We had so much fun with Fire Emblem: Three Houses in 2019. Intelligent Systems added a meaningful social component to the mix of well-known, but very uniform, turn-based strategy, refreshing the tactical experience in the process. There are four different perspectives on an epic conflict in this gigantic role-playing game, which quite rightly has earned itself a new player base on the Switch over the last few months. With additional content in the form of Cindered Shadows now being presented as part of the game's Season Pass, Nintendo is bringing Three Houses' post-launch plans to an end, and it is doing so by serving up a compact side campaign where tacticians will find some tough nuts to crack.
This DLC campaign differs from the base game in the sense that it focuses almost exclusively on story battles and largely omits the social aspect. In this side story, you'll find seven missions with a handful of new characters who you can interact with at an additional location that you'll visit between some of the battles. This extra episode is separated from the main game and even boots up directly from the main menu, so NG+ saves won't bring you any advantages here. Although the integration seems somewhat awkward, the events are well-integrated into the overall framework.
The story of Cindered Shadows is about four young people who live deep under the catacombs of Garreg Mach Monastery in the so-called Abyss - a kind of an underground dungeon for outcasts and people who can't get anywhere else. A group of outsider thieves is causing trouble in the area, and in doing so they come into contact with a closely guarded secret of the church. We get involved after Claude, Edelgard and Dimitri discover suspicious figures on campus. With the help of some select students, professor Byleth follows the trail and discovers that there is a labyrinthine cave system with a fourth, secret schoolhouse hidden below the surface of the Officer's Academy: the Ashen Wolves. Because the add-on isn't very long, further explanation of the story would quickly fall into spoiler territory, so we'll leave it at that.
On 'normal' difficulty, you should be able to get through most of the battles without too much trouble, while 'hard' will serve you up some tough nuts to crack with nasty ambushes and maps filled with strong opponents designed to challenge you. Unfortunately, we didn't really get much chance to develop our troops during the individual chapters of Cindered Shadows and, while there are a few exceptions, the classes are also fixed. Even the money and upgrade materials are ultimately limited, so character development is reduced to a minimum. In some missions, time pressure and endless reinforcements are added to the mix too, which is why Cindered Shadows offers some of the most challenging battles of Three Houses.
Once you have completed the DLC, which should take you around eight to ten hours, you should then jump back into the main game to see for yourselves what new things have been unlocked. From Chapter Two onwards you can recruit the four members of the Ashen Wolves for your play-through by visiting the Abyss (there is a shady merchant next to your personal quarters). With your accumulated 'renown', you can expand the area and, by doing so, some exciting new facilities become available that provide you with further gameplay options (some of which are a real blessing for completionists).
It is also nice to see that Intelligent Systems has once again caught up with a few (not all, but at least some) of the old voice actors to add more support conversations with the latest additions to the cast, giving both the new and familiar characters of Fire Emblem even more personality. Hapi, Constance, Balthus and Yuri introduce new classes to the game too, and their appearances will even be adjusted in the second half of the game (although unfortunately they cannot be seen during cutscenes). Just like their classmates, they react to current events in the world and have opinions about your decisions.
The four new characters were a lot of fun because their dynamic fits very nicely with those of the other houses. That's why it's a shame that - compared to the rest of the game - Intelligent Systems hasn't put the same effort into Cindered Shadows in terms of presentation. One or two anime sequences would have been nice; the developer instead relies on stiff images that don't do the game justice and some events are only hinted and you have to imagine the rest yourself.
Although the battles are pretty challenging, fans should be happy with what the Season Pass has delivered. If you wanted to go back to Fire Emblem: Three Houses once again (and we highly recommend you do so), you'll find a lot of new content in your next play-through after completing Cindered Shadows. There are optional side quests, additional support conversations, further battlefields to explore, new characters, and lots of surprises waiting to be discovered. The main game wasn't starving for all this content, but the fact that it's here is fantastic and makes this already well-rounded package a good deal rounder.
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