Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Fire Emblem: Three Houses story analysis - Verdant Wind (Golden Deer Part 2)

The following is a series on Fire Emblem: Three Houses that analyzes the story elements, characters and theming. For reference, here are the links to each one:

Intro/Basic review, White Clouds (Common Part 1), Cindered Shadows (Ashen Wolves DLC Route - Part 1.5), Crimson Flower (Black Eagles/Eagle House Part 2, Adrestia route), Silver Snow (Black Eagles/Eagle House Part 2, Church route), Azure Moon (Blue Lions/Lion House Part 2), Verdant Wind (Golden Deer/Deer House Part 2) Non-house leader characters (Eagle, Deer, Lion, Church) Music analysis (very surface level)

Part 2: Verdant Wind - My Little Deer: Friendship is Magic

(NOTE: So as it turns out, just going through the themes of this story run deep, so I’ll go back and talk about the other Deer in a separate blog. For this one, I’ll focus on Claude and the overall story that generates from his and Byleth’s friendship.)

I finished the Golden Deer storyline second in my playthroughs and used New Game Plus when going through it, so a lot of the challenge in this storyline’s maps was probably lost on me because I was ridiculously over-leveled for most of the game. In fact, the only time my character wasn’t the highest level on the battlefield was when I faced the final boss, and even then Claude was only like 3 levels behind.

To be honest, though, I was actually grateful for the relative ease of this playthrough because it let me focus entirely on the story. Unfortunately, it led me to a very horrifying realization: the Deer House is made up of My Little Pony characters.

Think about it. The eight characters of the house are: a bookish, affable type who feels pressured to live up to expectations; a farm hand; a tomboy who’s loyal to a fault; a purple-haired fashion lover who is obsessed with dating; a shy girl who talks to animals; a pink-haired girl who is constantly goofing off; a magic-obsessed academic with no chill; and their leader is a smooth-talking agent of chaos.

The house is more known for its memes than any of its actual content, and the final battle literally ends with a sanctimonious speech about the power of friendship. How did this even end up happening?

Ok, so a lot of these character archetypes are not new; it’s just weird that they all seemed to coalesce in the exact same configuration in a Fire Emblem game.

Anyway, beyond being the MLP-FE crossover fanfic that nobody asked for, does the Deer route, and more specifically, Verdant Wind, have anything worth looking at when playing? Actually, a lot, to be honest.

This game decided to shove nearly all its lore into the Deer’s story. And not just the extraneous, ‘why do I even care?’ kind of lore. Lore that is necessary to have any working understanding of what the heck is even going on.

Who are these villains we keep fighting? Go to the Deer House. What is the deal with Byleth and Sothis? Deer house. Why are Crests so important in the first place that we have to fight about them? Deer house. Why did this game open with a battle cutscene from 1000 years ago? Deer. House.

A large portion of what helps Fodlan and its surrounding areas feel alive is due in no small part to this storyline. And yet, ironically, while this route provides the most overall information for informing the world, it’s probably the storyline most disconnected to Fodlan’s major conflicts.

Being a third-party / On the Edge of a Major Conflict

I’ve said this in my blog about the Academy Phase, but much of the time spent when working with the Deer is trying to solve mysteries about Byleth and what the Church of Seiros is hiding. Because of this focus, our eyes are taken off the looming conflict that’s building in the background of the other two White Clouds variations. When the time comes for the war to start, the Deer has put so little effort into thinking about the actual implications of the Crest system and what to do about it that it almost feels thrust upon the Deer.

When the War for Fodlan starts up, the Church and Kingdom default to being allies against the Adrestian Empire. The Alliance, however, opts to stay neutral and allows matters to play out. This is due in large part to Claude taking the lead role for the anti-Empire faction while Lorenz’s family leads the pro-Empire faction. 

