"Cindered Shadows is a side story that feels self-contained and, while not necessarily vital to the base Fire Emblem: Three Houses, helps further flesh out its plot."
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Fire Emblem: Three Houses closes out its DLC Expansion Pass with its Cindered Shadows side story. However, is this an expansion worth perusing? The answer wholly depends on just how much you enjoy the base game and strategic challenges.
Cindered Shadows starts off with Byleth, the newest professor at Garreg Mach Monastery, and some of his/her students following a suspicious individual into the underground town known as Abyss that lies in secret underneath the very monastery itself. In Abyss, they encounter four new students: Yuri, Constance, Balthus, and Hapi. These four characters are members of the secret Fourth House of the Officers Academy, called the Ashen Wolves. The two groups end up working together to uncover the reason why a mysterious organization seems to be targeting Abyss, with the story also containing some surprising clues about Byleth's familial history.
The Cindered Shadows side story takes roughly ten or so hours to complete, and it is very plot heavy. Personally, I found myself more invested in the idea of a sewer town than I initially thought I would be given how the narrative develops as one plays through it. It also doesn't hurt that the Ashen Wolves are quite a likable and entertaining bunch, all with their own rather fleshed out and detailed rationale for choosing to live below ground.
Much like starting up a new main Fire Emblem: Three Houses game, starting Cindered Shadows requires players to select which version of Byleth (male or female) they want to take the role of, as well as the difficulty levels for playing the DLC. Having familiarity with the various battle systems used in the main game will be invaluable in a Cindered Shadows playthrough, though there are some key differences in how the DLC plays. For starters, you're only given a select handful of characters to use in fights: Byleth, Dimitri, Claude, Edelgard, Lindhardt, Hilda, Ashe, Balthus, Yuri, Hapi, and Constance. Each character comes with preset job classes, limiting your strategic options during fights even more. Hilda, for instance, comes with the already established job classes of Warrior or Pegasus Knight. In Cindered Shadows, she can only switch between those two job classes. While characters level up during and after fights in this DLC, skill levels are already set and do not change. As one could probably guess, this helps to make the battles in this DLC much more challenging.
In fact, challenge seems to be the name of the game when it comes to Cindered Shadows. It clearly seems designed to offer more difficulty in its fights than the main game typically provides. Each battle is wholly unique with its own inherent strategy at play to ensure victory. For some battles you simply have to rout the enemy, while in others you focus more on the enemy commander. Yet other battles will have you running from one side of the map to the other within a set amount of turns. There is even one battle that has you focus on finding a hidden item out in the field.
The calendar system from the main game is entirely done away with in Cindered Shadows. Instead, you advance from fight to fight, sometimes taking a bit of a break to explore Abyss. Abyss itself is a rather large area, though through traversing it players will find it is more self-contained than exploring Garreg Mach. Abyss comes complete with denizens to converse with, items to find, and shops to peruse. The game will also conveniently let you know when you've seen all there is to see in these exploration segments. Shops allow players to buy new weapons as well as use raw materials acquired after every fight, such as Smithing Stones, to repair weapons, as durability still plays a key factor in battle. Monetary income in the DLC is harder to come by, however, so allocating and using funds wisely becomes a necessity when preparing for the next Cindered Shadows battle.
I never had issues acquiring the more common Smithing Stones. However, materials for repairing Heroes' Relics, such as Umbral Steel, were much harder to come by. I found myself planning very carefully when to use those powerful weapons during fights as a result.
Yuri, Constance, Hapi, and Balthus give players the chance to test out the DLC's four new job classes: Trickster, Dark Flier, Valkyrie, and War Monk. All four jobs have skills and abilities that I found extremely useful during fights. I was particularly fond of the "glass cannon" Dark Flier job class for its long-range magic attacks.
Not only can you carry over the new job classes into a playthrough of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but the four Ashen Wolves students will become recruitable in a pre-timeskip playthrough of the game once you've beaten Cindered Shadows. They each have their own story connections to plot points found within the base Three Houses title, so they still feel plot relevant despite being DLC characters. They also add more insightful Support conversations, as well as provide further S-Support options for Byleth.
The option to travel to Abyss in the main game reveals an entire new area to explore. Players can choose to help Abyss grow by spending Renown, therefore opening up even more quests to partake in. The way Abyss and its characters are incorporated into the main game is unexpectedly seamless. I was even surprised to find a connection in Caspar's Support with Byleth to Yuri's own, and characters such as Mercedes and Constance have clear past story connections that make a lot of sense. Besides, having new job classes in a SRPG to try out and experiment with is always a plus!
Truth be told, Cindered Shadows can be brutally challenging at times. I relied heavily on Divine Pulse throughout its fights and there were moments when I was genuinely tempted to throw my controller at a wall, but there is a great sense of satisfaction one feels when surmounting its difficult battles. The storyline is enjoyable and offers insight not just into the new characters but those chosen from the main game too. Cindered Shadows is a side story that feels self-contained and, while not necessarily vital to the base Fire Emblem: Three Houses, helps further flesh out its plot. I'd recommend people who have already played a game of Fire Emblem: Three Houses give Cindered Shadows a shot, especially if they want to try their hand at some more challenging SRPG battles. The net bonuses you receive from finishing the DLC might also help make a New Game Plus all the more enticing.