lights popped in the distance, as your beautifully rendered car skidding into victory. Even when going over 80 miles per hour, everything always looked great when driving by or towards it.
Resident Evil 4
Perhaps one of the best looking games of the PlayStation 2 era, this title had some of the best and most realistic looking character models of the time. While it didn’t have as much personality in terms of actual level design, it’s visual qualities alone are enough to warrant a mention. Plus, getting sawed in half by an angry villager was exceptionally brutal to watch at the time.
Ratchet and Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal
The third Ratchet and Clank game had some great looking levels and enemies courtesy of the wonderful cartoonish look to everything. This colorful game had some truly unique worlds that helped distinguish from other games both in the series and action genre itself.
Dynasty Warriors 6
There is normally a lot going on in a Dynasty Warriors game, so it says a lot that visually the 6th entry looked absolutely fantastic. Even when the game is at its most chaotic, the graphical prowess of this title shines through with little trouble at all.
Dark Cloud 2
Dark Cloud 2 is a perfect example of how a cartoonish design can help lend an entire personality to a video game. Thanks to the wonderful models and environments, this is a PS2 title that can stick with you well after you finish playing.
One of the most beautiful games ever produced, Okami’s visual style is simply remarkable. The moving watercolor, pastel design is captured beautifully in this title, lending Okami an almost dream-like quality.
Final Fantasy XI
Out of all the Final Fantasy games, this title aged the best from the PlayStation 2 era which is saying a lot. While it may not be up to our modern standards, the in-game graphics for FFXI were absolutely superb even after this system’s lifespan. Character models were nicely detailed and it lacked a general fuzziness that graphics at the time had.
The best way to describe Viewtiful Joe’s unique visual design is kinetic, as the constant momentum of the character is reflected wonderfully by the the old film reels running along the sides. Plus, this title has a wonderful use of lighting, specifically when players are shifting between forms as Joe.
Soul Calibur 2
While it’s a bit rough around the edges in terms of the environments, it’s the character designs that help it stand out among other fighters. Each playable brawler feels uniquely designed and their art direction helps reflect both their personality and fighting style.
There are a lot of JRPGs out there, but Persona 4 is by far the best at capturing that anime aesthetic. Not only that, but it’s incorporation of these visual choices from 2D to 3D planes are seamless and work wonders with the gameplay itself.
Shadow of the Colossus
Perhaps the single best-looking game of the PS2 era, Shadow of the Colossus not only had an incredible visual style but its art direction is utterly stunning. Monsters are awe inspiring, the lighting has a somber tone to it, and the use of black is tastefully placed throughout. This is the best example of how video games can be considered an art form and it still looks amazing to this very day.
ICO is one of those adventure titles that makes players stop and stare in awe at the gorgeous lighting and level design. While having a more minimalist approach, it's the soft details and almost washed out color palette that brings this world to life.