Fire Emblem Three Houses is the video game into which I have put the longest amount of hours in one continuous playthrough. There are games I have probably played longer than Three Houses – Awakening is likely a strong contender for that category, as well as Path of Radiance. Almost definitely Ocarina of Time and Paper Mario The Thousand-Year Door. What makes those games different is that I have played all of them over the course of many years, and slowly built up my play time over the course of many different play sessions. With Three Houses, I did four consecutive playthroughs which totaled in length to almost 240 hours of play. Putting that kind of time into a game – especially all at once – can affect how you perceive it. For me, I was absolutely ready for a Fire Emblem break when I finally put my Joy-Cons down.
Then the buzz started around Cindered Shadows, the final piece of the expansion pass for the game. It promised new story segments with tougher battles, it introduced new characters and classes, and perhaps best of all, was entirely separate from the game’s core campaign. I could play and appreciate Cindered Shadows as a standalone experience, without having to rename my protagonist or rewatch all the goofy cutscenes of the kids in each house or listen to Jeralt’s (admittedly high quality) voiceovers describing the history and culture of Fodlan. So I got excited for Cindered Shadows, I scooped up the expansion pass, and I played through the side story of the game. After roughly 11 more hours of Fire Emblem Three Houses, I sat down to write my review of the expansion pass.
As I sat, something about the article didn’t seem right. I already knew the conclusion I wanted to reach by the time I finished it – this expansion pass isn’t for people like me. If you played the game once right when it came out but still have two other houses to experience, then maybe you’d get something out of it. But for those of us who poured 200+ hours into the game and saw everything that the base campaign had to offer, the expansion pass wasn’t worth a purchase. I thought I was ready to make that declaration based only on the content of Cindered Shadows. But as I wrote the opening paragraphs of the article, I began to feel disingenuous. I don’t write Adventure Rules with a goal of being “journalistic,” but it felt like cruddy journalism to dismiss the expansion pass without experiencing the other things it had to offer.
“Well shit,” I thought to myself. “I have to play this game again.”
I closed my computer, docked my Switch, and booted up Three Houses. I started the game and watched the familiar sequence of Saint Seiros battling Nemesis at the Tailtean Plains. I chose my form and for the first time simply named my character Byleth. I played through the familiar first beats of the game: defeating the bandits attacking the three house leaders, choosing my house (Golden Deer obviously), and winning the first mock battle. It was at this point when all of my accomplishments from Cindered Shadows started to factor into the game and the experience became somewhat less familiar.
If like me you haven’t played the game with any expansion pass features yet, you may be surprised by what all has been added to it. I posted a clip on my Twitter showing about fifteen seconds of just dismissing all the pop-ups that activated when I got far enough to engage with the DLC. As soon as you get access to your personal quarters you can take advantage of some of the benefits: costume changes as well as picking up some of the items sitting at your bedside. The items come in two packs. The first pack is received just for owning the DLC and gives you a number of high-powered stat boosting items. The second pack is received for completing Cindered Shadows and gives you a fistfull of renown to spend as well as a relic (the details of which I won’t spoil here, but rest assured it is an overpowered tool for your arsenal).
The costumes come in four distinct sets, which have different versions depending on whether you choose to wear the younger or older variation. Three Houses veterans know there’s a five-year timeskip in the game – with the DLC you can choose between the younger and older forms of your characters and choose whether they wear their monastery outfits in battle or wear outfits related to their class as normal. The costume sets include athletic uniforms, servant clothes, a summer set colored khaki and white, and an evening set that basically looks like a slightly fancier version of the academy uniforms. Byleth comes with additional costume options as well as the ability to toggle glasses (wearing glasses is always the correct choice, by the way). One really nifty feature when changing outfits is that you can change the costume settings for your entire house all at once, making it easy to coordinate outfits when you want everyone in the same set. If you’re being more choosy about each individual character, you can always set their outfit one person at a time.
Starting in chapter two you gain access to Abyss, the underground portion of Garreg Mach which houses the Ashen Wolves house. From a map perspective this is the same area you experienced in Cindered Shadows – from a mechanical perspective, it serves a few different purposes. A man there called the Influencer is able to use renown to unlock new features of Abyss. If you have the renown to spend on it (I did because I also chose to do new game+ for this run), you can immediately unlock some of the features, while others do not unlock until after the time skip. The notable features are an underground professor and special services at the pagan altar underneath the monastery.
