Best Video Games of 2019: Part Three
Here we are, at the end of our list. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for, our pick for the best game of 2019.
It has been a strange year for us as a team. Normally, we are all mostly in agreement when deciding the best game of the year. In 2018, the votes were pretty much unanimous as we awarded God of War our Game of the Year. In 2017, just about every one of our writers selected Breath of the Wild, and in 2016 our staff chose either Uncharted 4 or Overwatch — with Uncharted 4 winning by one single vote. As we enter our fourth year, our staff has voted for a variety of titles including Resident Evil 2, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Death Stranding, Astral Chain, Luigi’s Mansion, Pokémon Sword and Shield, and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III as the best game of the year. However, despite not winning the majority of the vote, our winner did receive the most nominations, and was the only game to receive the top vote by multiple writers.
This year, we’ve also opted to do something different. Instead of our usual 300-400-word capsule review, we’ve decided to dedicate an entire article to our winner, something we hope will become a yearly tradition here at Goomba Stomp. That out of the way, here is our Game of the Year!
Game of the Year
1) Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Over the past decade, Fire Emblem has become Nintendo’s fastest-rising franchise, and not just because of the commercial success of entries such as Awakening and Fates, but also because of the critical acclaim the series has received worldwide. As the franchise gears up to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2020, it’s only fitting that Fire Emblem: Three Houses — the latest entry in the popular tactical role-playing series developed by Intelligent Systems — is now the most successful installment yet. Not only is Fire Emblem: Three Houses technically the best-selling installment to date, but in the eyes of many fans, it is also one of the best games of the decade, and has received nothing but praise ever since it was released this past summer.
Three Games in One
With Three Houses, Fire Emblem goes back to school for the most epic war story yet. Set in the land of Fódlan, the game puts you in the shoes as the young professor Byleth, a mercenary by trade who enrolls as a teacher at the Officers Academy of Garreg Mach Monastery. The school is divided into three houses, each tied to a specific territory in the region. After a brief prologue, you are asked to choose a house (the first of many big decisions you’ll make) and prepare the students for war, all in the name of serving the Church of Seiros. Each house has its own unique set of characters and storylines, and the events of the story play out very differently depending on where you pledge your allegiance. And because the game effectively offers three campaigns, Fire Emblem Three Houses is really three games in one, with so many plot twists and storylines you’ll need spreadsheets to make sense of them all.
In many ways, Three Houses is bigger and better than any other Fire Emblem game, and because of its three-house journey (which gives players the option to play through it two more times), it might be the most ambitious entry yet. Even more impressive is how all three campaigns are split into two distinct parts, with the first half of the story set within the walls of the monastery, and the latter half set five years later in the midst of a war where you will inevitably face off against former friends and acquaintances. In order to understand every motive, every tragedy, every double-cross, every red herring, and every subplot, you’ll have to play all three campaigns to learn how it all pieces together. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another story-based game released in 2019 that offers this much replay value.
What makes Three Houses really stand out is its structure. The story unfolds according to a monthly calendar, with different events taking place on specific days, and each month concluding in a battle that edges you a step closer to winning the war. As a member of the faculty, you teach a class Monday through Saturday, tutoring your pupils to enhance their skills in everything from swordplay to choir practice to flying horses to cleaning out the stables, and more. You’ll wander the campus socializing while recovering lost items, sharing meals, and indulging in an afternoon of fishing or gardening. You’ll throw tea parties, give gifts, listen to everyone’s problems, and offer advice in order to strengthen your relationship with both the students and faculty members. With time, you’ll slowly boost everyone’s confidence and motivation and put the most advanced pupils through exams to unlock new character classes and skillsets. And on Sundays, you have free time to do whatever you want, including completing side quests or simply resting. This all might sound tedious, but it isn’t.
The Best Ensemble Cast
What’s great about this structure is how it allows you to decide how to spend your time. Over the course of an 80-hour plot, you’ll train your students, recruit others, and prepare to lead these fearsome young warriors into battle — all while investigating a conspiracy involving powerful relics and ancient gods that calls just about everyone’s motives into question. If anything, this structure awards the player with plenty of time to get to know the dozens and dozens of characters they meet along the way.
It helps of course that the game makes you care about every one of your students, and it also helps that Three Houses is blessed with some of the best writing ever put to any video game. Everything from watching these characters grow to learning their backstories to accepting their personalities and understanding why they are the way they are is beautifully written. As mentioned above, Three Houses has a very large cast, and it’s a testament to the talent of the writing team that they are all so incredibly different, with each character boasting a novella’s worth of dialogue. And the more you speak to each student and faculty member, the more likely you’ll form an unshakeable bond with them. As you progress through the story, you’ll learn that many of the students are haunted by their tragic past, and as a professor, you’re tasked with helping each student grow, learn something new, and overcome the various challenges in their lives. There is no game released this year that has a better cast of characters, and I’d argue no other game has better voice acting either.
The Stakes Couldn’t Be Higher
The Fire Emblem series, in general, has always done a superb job in raising the stakes by adding permadeath, and longtime fans will tell you that playing in classic mode is integral to the experience. An emphasis on education separates Three Houses from every title in the series, and it builds upon on this by making you extra accountable if someone who dies was once your student.