Since the Alliance’s houses are split along roughly even lines, very little is done. In non-Crimson Flower routes, their only interaction in the war is the Empire’s control of the Great Bridge of Myrrdin, which comes about as a concession because the Empire started a coup in the western part of the Kingdom and had Gloucester territory surrounded.

Much of the Alliance’s actions during the five years away are purely reactionary. The Alliance is doing what it needs to so that the conflict remains between the Empire and the Church, with the Kingdom acting as the Church’s meat shield.

Byleth’s return in Verdant Wind is the spark needed for Claude to make a run at unifying the continent under the Alliance’s control. And thus, a new player has entered the war!

This idea of being an outsider is present with the Deer as a house, with the Alliance as a country, and with Claude as a man. Throughou
t the story, it has come across that none of them have been particularly impactful to the continent, and so much of Verdant Wind’s theme is about how people can still make a positive impact from outside whatever current power structure exists.

Such a storyline speaks to the idea that lasting change sometimes does have to come from an interloper. Or a benefactor. Being too close to a conflict can cloud a person’s judgment. And such a lack of focus proves to be the downfall of the Empire throughout this storyline. Overlooking Garreg Mach and Claude’s forces, as well as ignoring the idea that Claude’s outside-the-box thinking might prove successful, come back to bite Edelgard and the Empire constantly.

I’ll come back to the idea of outside influences on a conflict in a bit, but first I want to talk about how Claude fits into these ideals of an outsider trying to affect positive change on a society.

Claude von Riegan - The Eternal Outsider

Claude’s backstory is very, VERY gradually revealed as the story progresses through White Clouds and into Verdant Wind.

Through a series of direct references and allusions, we are told that Claude was a mixed-race child, who was born with the Crest of Riegan due to his mother, an estranged member of House Riegan. 

On his father’s side, he is related to the Almayran royal family, though it is not made explicit what role specifically his father played. He must be fairly high up, though, because Claude assumes Cyril (an Almayran refugee working for Lady Rhea) would recognize who he is.

Almayra and Fodlan have been in conflict for a long time by the time the game starts. Prejudice reigns on both sides, and Claude’s heritage has been a hindrance in both locations. In Almayra, his mixed birth is seen as a problem (and might be one of the main reasons he tries to seek power in Fodlan first), and in Fodlan, Claude hides his origins out of fear the same prejudices will crop up (not an unfounded belief).

Because prejudice, nationalism and racism have affected him so deeply, Claude sees them as the greatest hindrances to peace long-term. When Claude finally does reveal his goal to Byleth early in Verdant Wind, he admits he wants to tear down the borders that separate his two countries and create a society where people from all walks of life live together.

(NOTE: In other routes, it’s made more explicit, but before meeting Byleth he intended to conquer Fodlan and then ascend to the Almayran throne to likely unify the two. This plot never materializes in any route, though, because even in this successful route, he still hands over control of Fodlan before heading back to Almayra.)

This combatting of prejudice does extend into other areas of life, as he sees the crest system and nobility as a whole as an unjust system, and he finds the Church of Seiros to be too dictatorial.

This has led to many people questioning why Claude and Edelgard don’t end up joining forces in any of the routes. Ideologically, they both believe in heavy reforms and seem to have a mutual understanding that the current system will likely never bend toward their way of thinking without making a big move.

The only major difference is in their points of emphasis - Claude’s primary interest is in combating prejudice and hatred; Edelgard primarily focuses on fighting abusive and controlling practices. Even then, going through their supports makes it clear that they do also believe in each other’s main ideals.

So where does the disconnect come in? I think Edelgard’s perspective on the matter can best be found in the battle conversation Claude has with Edelgard in Chapter 20 - their final showdown in the throne room. 

She does not believe Claude can be trusted to enact the reforms she wants to make because he lacks the knowledge of all the pieces at play in Fodlan. Claude makes the point, though, that he has seen plenty of injustice and knows what sources he can tackle to finish the job that her war started.