The underground professor once worked for Garreg Mach Monastery, and his specialty is evaluating a student’s progress during their time with Byleth. This essentially ranks how good a character’s level-ups have been, giving you an idea of where RNG has blessed them or hurt them and what stats you may need to buff with items. More interesting in my opinion is the pagan altar. This location served little purpose in Cindered Shadows, but in the main campaign it offers you an additional method of spending renown. Renown can be spent at the altar in exchange for weapons or items, allowing you an alternative method of gaining access to these tools when your gold is running low. Some of the things you can pick up from the pagan altar are items you can’t purchase in a store during the main game, so having the ability to spend renown in order to get them is certainly a pleasant bonus.
Abyss will also have unique quests at various points in the game, giving you additional opportunities to earn renown as well as other small rewards. Additional quests have been added to the surface with the expansion pass as well, some of which lead to entire new mechanics. For example, feeding cats and dogs using food items from your storehouse is a new option available in the game. Additional quests are conveniently marked with a blue quest marker that helps you to see exactly how much of what you are experiencing is something unique to your experience with the expansion pass. I was particularly impressed with how much of this extra content started popping up right away as you begin the game – there’s a possibility that the rewards are too front-loaded and will thin out during the sections of the game that are already hurting for side content, but in the four chapters I’ve played so far there’s plenty to keep you busy.
Perhaps the biggest appeal to anyone picking up Fire Emblem again post Cindered Shadows will be the addition of the four new characters as recruitable units. You can scoop up Yuri, Balthus, Hapi, and Constance the moment you get the chance to explore in chapter two, allowing you to immediately boost the numbers in your house and to develop these characters the way you want. Since Cindered Shadows locked you into one path for these characters, being able to instruct them and customize them right from the beginning helps make them feel more your own. You’ll probably want to push them towards their special classes since they have strengths which make them naturally inclined towards those classes, but you can always do something different with them if you prefer. Balthus in particular I felt offered very little on the magical side of things as a war monk so I decided to have him build towards war master instead.
These characters are not the only ones to gain access to the specialized classes, though. You can make any of your characters a trickster, war monk, valkyrie, or dark flier by picking up an Abyssian exam pass and getting their weapon levels to the correct prerequisites. There are unfortunately gender restrictions on the valkyrie and dark flier classes limiting them only to your female party members, but the other classes are wholly accessible and they create some interesting new options for characters you’ve already played with. Since Marianne, for example, so excels with swords and faith, I decided to try her out as the trickster class. I’m also angling for war monk with Byleth, who has strengths in brawling and faith (after unlocking their hidden potential) and can actually use both effectively thanks to balanced magic and strength stats.
For myself and I think a lot of other Fire Emblem fans as well, the true draw of new characters is a new set of support conversations. The newbies each bring somewhere around five or six new support possibilities to the table and they do so with a good mix of houses. Each Ashen Wolves member supports the other Ashen Wolves as well as Byleth, and then they have a couple of additional support partners as well. Quite a few of these are the characters who appeared in Cindered Shadows along with them – Hilda, Claude, Linhardt, Ashe – but some of them do support units who didn’t make an appearance there. Particularly notable was a potential support between Constance and Mercedes, who even come with a unique conversation when dining together during exploration scenes at the monastery. None of these supports could be accessed during Cindered Shadows and more notably, the supports so far don’t seem to retread ground that was covered in the side story. Yuri for example has a support with Byleth that actually ties into lore established in Caspar’s supports as well; subtle touches like this help Abyss and its residents to feel a little more connected than they did in Cindered Shadows, which took the concept of a side story perhaps too far in its efforts not to be connected to the main campaign.
There’s a lot of new content to enjoy in the expansion pass so far, and at chapter four I’ve only experienced a portion of the new features added to the game. What’s most impressive to me is that somehow, this content has been enough to rekindle my interest in Three Houses. After nearly 250 hours between the four paths through the campaign and Cindered Shadows, I figured I was done with Fire Emblem. Yet there’s enough new in rewards for Cindered Shadows as well as the extra material from the expansion pass that I’ve been intrigued so far during my fifth run. Granted, I’ve taken other steps to help me enjoy new content – I’m angling to get as many cross-house support conversations as possible since I didn’t use recruitment much at all during my previous runs, and that has added some fresh content to my experience as well. But there’s still something to be said for the fact that the expansion pass adds a meaningful amount of new content to the game.
Will I finish my fifth run of Fire Emblem Three Houses? It’s hard to say. Newer games may take priority in the coming weeks as March is a hotbed of new titles coming to the Switch. But for now, I am pretty content to revisit Fire Emblem and am enjoying the new things that the DLC added to the game. I’m not ready yet to make a final declaration about its value or my subjective enjoyment of the expansion pass, but already it has done something that I didn’t think would be possible: it got me playing Three Houses again. I’m excited about the new things I have already experienced, and my hope is that the new content will stay strong throughout the game and keep me engaged the whole way through.