After over a hundred hours of gameplay over two fantastically fun playthroughs of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I took a break. Knowing that the full experience would be available in 2020, I waited and waited. The time finally came for Fire Emblem: Three Houses' final chunk of content with the expansion-like side story that is Cindered Shadows. Many may have tossed Three Houses aside just as I did, but now, there's more than enough reason to come back. Players new and old can experience this side story filled with interesting new characters, an intriguing setting, and even more content added to the base game.
It is worth noting that this "side story" is not part of the main game, meaning that you will have to load up a separate file to play Cindered Shadows. All of your progress with units, levels, and anything else you experience through this gauntlet of seven chapters (which are also about an hour apiece) are completely self-contained. However, as you progress and eventually beat this side story, new characters, facilities, and items become unlocked in the main Three Houses story.
The Cindered Shadows' Abyss
Fire Emblem: Three Houses isn't a game that explains every single piece of the plot at every turn. You'll have to play through all the paths to get the full picture; and yet, with Cindered Shadows, there's even more lore to learn. The base Three Houses campaign alludes to the mysterious Abyss, but we never explore it or really hear much about it other than that it exists. The Abyss is the setting of Cindered Shadows, and it was worth the wait to see it in full.
The premise is that you, the house leaders, and several other students follow a mysterious person into a hole in the wall of Garreg Mach monastery. After a bit of traveling, you happen across this exceedingly large labyrinth-like complex nestled underneath the stone walls of the monastery. There, you meet four new characters, all part of a hidden fourth house called the Ashen Wolves: Yuri, Balthus, Hapi, and Constance. Thieves are attacking the Abyss, and soon a plot unfurls that becomes larger than you initially realize. The story adds a bit more lore to Three Houses regarding a certain ritual and other tidbits about the mysterious Church of Seiros. It even answers a few questions about the player character, Byleth, which is a welcome treat.
Storywise, the best part of Cindered Shadows is undoubtedly the new characters. I enjoyed almost every character in the base game (except Lorenz, who is honestly a despicable human), so to have even more interesting and useful students added to your roster is a great surprise. The Ashen Wolves are all fully developed characters that recruitable in Three Houses' main story, which means supports are available to learn more about their backstories. They're actually complex characters; for example, Yuri is the son of a prostitute who is a Robin Hood-like figure. Constance is the disgraced noble of a fallen house who is pompous, but there's more to her personality than meets the eye. All of them are fully voiced too, but Yuri is a standout. Voice actor Alejandro Saab breaths so much life into this complicated character.
Balthus and Hapi are also useful characters in their own right. Each member of the Ashen Wolves also comes with a new class that adds more strategy to the already fantastic gameplay of Three Houses. Balthus, being the brute he is, uses his fists to fight. While he initially seems like the typical brawler from the main game, his War Monk class gives the ability to heal allies as well. Yuri is a trickster, fitting of his personality. This is an exceptional class that is difficult to hit, uses magic and swords, and has an incredible ability to trade places with other units on the battlefield. Best of all, along with the Ashen Wolves becoming available as students in the main game, you have full access to their classes, too.
My only complaint regarding the story of Cindered Shadows is that the main game treats it like this DLC never happened. During the DLC, players go through quite a bit of turmoil with the Ashen Wolves, and your growth in friendship is evident in the story. This is completely disregarded in the main game. Again, once you fully completed Cindered Shadows, players have access to recruit all the new students and explore the Abyss. Only, in Three Houses base story, all of the events from Cindered Shadows are thrown out the window and never happened at all. The Ashen Wolves once again don't know who you are, and it's as if the frightful events in the Abyss never took place. It feels inorganic and strange. Rather than being able recruiting the Ashen Wolves right as you begin your tenure as a professor, it would have been nice to gate it so that the events of Cindered Shadows could be acknowledged as actually happening in the main game.
The Brutality of Cindered Shadows
I'm a Fire Emblem veteran, so I went into Cindered Shadows on the Hard difficulty with permadeath enabled. This was a mistake. Cindered Shadows is hard, and the difficulty levels from the main game do not translate over and play the same in this DLC. Because of this, I regretfully turned the difficulty down to Normal and was met with a more manageable experience while still having just the right amount of challenge. There are several reasons for this, I think. Players have limited funds and no time to farm for levels in Cindered Shadows, so allocating experience evenly between all members of your crew is key. Secondly, there's no time to teach units as you do in the main game, so you're stuck with preset classes, abilities, and more. This is not a flaw, but it does make for a more challenging experience.
However, limited leveling and such does not match the brutality of Cindered Shadows' maps. The maps in Cindered Shadows are excellent designs overall and have more interesting objectives than that of the main game. Objectives include pushing through a tough wall of never-ending enemies in order to switch the right lever; flicking the wrong one will call even more bad guys to ruin your day. Another standout was essentially a frantic chase under a strict time limit, as a mechanical beast and even more waves of enemies pursued your units. The strategy is deep with these maps, and it requires you to use your tactical mind to its fullest, utilizing your units' abilities to their maximum potential, and liberally using gambits to ward off waves and waves of enemies. And indeed, there will be many enemies, and reinforcement waves are generously peppered onto each and every map.
There are only seven maps total in Cindered Shadows, and while they are clever by design, there are a few repeats. Most maps' designs seem to be borrowed from the main game. One of the original maps to this DLC is repeated twice, although the objectives are different and placement of units change. It would have been nice to see each and every chapter have a completely original map, but at the very least they offered interesting objectives with the challenging difficulty this DLC will be known for.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses - Cindered Shadows Review | Final Thoughts
Gripes about maps aside, this is still a must-play DLC for any Three Houses fan. The icing on the cake is the several new tracks of music included in Cindered Shadows, all of which are excellent and rival the main game's tunes. The Abyss' explorable area is also worthy of praise. The Abyss' hub acts like Garreg Mach, where Byleth is able to explore on foot, talk, and interact with the denizens of this underground den of scoundrels. The developers once more put a great amount of character and detail into this area, creating a mysterious and powerful atmosphere.
After quite a few agonizing months of waiting for Fire Emblem: Three Houses' Expansion Pass to release all of its contents, it goes out with a bang. Cindered Shadows is an essential experience for Three Houses players, adding fantastic new characters, items, abilities, and a story that answers a few things that might interest lore junkies. While the difficulty and repetition can be a bit of a bummer, the pros far outweigh the cons. While I hope there's more unannounced content on the way, I can at least live happy knowing that Three Houses went out with a bang.
TechRaptor reviewed Fire Emblem: Three Houses - Cindered Shadows on Nintendo Switch with a copy purchased by the reviewer.
- Ashen Wolves are Great Characters
- Extra Bits of Lore
- Fun New Content Added to Base Game
- Interesting Map Objectives
- Cindered Shadows' Story Disregarded in Main Story
- Some Repeated Maps