And in Verdant Wind, Claude would be correct if only because of one key advantage: Thanks to Edelgard starting a war, he is seen by those fighting the Empire as a defender. Even though he wants to make nearly identical changes, the average person in the Alliance will see Claude and Byleth as protectors instead of conquerors. 

It is a great opportunity to bring about reform, but it does speak to the cynical nature of Claude’s approach to the world. He only involves himself in fights if he believes he can win. Across all four routes, Claude keeps the Alliance as close to neutral as he can in the hope that an opportunity will present itself.

It just so happens that Byleth is that opportunity.

To the good fortune of the people of Fodlan, Claude is, in fact, a benevolent leader. But for all the positives generated by Claude and the real arguments in favor of an outsider helping implement reforms, Claude reveals the great negatives in such an approach as well. (Shock of all shocks, the people are the ones who suffer.)

A Human Chess Board

During White Clouds, there’s a scene where Claude shows frustration that Byleth got to the Sword of the Creator first. It had been his hope to find this ‘sword that could cut down a mountain’ and use it to destroy the mountain range that blocked Fodlan and Almayra. 

Everyone recognizes Claude’s ambitions, but the idea that he was looking for Heroes Relics to tear down mountains and become the leader of all Fodlan could have just as easily been the desires of an Almayran mad man seeking only power. As it so happened, his plan was benevolent, but there was no question he would make moves if he had to.

The language is softened in English, but it’s still clear that Claude sees Rhea as a threat to his goals and even mentions the continent may need her to either step down or die to get there. When he meets with Edelgard in the throne room, there is no offer to join forces, even though Byleth tries to ask before the battle if there’s an option that doesn’t kill her.

Even after Byleth is let into Claude’s confidence, he still doesn’t fully reveal his plans, springing his alliance with the Almayran military on everyone at once. And when all is said and done, he leaves to claim the throne of Almayra, putting Byleth in charge (an action that Byleth protests in the S-support, if you so choose it.)

The biggest dangers that come with outside forces affecting the actions of another group stem from the fact that such interlopers do not have firm connections with the people they are trying to help. It can be hard to determine what the outside force’s motivations are, and when they do share their ideals, it can be difficult to know if they’re being honest with you.

I’m reminded of how so many lands were conquered by European nations, only to have the Europeans leave and re-partition the whole area in ways that made no actual sense.

Claude’s Japanese nickname “the Demon of the Tabletop” is fitting because someone who treats his strategies like a game of chess will likely carry that mentality in situations where he has no emotional investment. While he cares about the people in his circle and people in general, when it comes to battle, he views the battlefield like it’s a game. He (in other routes) expects his people to retreat when bested because he doesn’t understand the idea of fighting on behalf of a nation. For his soldiers, it’s life-and-death. For Claude, it’s Fire Emblem on Casual Mode.

Claude’s actions could have easily been villainized or at least taken as reckless. They likely would have been so if he had been the one to start a war. Only by having Byleth on his side did he gain full trust from the Knights of Seiros, and only by Edelgard being the spark to war did the board shift in a way that Claude’s plans could have a chance to succeed.

Had Byleth not been there and had Edelgard not chosen war, where would that leave Mr. von Riegan? Would he have turned tail back to Almayra? Would he have opened the border with the Alliance and risked the wrath of both the Church and the fellow Alliance houses? Do any leaders end up getting assassinated to ease his path? It’s hard to say because the war begins before Claude actually holds power.

Of the three house leaders, I find Claude to be the greatest enigma. He speaks so highly of helping others, but he won’t let anyone in on his full plans. He wants transparency of everyone while being patently unwilling to do the same. Watch his supports with Balthus to see how uncomfortable he gets when it’s clear someone does know one of his closely guarded secrets. He recognizes the need for sacrifice, and will even play up the importance of fighting for a cause, but when the rubber meets the road, he expects his people to suddenly give up while in that mental state.