The game begins with a choice, and that decision shapes the entire journey. Once you choose your house, you decide who you’ll fight side by side with and who you promise to protect. As you progress through the story, there are more and more choices to make, with each choice connecting the story to the gameplay; a bad decision can have major implications down the road. If someone dies, it feels like a devastating loss, even if the game allows you to rewind time and try again. Since you watched your students grow, and since you invested so much time getting to know every one of them, the last thing you’ll want is for all that progress to disappear. One moment you are sipping tea with your favourite pupil, and the next they’re dead. And when Byleth is forced to kill a former student, it’s hard to derive any pleasure, even if it took a well-executed military tactic to strike the final blow. There is no other game released in 2019 that matches the same feeling you get when one of your favourite characters dies.
The Best Story
Fire Emblem: Three Houses works on so many levels. It boldly captures the horror of war as well as the emotional stifling of the soul, and juxtaposes it with the enchantment of the first half in which the many young students of the three houses all live peacefully side by side with their hopes and dreams of a better future still alive. If only they knew what lies ahead. Fire Emblem Three Houses is a story of war, and depending on which class you choose to lead (the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, or the Golden Deer), the game’s narrative, heroes, and villains change significantly. While the first part of the story will play out similarly no matter which house you choose, the second half of the game varies dramatically, giving players a completely different perspective on the conflict, as well as a completely different ending. What emerges is a sophisticated and complex narrative involving a vastly conceived, intricate pattern of diverging and converging plot streams about three nations who dream of a better world, but all have differing opinions about what that might mean.
It’s safe to say the second half of the story is what elevates Three Houses to greatness, with the halfway point being the highlight of the game as Byleth and the students reunite at the monastery five years later. It’s arguably the most dramatic and the most emotional scene of the entire game — a sequence so well written and so well-acted that even players will be overcome with emotion. It really does feel like it’s been five years since you last saw these students, especially given how much they’ve changed during that time.
The second half is where the horrors of war, the danger of shifting alliances, and the anguish of family rivalries raise the dramatic stakes, with all three house leaders slowly revealing their grand visions, inner demons, and darkest secrets. Central to the game’s narrative conflict are major ideological differences surrounding these nations with their leaders threatening to tear their friendships apart. Choices must be made. Ideals will be tested. Loyalty must be earned. People die, and some kill. Even those who make it out alive will never be the same. In the end, the two sides develop respect for each other, but that doesn’t stop them from killing one another.
Everything We Love About Turn-Based Battles
One of the ingenious pleasures of Three Houses is that for all the narrative twists, its numerous subplots tend to unfold both in and out of gameplay, and it helps that the Three Houses is a tightly engineered, turn-based tactical game. Everything that we love about turn-based battles is still present in Fire Emblem: Three Houses — save for the signature weapon triangle, which was removed in favor of more skill-based combat. In other words, players must now base their decisions on the strength and skills they have unlocked instead of a rock, paper, scissors mechanic. Apart from that, the core mechanics remain the same. Grid-based combat is back in full force, and Three Houses also introduces new mechanics like combat arts (special powers) and battalions which make battles more complicated while making them also feel like an all-out war. Facing off against these battalions are enormous monsters which occupy multiple spaces on the map and have multiple health bars and protective shields (another first for the series). Defeating these monsters requires players to rethink their strategy and surround these beasts with multiple units while focusing attacks on weak points.
Of course, there is still a wide range of classes, including healers, brawlers, paladins, archers, mages, priests, thieves, Pegasus knights, and so on. For newcomers, the combat can be overwhelming, since Three Houses requires you to pay attention to many different things all at once. You have to keep track of weapons which degrade over time, manage all twelve members of your squad, set up support conversations (something that has been a staple of the Fire Emblem franchise), and decide who should fight who on the battlefield. Luckily, Three Houses features a magical device that lets you rewind time when you make a poor decision, allowing you to replay events, examine the mistakes you made, and understand the various battle mechanics and character customization options (not to mention, the maps seem much larger than in previous games). Much like with your students, there is always something new for the player to learn.
Looks that Kill, Sounds that Thrill
Aside from the thrilling strategic battles, deeply engaging story and charismatic cast, the game’s audio and visuals are another highlight. Not only is the animation extremely smooth, but unlike previous Fire Emblem entries, the camera zooms in on the violence during battles, showing off gorgeously animated soldiers in combat. And when players aren’t spending hours making minute-by-minute decisions, they can sit back and enjoy the beautifully animated cutscenes. Furthermore, Fire Emblem: Three Houses also boasts one of the best video game soundtracks of 2019, and as Antonia Haynes wrote, the main theme of the game (“Edge of Dawn”) is easily one of the strongest of any from gaming music this year. The audio really is the heart and soul of this game, and it’s amazing how well the sound design, soundtrack, and voice acting help reflect the emotional context of the narrative. The result is one of the most polished Fire Emblem games to date.
In terms of emotion, performance, visual storytelling, and narrative payoff, Fire Emblem Three Houses excels. It’s an astonishing achievement — so breathtaking in its artistic ambition, so fully realized that it defies the usual critical blather, if only because most critics will never sit down and finish all three stories to understand the bigger picture. There is no other game released in 2019 that offers a story as epic as this.
- Rick D