Review: Fire Emblem: Three Houses - Cindered Shadows

17 Feb 2020

In one sense, Fire Emblem: Three Houses – Cindered Shadows is really just the last installment of four bits of DLC doled out over a year or so for the base Fire Emblem: Three Houses. However, in a more direct sense, Cindered Shadows (I am not typing that full title out every time) is really the centerpiece of the whole mechanism. The prior “waves” of DLC added some little things like Anna and Jeritza as playable characters or new outfit options or (best update of the game) feeding cats, but Cindered Shadows is the one that really adapts, expands, and enriches the central game experience.

The whole package is, accordingly, a suitably large experience. At the same time, it faces the question any DLC does with a story that was complete without it: How do you expand a story that doesn’t need it in a way that feels organic and natural but also consequential? What more can you add to a game that’s already good without damaging anything? And perhaps most importantly with this particular game, which new trash children can you recruit to serve on the front lines of a war?

Look, that’s the real point of the game, and we all know it.

Cindered Shadows released on February 12th on Nintendo Switch, obviously. It is available only as part of the full “expansion pass” purchase, which means that you will automatically get all prior DLC as well.

I Have a Favor to Ask

First things first – Cindered Shadows is not a “golden route” for the game. It’s a side story accessed off of the main menu, and while it takes place at a relatively well-defined point in the story (after Byleth gets the game’s signature sword but before several events which raise the stakes of basically everything), it features a cast of characters in your group which will never be in your party together in the main game. Nor is this a bit of DLC in which you get to explore those alternate dynamics, because the actual character focus is entirely on the Ashen Wolves themselves.

Essentially, the Ashen Wolves are a “fourth” house for what amounts to the vagrant community hiding underneath Garreg Mach, with its members committed to defending the residents of Abyss from…well, mostly from things getting any worse. It’s a little ambiguous, but the important point is that they basically live in what amounts to the underground tunnels and all have various things they’re running away from on the surface.

None of those things actually come up in the story, though.

I’m serious; you might expect to learn about why Hapi is the way she is, or how Constance hopes to restore her noble house, or have Balthus deal with his hideous and stupid debts, but the actual plot is pretty much all a bog-standard MacGuffin hunt that starts more or less randomly. It’s also one of the few instances of the game seeming to twist its usual story rule about how anything that happens in one playthrough happens in every playthrough; there’s no space to fit the plot of Cindered Shadows in anywhere else, it seems. It’s a vignette without an anchor.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since it means that the center of the story is revealing some bits of lore which had otherwise gone unmentioned and giving the four Ashen Wolves (Balthus, Constance, Yuri, and Hapi) a chance to show off their personalities and dynamics. If you’ve beaten the game before, odds are low that any of the revelations from the story will really surprise you, but it does provide more backstory for a few existing characters.

It does, however, mean that the premise doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot. There’s very little specific that requires these characters to be outsiders in what amounts to a secret society, they’re not actually hidden from the Church, and when you need Church help you have no problem walking in and talking to people. More to the point, the plot ultimately points at an antagonistic force that’s already built up plenty in the game, so it’s not like you needed extra reasons to either dislike this villain or make apologies for same.

Meanwhile, in the main storyline, you can just duck over to Abyss and recruit the Wolves based on your progress through the side story. From reports I’ve seen, the four students unlock as you clear each chapter; none of them have any recruitment requirements beyond that, so you don’t have to worry about skill levels when gathering them up. Their support conversations are a bit shorter than most other students, but they all get multiple links, including ones that clarify some elements of existing characters.

They also all provide new S-rank support options; lady Byleth can also choose Balthus or Yuri for her final companion, while male Byleth can hook up with Constance, Hapi, or Yuri. And…yeah, Yuri is a very attractive lad, so finally male Byleth has a desirable same-sex S-rank support. That’s a welcome change.

Witness My Power

Oddly, the thing that makes Cindered Shadows stand out in terms of gameplay is what isn’t there.

There are no teaching sessions. There’s no skill raising. There’s no grinding. There are no class certification exams, no support conversations, no free time mechanics, no buying Battalions or tea time or saunas. There are a small number of unlocked classes for each unit, a handful of abilities, and then that is it. From here on out, you’re on your own. Just you and your units against the battles.

A lot of people have called this much harder. I don’t think that’s really fair, though; what Cindered Shadows does is just remove a lot of the management from what is, at its heart, a unit-management game. You have had a lot of your planning and building options stripped away. Compared to the much wider RPG of the core game, Cindered Shadows is a slim and collected thing. A sleek motorcycle compared to the main game’s go-anywhere jeep, if you will.

