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
‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season
Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.
The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.
Like a Warm Blanket
Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.
The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.
The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.
An Intimate Take on Storytelling
Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.
It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.
Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.
The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.
Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.
Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.
PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’
This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.
Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.
Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.
All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.
Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.
These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”
Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.
If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.
And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.
The Artful Escape
Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.
As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.
It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.
This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.
For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.
PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love
A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.
Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.
There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.
“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.
“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”
Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.
The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”
I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”
Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”
After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.
Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”
Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.
“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”
Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”
The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”
In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”
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