Most notably, the S-support scene with Byleth shows just how much of his plan was based on using people. We had already talked in the Academy phase about how he demanded Jeralt’s diary, and given how the storyline ends, I do wonder how much Claude factors in the desires of other people. He very much expects people to do their due diligence, and I wonder if he knows the difference between someone wanting to do something and someone who feels they must do something out of a sense of duty/necessity. Or if he feels that difference is relevant.

Sometimes… It's hell getting to Heaven.

I have been considering this point for some time, and I think I can say definitively that Verdant Wind is the bloodiest route of all four War Phases (in the sense of casualties to Fodlan).

All the routes start from roughly the same point in the war with the same situation (except Crimson Flower, which shows the war at a stalemate, sparing a lot of internal battles in the Kingdom during the time skip). Verdant Wind is tied for the longest route with Azure Moon, meaning the war lasts longer than all the other routes except the Lion route.  All non-CF routes have a second three-way battle at Gronder (though it happens off-screen in Silver Snow).

In the end, two actions make Verdant Wind bloodier than the others: the Javelins of Light, and Nemesis’ return.

The destruction of a major fort with the javelins (in VW’s case, Fort Merceus) doesn’t happen in Azure Moon, putting VW and Silver Snow at a disadvantage in terms of death toll. But what permanently puts VW ahead of SS is when Nemesis goes on a tear through the central countryside of Fodlan, wiping out all small towns in his way en route to Garreg Mach (echoing what Claude said would happen had they not stopped Lord Lonato back in Ch. 4). Silver Snow’s final battle was contained to the church itself. VW had multiple slaughters before the final battle even began.

Let’s be clear: The world created by Byleth and Claude ends up being a positive one that deals with most, if not, all of the problems that were inherent to the previous Fodlan system. But a higher price was required than in some other routes.

The mass destruction in this route represents a drawback to being on the periphery of this entire conflict. Claude spent much of his time trying to understand the secrets of Fodlan. This was a necessary action for him because he needed intel on how to best take control of the country and achieve his own goals. He also needed to understand the grander nature behind the war in part 2 so that he knew the best courses of action to take.

Unfortunately, in his quest for understanding, he was forced to take sides in conflicts while he had an incomplete comprehension of the situation. He worked directly with the Church of Seiros to combat the Empire without fully being certain that the secrets of the Church wouldn’t wind up revealing them to be the problem.

And thus, we get a scenario where Edelgard is killed, only for basically all of her goals to be met anyway. (The only notable difference I see is that since Arianrhod never falls directly, it’s likely that Cornelia survives and TWSD has a shot at reviving itself.)

The other tragedy of the matter is that the search for knowledge that was necessitated by Claude being an outsider is the reason we end up with Nemesis returning. Moving in to directly attack Shambhala was a good call, but with no precautions taken, Thales is able to unleash the javelins and force Seiros to transform again.

(By the way, I racked my brain to figure out why Nemesis doesn’t appear in Silver Snow, and my best guess is that Riegan was the main attendant for Nemesis, which is why he stood closest to Nemesis in the final battle. The blood of a Riegan gave him the final push needed to awaken him, while in Silver Snow, it’s just the bloods of Seiros and Sothis, which wasn’t enough.)

I do find the revival of Nemesis to be a unique ending from a gameplay perspective, especially since it brings in a fighter from the opening cutscene, but there’s no question it could have been prevented in-universe had some course of action been changed. Personally, I’d say the mistake was letting Rhea join the mission in Shambhala. The final boss of both SS and VW are a direct result of bringing her along, though not bringing her along likely leads to the whole group getting killed, so all things considered, it seems tragic death is an inevitability built into Verdant Wind’s ending.

Other notable story beats

Ch. 13 - The obligatory reunion chapter. All non-CF routes require you to meet with your house leader then deal with bandits raiding Garreg Mach. Your people come in waves until the entire set of Deer has arrived.