It’s a risky bet, but it works out great. There’s something very satisfying about being thrown into a sequence of battles that highlight, well, just taking on the battles. It’d probably get just a bit tedious if it ran any longer, but the seven chapters in place are exactly enough time to move through several maps with unique mechanics, get a feel for the four new classes brought into the game, and see if you have the management skills necessary to take on the game without any other buffers.

The fourth map, without spoiling the story, may very well be the highlight of the whole enterprise, a map that basically consists of running across multiple areas while opening doors and doing your best to evade pursuit within a strict time limit. It’s marvelously tense and fun, forcing you to be aware of everyone’s abilities and skills to survive even as the path of your challenges is entirely different from the norm.

Personally, I didn’t find it all that hard; it would have worn on me if it had lasted longer, but it didn’t, so it stayed fun. The closest thing it has to a downside is that there’s no real reason to go back to it after clearing it; unlike the repeated playthroughs of the base game, you can clear the whole thing and then get the rewards forever.

The rewards are…substantial. Aside from the four new characters, clearing all the chapters nets you an equipped item that nullifies all bonus damage traits (like bows against Flying units, hammers against Armored units, and so forth) and allows for counterattacks from any range, potentially turning several characters into nightmarish tanks. (Go ahead and send Ingrid ahead as a well-built Falcon Knight, watch her dodge everything and retaliate.)

Beyond even that, you have four new class options, technically sitting alongside the Advanced classes in terms of requirements and level but actually offering rather different advancement paths. The female-only Dark Flier and Valkyrie classes allow your spellcasters more mobility in a way that didn’t exist before and offer a different option from Gremory as the “default” endgame spellcaster; meanwhile, War Monk/War Cleric gives you an option to have a punch-happy healer (or a healing-capable puncher), and Trickster allows for a fair amount of battlefield control while still supporting swordfighting and magic. These new classes require specialized seals, one of which comes with each of the new students when recruited, more of them available for purchase with Renown.

That’s part of the new functions that Abyss itself opens up, offering you an altar to buy items with Renown or offer up unneeded Storehouse items for more renown – and if you’ve ever found yourself clearing a playthrough with baskets stuffed full of gifts, teas, fish, and seeds you’ll never use, now you can actually put that stuff to use. There’s also a new character to help you evaluate if you’re using a character up to their full potential as well as the chance to nudge which of several possible endings for characters you’ll get. All valuable.

Allow Me to Demonstrate

Visually, the DLC looks basically the same as the game always has, not substantially better. The new Abyss-specific music actually reminds me of the Whitegate music from Final Fantasy XI, which is a positive association, but Abyss is visually none too different from the monastery above. This is fine, since the game looks good, but it does mean that all of the failings from before are still in place just the same.

The voice acting is excellent, which is especially important given that half of the joy within the game is exploring character relationships. Kirsten Day in particular does an excellent job with Constance, who needs to move between two wildly different states of being and feel contiguous in both. Cherami Leigh turns in her usual simultaneously matronly and creepy turn as Archbishop Rhea, and Alejandro Saab gives Yuri a real air of genuine competence and menace. That’s not to diminish anyone else in the cast; those three just stand out for their work.

The new maps are nice, but it’s a pity that there aren’t more of them; out of the seven battles, there are only four new maps, and one of those new maps is a tiny boss battle which looks new and good but doesn’t really support anything else. There’s also nothing in the way of full new cutscenes; all of the big event moments are rendered via still art, which is hardly new to the DLC but contributes to the main story feeling a bit light.

See You Again Soon

In many ways, the limitations of Cindered Shadows can be seen as the limitations of the premise alone. The game can’t be a whole new route for the game, especially when the whole point is that there is no “perfect” route so much as there are less bad ones, and it can’t cover material already covered elsewhere. As such, it has certain limitations baked in from the start. It has to feel both organic and natural while still being optional.

The bright side is that it manages to largely accomplish this, but the means of doing so change based on which half of the game you’re in. While the DLC story feels a bit lightweight, the actual mechanical side holds up well enough that it pulls you along, and you stay engaged for the character development. On the main game side, there are enough mechanical improvements that you have good reason to push forward, and the addition of new characters to the overall base of the game is more than enough motivation to give the story another spin.

It is, ultimately, solid DLC that’s worth it for fans of the game, although if you’re already bought into the game you probably already have it. What it’s not is perhaps the big send-off for the game that it had been billed as…but maybe that’s unfair, since that was never really in the cards.

So in other words, it’s more Fire Emblem: Three Houses. If that’s tempting to you, it’s going to deliver.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

This DLC was purchase by the author and was not provided by Nintendo. Screenshots taken by the author.