WARNING: The following contains mild spoilers for Fire Emblem Three Houses and Cindered Shadows content.
Arguably, Fire Emblem: Three Houses has become my favorite video game purely based on narrative and characters. I came for the fantasy tactical role play with gorgeous artwork and I stayed for the rich lore, unapologetic character development, and an abundance of secrets… some that are still patched in, often for no extra charge.
So obviously someone like me is going to be at least intrigued by new story content and additional characters. In truth, this hasn’t been the case for most of my personal history with Fire Emblem games. Despite being the first game to ever make me cry in the end, Fire Emblem Awakening never got me to purchase any of the downloadable content. To be fair, these were all just additional battle sequences, some that could even classify as “filler episode” material (perhaps something comes to mind with “the beach episode” of almost any anime.)
Fire Emblem Fates had enticed me conceptually enough with its beautiful design and choose-your-faction interwoven story about warring nations. It was enough to convince me to purchase the somewhat pricey collector’s edition, primarily so I had all three versions of the story on one game card. And yet, the writing was so atrocious that I practically finished every path out of pure spite and refused to give Nintendo more of my money. (And to be fair, my research seems to show that the DLC for Fates contained a lot of retroactive explanations for the game’s absolute mess of a story.) If I get a game, I want the story to be well crafted and complete on its own. To me, DLC content should be extra things that you could do without, but it sells itself by being, say, a unique side story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end.
Cinder Shadows sells itself differently than its predecessors. While Awakening‘s DLC was filler and Fates‘ was supplementing poor storytelling, Three Houses‘ new expansion is an entire story with 4 unique characters, bringing along new classes, thus changing gameplay in a unique way that you could still go on without.
Let’s start with the abundant positives. A sizable portion of my grudge against Fire Emblem Fates and even Awakening was the way characters would be introduced and completely forgotten about. For example, in the former, characters like Rinkah of the fire tribe were hardly even included in the story beyond the first handful of chapters. Three Houses was written in such a way that everyone you met, and your player character especially, was tied to the events of the story. It didn’t feel like a bunch of colorful people being tossed into a plot, not once. Some characters knew each other since childhood, others bonded over shared experiences and working together to excel in their studies or survive on the battlefield. This is to say nothing of numerous connections between characters that even they didn’t know about! (We’ll come back to that…)
The new units introduced, Yuri LeClerc, Constance von Nuvelle, Balthus von Albrecht, ahd Hapi, each have a history, expertly intertwined with the base game’s lore and narrative. Only a small handful of characters from the base game appear and play an active role in this side story, however every new unit has at least 2 additional connections with other base game characters. These people may be relegated to external game data blocked off by a pay wall, but they don’t feel like extra fluff. Three Houses is very much character driven and made to feel as though the world in it is so vast that there’s a great deal you don’t see first hand; because these unseen figures and events have lasting ripple effects on the whole narrative. For example, like every character from the main story, the new quartet will have their own unique dialogue in the over-world of every chapter. While at first this mechanic seems like padding in a big free-roam area, it soon becomes integral to the storytelling. Every unit has a reaction to the plot progression, acknowledging their part in it, hinting at their connections and foreshadowing what may be on the horizon. But Yuri, Constance, Balthus, and Hapi stay in the Abyss area, but they behave just as every unit does. They belong while not being explicitly essential. And besides that, like the main game’s beloved Gatekeeper, Abyss has its own quirky guard with an amusing plot of his own…
— Eve Lavellan (@Elfie_KnifeEars) March 5, 2020
Now let’s dive into the story: you, Byleth, along with each house leader and one of their classmates, discover the mysterious, aformentioned Abyss, where you befriend members of a secret fourth academy house, the Ashen Wolves. Each member has a dark past, starting from one of the regions of Fódlan represented by the main game houses. They are united in their misfortune and protect this shady underbelly of the monestary, where sick and poor gather, as a safe haven, despite its own dangers. I’m reminded of the Putrid Grove in Witcher 3, home to Novigrad’s poorest detesins, controversial thespians, and outlawed magic-users. This dark sanctuary appears completely at odds with the immaculate monestary above. Plus, with this new community comes new secrets… The legendary Chalice of Beginnings, an artifact supposedly capable of raising the dead, is rumored to be somewhere in Abyss and an increasing number of mercenaries keep sneaking in to find it.
Your quest becomes not just a treasure hunt, but a mystery to find out who hired the intruders. I think what makes this side story especially compelling is that your character, Byleth, is every bit as involved as the new characters. It’s a chance to learn a lot more about your own history, thinks your father Jeralt would never tell you. To expand further would spoil the whole thing and unravel a couple of good twists, so that’s the most I can say.Abyss is much smaller than Garreg Mach, but it’s still worth doing rounds through. I couldn’t help but stop and feed the stray animals, but more importantly, appreciate the flavor text from the locals. It felt so much more thoughtful than the random guards and citizens up on the surface.
With 7 chapters, it’s a relatively short story compared to the main story which has, at minimum, 18. With relatively consistent on-off play time, I finished it in just under 3 days back in early March. I enjoyed it for the good writing, unique new personalities introduced, and a mystery I felt was puzzling, but not maddening to solve. Truly, the only maddening part was the final battle, which took me more than 5 attempts to beat. Considering my extremely average reflexes in games like Witcher, Super Smash Bros., and Dragon Age (and my tactical skill could use work,) I have a hard time finding that sweet spot between too easy and too challenging with a lot of games.
Chapter 7 of Cindered Shadows was one of those rare moments, one I feel could be recreated. The damage mechanic introduced really shakes things up and adds a level of urgency to the battle. Instead of being a conditional bout with things like “if so-and-so falls” or “if the thieves escape”, you feel actual danger. Every move you make has to count, your healing items and spells will dwindle. Every fallen unit is another tip of the scales in the boss’ favor until your party is overwhelmed. It may seem cheap and broken to some, but I do think the whole thing was well-designed.
I have yet to meet the Ashen Wolves after the critical time-skip happens in the main game, but it’s something I greatly look forward to during my improved playthrough, one where I go in knowing a lot of things that maximize my experience (cough RECRUITING EVERYONE I CAN cough.) There’s just one problem I have with the way this side story is done.
Cindered Shadows entirely separate from the main game, so you don’t get to use any weapons or characters you have in the main story. That makes sense, there’s only so much unique character dialogue you can write without delaying release; plenty of main game characters don’t have any interaction with a few others, but everything there is has so much effort put into it, that’s easily forgiven. What actually bothers me about this is that, when you meet the Ashen Wolves in the main game, they don’t know you. It’s as if nothing ever happened. That may have been necessary to cut corners and pool resources into the right places so that the main game and DLC were solid, but it feels so… disheartening. It felt like I’d gone back in time and my new friends didn’t even remember me. There was something so melancholic about it all. The only poetic part was that an important figure from the story appeared to say some kind words, then never came back, like a ghost. Maybe they even were one.
At the end of the day, this additional content earned its price. If you’re as invested in the lore of Three Houses as I am and enjoy a good mystery, plus lots of extras from new equipment to special classes, it’s worth the purchase. It unlocks several new pieces of content for the base game, on top of the new characters and classes. Bottom line, there’s plenty of delights to enjoy down in Abyss.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses was awarded the Video Game Awards titles for Best RPG and Player Choice. The game retails at $59.99 through most retailers and digital sale.
The Cindered Shadows DLC is available for $24.99 on the Nintendo eShop.