Fire Emblem: Three Houses managed to be one of the most fully featured and engrossing titles in the series, with its multiple story routes and gameplay additions playing a big part in why it was one of my favorite Switch games of 2019. Nintendo has been keen to support it in various ways, with roll outs of DLC extras both paid and free and the addition of Byleth to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. In nearly the same breath as that reveal, we learned of the game’s side story – Cindered Shadows. Bringing on a standalone plot centered on a secret, fourth house, and some alterations to its gameplay formula, it’s a great excuse to pay another visit to the monastery.
This won’t be a deep dive into Three Houses lore, but Cindered Shadows opens with previously untold elements of Fodlan’s mythic history. Introducing a powerful ritualistic Chalice and four forgotten apostles, it sets the stage for secrets of Garreg Mach to come to light thanks to Byleth and their students discovering a mysterious passage that leads down below. It took about fifteen minutes of cutscene before I was at a map, but in that time I was introduced to the Ashen Wolves house and drawn into their isolated plot.
More students, less homework
Cindered Shadows opts for a more condensed approach to Three Houses’ experience. Rather than the whole of Garreg Mach Monastery you instead roam around the much tighter locale of Abyss, an underground settlement for refugees and outcasts, between most maps. There may be less to do there (no Arena or cafeteria, fishing for Flayn is nowhere to be found) but it serves its purpose well.
Part of that is the fewer number of tasks you must concern yourself with to keep your characters battle ready. No longer do they improve their skills or unlock new classes, nor do they increase their support levels from what I experienced. In Cindered Shadows all that needs tending to are weapons and inventory, as well as Battalions. It takes away some of the depth from the game, but for the briefer side story this more straightforward approach works well.
These dials back are almost nostalgic for me as a longtime Fire Emblem fan, as the more finite nature of resources, characters, and features called to mind some of the GBA titles. Obviously this is still with the polish and advances of all that’s come since those sprites, and ultimately it lets the focus remain mostly on the new characters.
To its credit, though, with its seven chapters Cindered Shadows managed to provide a pleasing amount of variety when it comes to objectives. While some fall into the “Rout all Enemies” standard, others have you dealing with being chased by a overpowered large enemy through tight corridors, or needing to spread your units throughout the map to stand on specific tiles. My time with Three Houses served me well, but even having completed that Cindered Shadows kept me on my toes.
Run with the wolf pack
That largest praise, though, goes to the Ashen Wolves house “students” themselves. These four characters manage to make their mark through this side story, with personalities that run from boisterous to duplicitous, subdued to maybe the most over the top character in the game. As their house leader, Yuri manages to leave a strong impression but when taken with Balthus, Constance, and Hapi they make a balanced and believable group of comrades.
I will admit some of their quirks feel a bit out of place in Three Houses, feeling more like characters out of Fates at times. Still, the eight hours I spent getting to know them in and out of battle were well spent. Each of them comes with a new class (that can be unlocked in the base game routes via a new seal), letting them stand out in gameplay too.
Of the four I felt most impressed by Trickster and Dark Flier, granting a speedy sword wielder with a unique movement skill and a powerful, flying mage respectively. Valkyrie also works well, providing another Dark Magic based class on horseback, though War Monk/Cleric comes off as lackluster despite its stability. Two of these (Trickster and War Monk/Cleric) also come with White Magic skills, giving them further utility (though less potency) when you are otherwise locked to a single healer.
Their validity runs concurrent with the designated party members for the side story, giving you a fairly balanced line up made mostly of favorites. You’ll learn to make the most of your limited roster, with my only real nitpick being the granting of only one lance specialist among them. Being effectively locked into these characters, with finite experience and their (more restricted here) class options, made every success feel more rewarding – like I’d solved a puzzle versus accidentally becoming overpowered.
Kept in the dark
Ultimately my biggest complaints about playing through Cindered Shadows is how separated it feels from the Three Houses base game. Nintendo hasn’t been withholding that fact, mind you – this was always called a Side Story. Still, this was a chance to explore the characters of Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude further as this is the one place outside of Three House’s prologue they’re fighting under a common banner. There is focus on Byleth’s mother and some (depending on your route choices) insight into Rhea, but ultimately this is the Ashen Wolves’ show through and through.
How much you get out of Cindered Shadows will depend largely on what you enjoyed about Three Houses. If you want further exploration of Garreg Mach and Fodlan’s histories, a few new playable characters and classes, new facilities for your main save, and a concentrated dose of Fire Emblem; it does its part and then some. However if you were taken in by the multi-faceted narrative and freer customization of Three Houses, or expecting more on its cast, then you may walk away from Abyss disappointed.
Is Cindered Shadows necessary to enjoy Three Houses? Absolutely not. Having completed it now, I can safely say the side story doesn’t reach the heights of the base game from a plot and gameplay perspective. For all the Expansion Pass adds it’s worth the investment for serial supporters and thorough tacticians, showing there’s still some fuel to this game buried in the Ashes.
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: February 12, 2020
Developer: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games