I’m just going to be upfront here and say that I never really enjoyed many of the characters in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. As such, my hopes for the secret fourth house introduced in the game’s first major expansion, Cindered Shadows, weren’t very high. But after taking a few hours to complete its isolated storyline, I was surprised to find myself finally invested in some of Three Houses’ schoolkids-turned-soldiers.
Cindered Shadows opens with a seemingly random group of Garreg Mach students—the main character, the three house leaders, and a single tag-along from each class—chasing a suspicious figure into a mysterious cave. They soon find themselves in Abyss, a massive, subterranean environment beneath the monastery that serves as their academy. Why no one ever mentioned this place during the main game is soon forgotten as they encounter a ragtag bunch of gremlins known as the Ashen Wolves. A fight ensues, supposed enemies suddenly become friends, and exposition is shared.
Abyss is described as a place for the unwanted: the elderly, the sick, the otherwise troublesome folks that don’t belong anywhere on the surface. Well, that’s what Cindered Shadows tells the player, but once I spent some time there, I realised it’s mostly a place for the Ashen Wolves—who think of themselves as the fourth house of Garreg Mach after the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer—to hang out and be punks. Which, don’t get me wrong, is pretty cool; the Ashen Wolves are essentially like the weird goth kids we all knew (or were) in high school, except they spend time fighting would-be intruders instead of smoking behind the gym.
The leader of these raccoon babies is a fellow by the name of Yuri, who is beautiful and secretive and wears purple eyeshadow. He’s joined by Hapi, a knight who refers to everyone with a cute pet name; Balthus, a bruiser who calls himself the King of Grappling without ever so much as body slamming someone; and Constance, a Pegasus rider whose mood changes with her surroundings.
They each have their own reasons for residing in Abyss, all of which you learn over the course of the six-hour Cindered Shadows adventure. None of it is very interesting, but the quirks of their personalities more than make up for any shortcomings in their backstories or the lackadaisical ways in which they’re presented.
The Ashen Wolves introduce four new character classes to Three Houses’ already robust promotion tree. Yuri’s Trickster class is a jack of all trades with the ability to wield swords and magic but without much proficiency in either. Constance’s Dark Flier is all about conducting strafing runs with magic spells. Balthus, who represents the new War Monk role, is so powerful that he often resolves fights with his fists before the enemy gets a chance to counter-attack. Hapi’s Valkyrie is great at controlling the battlefield with dark magic and debuffs.
Every new character feels flexible in ways that outshine the original cast, and I often found myself forging on ahead in battle with the Ashen Wolves taking point. That said, it was neat to play around with a few of the characters I hadn’t been able to recruit during my playthrough of the main game as professor of the Golden Deer house.
After joining forces with the Ashen Wolves, the story of Cindered Shadows really takes off, forging headlong into battles with mercenaries, ghosts, and creepy golems with baby faces. Legends say that somewhere deep in Abyss lies a magical relic with the power to bring the dead back to life. Naturally, that MacGuffin becomes the main goal until it’s stolen by someone you thought was an ally for use in a magic ritual.
It’s standard stuff, really. There wasn’t much to hold my attention between battles except for some new details about the main character’s mother. Cindered Shadows also does away with a bit of the micromanaging that has become standard in modern Fire Emblem games. There isn’t any class-promoting or relationship-building while traversing Abyss. It puts the skirmishes, rather than the minutiae of the characters’ personal lives, at the forefront of the experience.
The battles themselves are varied and mostly pretty engaging. In addition to the standard “you’re here, your enemy’s over there, go get them” format, Cindered Shadows implements a chase sequence in one combat encounter that had me gritting my teeth for the entirety of the mission. The final boss is an absolute doozy that took me several attempts to get just right. I don’t leave soldiers behind, dammit!
While some of the environments are reused from the main game, it was great to see the Three Houses developers experiment with layouts and victory requirements that completely messed up my best-laid plans. The army you field during the entire campaign is limited in both size and abilities, which makes for some enjoyably frustrating problem-solving moments.
While the story is barebones and hackneyed, Cindered Shadows is an engaging addition to the world of Three Houses. The new classes provide additional layers of strategy to the base battle system, and I loved the ways in which each encounter shook up the standard notions of Fire Emblem combat. Sure, I still think monsters, with their shields and regenerating health, are bullshit, but this expansion used them in ways that made them much more formidable and, at times, downright scary.
Cindered Shadows is a neat little package full of wonderful characters that I can’t wait to pass in the halls upon returning to Garreg Mach. I’ve already set a tea time with Yuri.