Disclaimer: if you haven’t played Fire Emblem: Three Houses, avert your eyes. This review assumes you know the basic structure and overarching general story of the game, so if you need to continue with blindness, which you should, go play the game and then return to see if you are interested in the DLC, which you should.
What are you doing right now? Reading this review, right. But, why? Clearly if you can read the title and see the images, you know this is a review of the Fire Emblem: Three Houses Expansion Pass. But if you are interested in reading a random person’s thoughts on a pack of DLC for a video game, you have more than likely played said video game. If you have indeed played Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I can guarantee you already own the Fire Emblem: Three Houses Expansion Pass because you know how good the base Fire Emblem: Three Houses package already is. (Unless monetary limitations restrict you, or you are restrained by the burden of time management, blah blah blah.)
Whatever the case, and regardless of my uncertainty towards your motives, I am happy you are about to view my thoughts on the Fire Emblem: Three Houses Expansion Pass, and most notably, the Cindered Shadowed route featured within.
Back in August of 2019, I had played around 50 hours of Three Houses and reviewed it to the extent of my impressions based on one playthrough. Since then, I have logged over 200 hours and completed four routes and the DLC side story. I no longer agree with a decent fraction of that review. Not because time has soured Fire Emblem’s flavor, but because the game I know now is wildly different from the game I knew in August, and I now know that Three Houses is one of the the most well-written, well-constructed fictional narratives I have witnessed up to this point—even with its numerous flaws.
The first wave of the all-inclusive Expansion Pass was simply this “Officers Academy Outfit” for the protagonist, Byleth. It was more of a freebie than anything to get players to buy the pack at launch, so there’s not much to it. That being said, this was always my prefered outfit.
Nintendo’s explanation for this wave is, “Start the school year—and your great adventure—in style.”
I like it.
This wave arrived during my second playthrough which was a nice surprise. Most importantly it added some new battles in between chapters and some meh clothing options. They also threw in some stat boosting items which was nice, but begs the question on why make some stat increases behind a paywall? It doesn’t make much sense to me, and feels a bit on the unsavory side of paid content.
A big part of the early waves includes stuff that emphasizes, “this is DLC stuff that is shiny and gives you more rewards and boosts!” Because it’s a singleplayer game, it’s harmless, but confusing nonetheless.
More costumes that I don’t care about, yay! Also the merchant character, Anna, became recruitable, another thing that is neat but I also don’t care about! It’s fine, but I also wonder why it wasn’t free like Jeritza (another NPC turned playable, but with even more story content than Anna). The big thing for wave 3 was the sauna, a facility in the monastery given a gameplay function of boosting a unit’s skill learning. To me, this was the first cool thing the DLC introduced because it added a new wrinkle to the gameplay. As neat as it was, the first three waves were essentially filler content as a lead up to…
The moment we were all waiting for; the reason to purchase the DLC dropped in February, a fully-developed side story introducing new characters, locations, maps, classes, and story content. Spoiler alert: It’s super good!
The “Cindered Shadows” side route introduced a new house of four characters, the Ashen Wolves—a group of students banished into the Abyss beneath Garreg Mach. The route operates as a fully distinct side-story which features the three house leaders, and three students, assisting Byleth in exploring rumors of an underground group of people. Right off the bat, they run into the wolves, Balthus, Hapi, Yuri, and most importantly, Constance. Together they go through a series of battles with preset classes and characters with limited items which offers a more “traditional Fire Emblem” experience than the base game, unraveling an interesting story that builds onto the world of the students at the monastery.
I really like this setup for a DLC story. Having it take place underneath Garreg Mach works extraordinarily well because it doesn’t feel out of place. The abyss is alluded to throughout the main story, so it makes sense in context and doesn’t feel even remotely tacked on. I cannot understate how much I appreciate the idea here and the execution that makes it feel completely “as one” with the base experience—something all good DLC stories should strive to do.
While I can’t really talk about the story in Cindered Shadows without spoiling both the DLC and the base game, I can say that it is absolutely worth playing through for any fan of Three Houses. It is a fully-realized short story with twists and a satisfying conclusion that again, respects the original narrative while answering more questions and expanding the lore.
The gameplay on the other hand, I get to tell you about. It’s superb. I really appreciate the relief of not worrying about training the students and setting their classes. The lone concern is weapon durability and managing ores. While I enjoyed those elements in Three Houses, a change of pace is nice, and it creates a different, more challenging experience. Each of the maps in the chapters of the route are more “gimmicky” and differ from the last. One has a large map chase/escape experience, another has a key that has to be put in different locks, stuff along the same lines that made it exciting to see each new location’s idea, almost akin to a platformer that introduces new concepts for every stage. While I, again, loved the base Three Houses experience, it can become tiring to play through mostly the same few stage objectives for hours on hours of battling.
After completing, Cindered Shadows, the Abyss opens up in the monastery when playing in Part 1 of the main story, adding a few new functional facilities and the four wolves as recruitable students. This is, simply, the best. Extra characters paired with the large new area on ‘Explore’ days really adds some flavor to multiple playthroughs. Because of how fully-realized the four characters are, they feel like they could have been in the game from the start, as if they were real students existing in hiding all along, and their uniqueness adds a whole different feel to a route if they are part of the team. All of their new supports with several of the characters are fantastic and feel as if Intelligent Systems used the new opportunity to fill in some narrative holes.
Expanding on that, the highlight of the entire package of DLC was those supports between the characters, and seeing the Ashen Wolves experience the timeskip just as the other students do. It was a fantastic change in pace to go through the main story again with some new characters that changed up the battle gameplay and made the monastery more interesting to explore. I’m a big fan of the support cutscenes, so making sure to see every last one of them with the Ashen Wolves remained exciting throughout the entire playthrough.
I adore Three Houses and the characters within it so much, I could go on for hours about the intricacies of the game and the world it presents. Thus, needless to say, I am a big fan of the Expansion Pass. It started with some silly fluff content, but the main event was worth the wait and is absolutely necessary to play for any fan of the base game. If you even haven’t played Three Houses before, I would wholeheartedly recommend purchasing the Expansion Pass before going in, or at least before the second playthrough if you crave even more, because it does add a significant amount of worthwhile content. While it does raise concerns of “Well why didn’t the base game have the DLC stuff if I am paying for it anyway,” here and now is neither the time nor place for that discussion and the Cindered Shadowed side-story is worth the price of admission, and my recommendation, alone.