What was then Japanese developer Level-5's biggest ever project, Rogue Galaxy remains a brilliant action role-playing game. A sci-fi tale of adventure, space pirates, and, of course, an evil empire, it's full of memorable characters, boasts a great battle system, and is set across some gorgeously diverse locales.
As far as RPG parties go, Rogue Galaxy has one of the most varied. Made up of aliens, hardened warriors, and an android named Steve, the cast is one of the title's best assets, and there's a real sense of wonder as you meet each member of the team for the first time. Following the story of blonde teen Jaster, you're swept up in galactic events that quickly unfurl into a plot of rather epic proportions. The narrative itself isn't anything special, and at times, it drags a bit, but as mentioned, the characters are interesting enough to keep things engaging throughout this meaty 40-or-so hour journey.
The gameplay's got a lot going for it, too. Environments are relatively large, and battles happen in real time as you explore. The PlayStation 2 release is great at instilling a hunger for adventure, and you travel from one uniquely designed planet to the next as the game goes on. Traversing the depths of space aboard the delightfully named Dorgenark, gameplay follows a somewhat linear structure as you watch a cutscene, fly somewhere new, explore, battle, fight a boss, and then watch another cutscene, but it's all paced incredibly well, and there's even plenty of optional side-quests and activities to burn through whenever you feel like doing something different.
Alongside a hefty crafting system and a catalogue of monster hunting bounties, the title's most memorable optional time sink comes in the form of the Insectron Tournament. As you go about your galaxy saving business, you'll come across insects that range from bulky beetles to dazzling butterflies, and you're able to plop them into a portable bug catching cage, where you can raise and breed the little critters. Once you've put together a team of tough insects, you can then enter competitions with them, where battles take on a chess-like guise. Needless to say, it's all horribly addictive, and seeing your favourite horned beetle smash the opposition provides the same sense of pride that you'd expect from a Pokémon game.
Still, watching bugs maul each other isn't quite as good as hacking and slashing through enemies as Jaster and the gang. Each party member comes with one close range weapon and one long range armament, and finding a balance between using the two is key to being successful during trickier battles. With up to two computer controlled allies, unleashing flurries of attacks on nicely designed space monsters with high-tech swords, axes, and ray guns is just as enjoyable as it sounds, and while the game stumbles now and then with some unwelcome difficulty spikes, it's hard to think of an original combat system that outshines what's on offer here.
Back when it originally launched, Rogue Galaxy was praised by critics and RPG fanatics alike, but its sales didn't quite light up the stars. And that's a shame, because Level-5's sci-fi adventure is pretty special. It manages to stitch fantastic gameplay elements to a wonderful world, and it's all topped off by a diverse cast of crazy characters. It's arguably one of the PS2's most accomplished releases, and it's certainly a bit of a tragedy that it was never expanded upon with a much deserved sequel. Come on Sony, you can publish another one, right?