Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ long-awaited Cindered Shadows side story delivers high-quality missions, intriguing new lore, and four (mostly) fun new characters. It breaks from the series’ unfortunate tradition of overpriced content that underwhelms in value, delivering an action-packed 10-hour campaign. The side story spans seven chapters, broken up by brief exploration segments, and ultimately succeeds in making the world of Fodlan all the more intriguing. Cindered Shadows could be a bit more polished and doesn’t quite hit the highs of the main story, but if you’re feeling the itch to dive back into the mysteries of Garreg Mach, you won’t regret wandering into Abyss.
Game Name: Fire Emblem Three Houses: Cindered Shadows
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: 2/12/2020
Cindered Shadows features a slightly different gameplay loop than the main campaign. It cuts down on player choice in favor of preset challenges that make for a bit more puzzle solving. There’s no teaching, no exams, no professor level. The focus is really on turn-based combat, giving the experience a slightly more traditional feel. Still, Cindered Shadows retains Three Houses’ identity. While you can’t take exams, your students do have multiple class options to switch between freely. Characters start at level 20 and level up throughout the campaign. There are exploration segments that have Byleth touring Abyss, a significantly smaller but tightly packed space beneath Garreg Mach Monastery.
Player choice makes Three Houses special, and perhaps Cindered Shadows would have been even better if it more directly mirrored the main game, but the limitations make the experience more challenging and engaging. Players are given a tool kit and set to work.
For the entirety of Cindered Shadows, your army is comprised of the four new characters that make up the Ashen Wolves, Edelgard, Dimitri, Claude, Linhardt, Ashe, and Hilda. Each character fits a specific role, although they can be modified slightly. Linhardt, for example, offers your only source of dedicated healing. His starting class is Bishop, but you can reclass him to Warlock if you’d rather focus on reason magic. Hilda only has one advanced class, the Warrior, while Ashe can be used as a Sniper or Hero. The only characters I reclassed were Edelgard and Dimitri. Edelgard starts as an Armored Knight, so I moved her to Warrior, and Dimitri shifted from Paladin to Hero depending on what the battle demanded. The option to modify your tool kit might not be necessary to clear Cindered Shadows, but it was certainly appreciated.
Meanwhile, the Ashen Wolves are a bit more set in stone. They each utilize one of the four new DLC classes. These classes aren’t always a perfect fit for the Ashen Wolf who uses them, but they will better serve certain characters from the main campaign. Each class seems useful, but the Dark Flier stands out the most. It is Three Houses’ only mage flier, filling a massive hole in the class tree. I got a ton of mileage out of Dark Flier and Trickster within Cindered Shadows, although the War Monk and Valkyrie were a bit lacking.
That’s because Dark Flier and Trickster fit the characters who use them. The Ashen Wolves are a very colorful group that feels right at home in the Three Houses world. Yuri leads the house, and his design will absolutely delight a swath of Fire Emblem fans. He’s a mysterious lord decked out in lavender, rocking some purple eyeliner and a suave attitude. Constance suffers from a strange bipolar disorder. Indoors she’s brash and boisterous, but once she’s exposed to sunlight she succumbs to intense depression. Still, she dominates the skies as a Dark Flier either way. Balthus hails from the Alliance and has shared history with Hilda. He felt a bit more one-note than the rest of the cast but is unique in his age. He’s a 27-year-old War Monk. Finally, there’s Hapi, a nihilistic Valkyrie gifted with great comedic timing. These students are generally a joy to spend time with, even if the story they experience feels like it’s missing some ingredients.
The seven-chapter story tries to cover a lot of ground within a very tight timeline. Cindered Shadows takes place the month after Byleth finds the Sword of the Creator in the Holy Mausoleum, and ends seemingly just a few days after it begins. The timeline is intentionally vague so players can dive in at just about any point during their playthrough and not feel lost. Still, it’s tied to the main campaign through various plot threads. You’ll understand Cindered Shadows best if you’ve finished at least one playthrough of the main story, but it’s not required.
I won’t spoil the story itself, but it is extremely predictable. You’ll likely figure out the primary mystery long before its reveal, but that doesn’t necessarily destroy its impact. There’s quality lore to uncover here, and a few new mysteries go unanswered by the journey’s end. My mind races with the possibilities created by a few subtle details that await your discovery in Abyss.
One of my spoiler-free complaints about the narrative is its focus. The Ashen Wolves’ interactions with one another provide most of the fun, but Intelligent Systems chose to really focus on the plot instead of character. With only seven chapters to tell its story, I think Cindered Shadows would have been better served to focus on character interactions. Edelgard, Dimitri and Claude fighting together could have been the ultimate fanservice, but I hardly even noticed them because they’re not given much to do. Claude, in particular, feels slightly off due to the predictable plot.
There’s no way a character with his guile wouldn’t be able to figure out the villain’s scheme, but he seems largely clueless until the final moment. The same goes for Ashe and Hilda, who play their roles well but don’t add much to the formula. Linhardt steals the show. The writers know exactly who he is and gave him some hilarious lines. I have to give credit to his voice actor, Chris Patton, who delivers it so well.
If you’ve played Fire Emblem: Three Houses you know what to expect from the turn-based combat. Check out our review of the full game if you haven’t, but for Fire Emblem veterans, trust me when I say Cindered Shadows features one of the best maps in the game. There’s an escape mission midway through that will put your skills to the test. You have about 15 turns to get every ally behind a gate, and crafty movement is required. I also really loved the penultimate map, even though it is recycled from the main game. A fresh objective and strategic enemy placement revitalize what otherwise could have felt like lazy design. Other chapters provide a slightly higher challenge than your average mission on hard mode, but they’re not too rough. You’re armed with five Divine Pulse uses to undo mistakes throughout the journey, and I only needed them on the two missions I singled out.
All-in-all, the Cindered Shadows DLC more than justifies its $25 price tag. In addition to the side story, you can also recruit the Ashen Wolves into your main campaign. You’ll be able to earn the certifications for the four DLC classes, take on some new side quests (Teatime with RHEA!), and enjoy the Ashen Wolves’ excellent time skip designs. When I jumped back into Part 1 of my Crimson Flower run, I was overwhelmed at just how much there is to do around the Monastery after all of the DLC updates. Fire Emblem: Three Houses was already an incredible game, and with a successful expansion pass it has further solidified itself as the franchise’s apex.
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Cindered Shadows confirmed what I’d been thinking for a while now. I want the next Fire Emblem game to take place in Fodlan, either a prequel or a sequel. Three Houses’ world has been expertly crafted and I’m just not ready to leave it. Not even close.
- The Ashen Wolves are delightful students
- DLC classes make the class list feel complete
- Great value per dollar
- Underwhelming story
- Player choice restrictions are a mixed bag
- Only three brand new maps, three are recycled from the main game