In the year 2019 I played what some might describe as an unhealthy amount of Fire Emblem Three Houses. After finishing all four paths through the main campaign I had over 230 hours of playtime to show for it. At the time, I desperately needed a break from Fire Emblem. While my final run was certainly an enjoyable one, I was still relieved to be able to put the game down. So much time with it had caused my frustrations to outweigh the many positives of the game to the point where I almost didn’t place it as my Adventure Rules game of the year despite the significant amount of time I spent with it. Luckily, taking some time to take a break allowed me to re-evaluate how I felt about the game and acknowledge that many of my issues with it came from engaging with it in less-than-ideal circumstances. I’d voided the warranty by not using the product as intended. A big part of what helped to bring me back to Three Houses hype town was the steady stream of information about the DLC, Cindered Shadows.
Three Houses has had an expansion pass available since its release, but the rewards for purchasing it were quite weak in the beginning when I was playing the most actively. One alternate costume for Byleth certainly didn’t seem worth $25. So I skipped out on the pass, managing to finish all of my runs through the game before even the second of four updates released. Even when the new updates came out they didn’t particularly intrigue me. New playable characters were introduced, but they were either limited to certain routes or didn’t have support conversations (which is kind of the whole point of a Fire Emblem character in my opinion). Additional quests were added as well as features like a sauna, but none of these were game-changing enough to make me want to replay the main campaign for a fifth time. Not even the traditional sports uniforms or adding glasses to Byleth could convince me to change my mind.
Cindered Shadows is different than the previous waves of Three Houses DLC. While like them it adds new elements to the main game like locations to visit, characters to recruit, and items to utilize, it is unique in that you obtain those new elements of the main campaign by playing and completing a side story. In this article I’ll be sharing my first impressions of that side story, discussing the scenario, the setting, the characters, and the mechanisms that differentiate it from the main campaign.
What is Cindered Shadows? This side story technically takes place during the early part of the White Clouds half of the main story. The Rite of Rebirth ceremony was interrupted and the Sword of the Creator bestowed upon Byleth as norma. At some point after that, Byleth, Edelgard, and Dimitri spy Claude sneaking around the monastery late at night. Turns out he was chasing a mysterious figure who he claims disappeared underground. The leaders decide to investigate and each recruits a member of their house who happens to be awake at the time – Linhardt for the Black Eagles (checks out), Ashe for the Blue Lions (as if he stays up one minute past 8:30), and Hilda for the Golden Deer (she and Claude were probably supposed to meet up before this mess happened). Together they venture underground and are almost immediately attacked by a group of ruffians led by four student-like figures.
Turns out that beneath Garreg Mach Monastery is a literally underground community of people who are trying to escape life on the surface, either because of criminal histories or being ostracized by society at large. This community is called Abyss, and upon discovering it our heroes of course decide to dedicate themselves to protecting the helpless civilians of the underground city from the dangers that threaten to drive them out. Byleth and the students they bring from the surface work alongside the four Abyssian students, who we’ll discuss more as we move into the sections on characters and mechanisms. First though, let’s talk about the setting of Cindered Shadows – the underground city of Abyss.
Abyss is a small community made up of an assorted group of criminals, orphaned children, the elderly, and a bunch of cats. It is an underground ruin supported by ramshackle wooden planks and crumbling columns. It has some semblance of civilization about it – there’s an inn, a market, even a place to worship – but it’s clearly not an ideal place to live. The people there are generally untrusting and question your motives for being in Abyss, at least in the beginning. It’s understandable, of course; the people of the surface world are the ones responsible for driving them underground in the first place.
Exploring Abyss is similar in many ways to exploring Garreg Mach. There are some NPC characters around the underground who you can speak with to get little anecdotes that don’t have any mechanical value, but give you information about the world and context for the events taking place in the game. This includes speaking with the characters in your party as well. There’s a marketplace where you can interact with the typical stores: the blacksmith, the item shop, the battalion guild, and the weapon shop. One room is the salvage room where people throw their junk, but you can find discarded weapons and refurbish them into usable materials. You can change costumes, though the costumes are more limited in the side story with only your monastery wear or your class-specific outfit being available. I’ve only played one chapter at this point so it is unclear whether additional facilities will open up as you progress through the game, but it appears that the possibility exists.
The big selling point of Cindered Shadows is the added presence of four new characters to the game. These characters belong to a secret house known as the Ashen Wolves, who live in Abyss. There are four in total, with three of them being clearly tied to or aquainted with characters in the existing three houses. (One character appears not to have any clear associations, but my hope is that he will have supports in the main campaign, possibly with the church since he isn’t directly affiliated with a house.) Each of these characters belongs to one of the new classes introduced to the game, giving you a clear example of what that class could look like in play and what makes them shine.
The context in which we get to know these characters is based on their relationships with the familiar characters who have joined you on your journey underground. The relationship between Hilda and the character who appears to be the “house leader” of the Abyssian students, Balthus, is the most fleshed-out right in the beginning. But of course we still see the existing characters very much displaying the relationships that are portrayed in the core game. Of particular note is the fact that this side story is the longest amount of time you’ll spend with the three house leaders on the same side. If you love the banter between Claude and Edelgard, there’s a lot to enjoy here. And of course other familiar characters are very much the same kids you’ve known up to this point. Ashe is wholesome, Hilda is sassy, and Linhardt wants to go to bed. Dropping back into these familiar tropes after the last thing you probably saw from these characters was their untimely death at the hands of a classmate is actually pretty refreshing.
What’s most unique about Cindered Shadows compared to the main campaign is how it plays. You’re not porting in characters from an existing save or restarting this particular selection of characters from scratch. Instead, each party members starts at level 20 in a predetermined advanced class. Their weapon levels are set at a static value and you can’t take certifications to unlock new classes. Given a set of characters whose abilities are preset, your performance in combat will be less about character customization and more about understanding how to make the best of the resources provided for you. This extends past character stats and skills to apply to weapons and items as well.
Each character starts the game with a limited selection of weapons, and you are informed before play starts that there is a finite amount of money available in the game. Restoring weapons with ore at the blacksmith is an option, but ore too is obtained in limited quantities either by finishing chapters successfully or armor-breaking demonic beasts. This means that carefully managing your weapon durability and conserving your healing items is a key element to the side story as well; running out of swords right at the end of your run could be a devastating development. On the battlefield, you have to think about how often you use combat arts, make the most of your gambits, and heal or attack with magic as much as possible (since the latter two resources restore automatically and do not cost you anything, they’ll be particularly valuable).
These challenges of recognizing the roles your characters fill in battle and needing to manage your resources carefully add a degree of challenge to the side story, or at least they promise to. Having only played one chapter, it’s hard for me to get a grasp of what the difficulty will be like. I chose to play in normal for my run of Cindered Shadows specifically because the game emphasizes that this mode is harder, but the one battle I participated in so far was pretty easy to manage. Basic skills like weakening stronger enemies with bows or magic from a distance, knowing the weapon triangle, and using combat arts to get an edge go a long way towards making your Cindered Shadow experience manageable.
I’ve only played an hour or so of Cindered Shadows and still have plenty of the DLC content left to explore. However, at this point I am pretty pleased with what I have seen. It’s a way to jump back into the world of Three Houses and to revisit familiar characters and gameplay elements while also experiencing something new. Unlike yet another replay of the main campaign, Cindered Shadows has something meaningfully different to offer that will perhaps make another run of the main game more appealing once it is all said and done. I look forward to playing more of the DLC and am excited to see the new adventures that await!