Claude is extremely affable during this, as per his nature and endears himself back to you before taking you over to test your fighting skills. This chapter continues that proud tradition of Claude disguising his true aim amidst his friendly, jocular outer shell. It should come as a surprise to no one that he immediately tries to use the reunion as a chance to springboard a resistance to the Empire. He even gets the Church of Seiros in his corner!

Ch. 14 - The Empire tries to reclaim Garreg Mach as soon as they see people enter it. This is the chapter where Claude’s ambitions to break open the isolationist border policy of Fodlan is given, and post-battle is where Claude reveals he thinks Fodlan might be better without Rhea around. I’ve got to give Claude credit: He is excellent at picking his timing. Heck, he doesn’t reveal this to you until he’s already got the Church on your side with the Crest of Flames banner.

Ch. 15 - The Aileil battle is a rescue mission to get Judith, but it’s also a chance to regain Ashe as a unit. If you had recruited him in White Clouds, he stayed with the Gwendal’s army during the time skip. It’s notable that he must have already been recruited to bring him back; otherwise, the opportunity to spare him never pops up. I hadn’t recruited him during my VW run so I never saw the prompt during the playthrough. 

Also, this chapter is worth revisiting with a translation of the Japanese script. They mention Claude’s nickname, which is different in English vs. Japanese. Understandably, the lines have to be reframed to fit.

Ch. 16 - The Great Bridge of Myrrdin must have been a map these devs were proud of because it shows up in every route. The most notable aspect of this fight is the post-battle where all the noble Deer go back to visit their families while Claude introduces Byleth to Nardel. Nardel reveals himself as an Almayran general in a couple of chapters, so it’s nice they gave the character and introduction here.

Ch. 17 - This is the rematch at Gronder Field. For keeps this time. This fight happens in all non-CF routes, but in Silver Snow, it occurs off-screen since you hold no allegiance to any of the territories. The dynamic between the Kingdom and Alliance is always odd in this one. Because of an interception of messages, the Kingdom and Alliance can’t connect with each other, and thus you have two anti-Empire groups fighting each other for no adequate reason. Then again, you have a decidedly anti-Rhea Alliance leader fighting alongside the Church of Seiros and a victim of TWSD using their power to try and end the war.

War makes for strange bedfellows.

Anyway, Dimitri dies in the post-Gronder cutscene off-screen. Oddly, he only gets one on-screen death despite dying in every non-Lion route. We then get a scene of Dedue swearing revenge, and thus Dimitri’s obsession has been passed on to a new host.

The most important sequence here is that Lysithea mentions the mages from TWSD. She gives her backstory of how she was experimented on (which is virtually identical to Edelgard’s descriptions of the experiments in her C+ support) and thus we start to try to turn this story to make TWSD the main final bosses of the game.

Admittedly, they are the most unambiguously evil group of the game, but their most important actions were in White Clouds, and while they are still a threat, it holds less emotional weight as the very personal fights the game is currently putting the player through.

Ch. 18 - Here is the Fort Merceus fight. Some of Claude’s best moments are in this chapter, specifically how he convinces the Empire’s army to let them in and how he springs the Almayran forces on the Alliance army as a new ally. So much of what Claude’s been planning is unveiled here, but at this point it’s too late to object. It’s a great move on his part strategically.

This is also where the Javelins of Light come down and destroy the fort. It was an act of desperation, and it was one that TWSD likely regretted because it gave away their location to Hubert.

Ch. 19 and 20 - The start of the month gives a scene where the Deer basically explain the wind metaphor, and honestly it’s kind of fitting. They see Claude as the wind that pushes them forward, which is generally what he does. He likes to place people in the right location, even if no one but him knows what position that’s supposed to be.

Also notable is that Claude talks about how Fodlan must be united under one ruler, and the only answer Byleth can give to disappoint him is to volunteer for the role. This actually does a good job of informing Claude’s character. He wants the Fodlan leader to be selfless and in line with the kind of leader Plato would have described as “a philosopher king,” one who is reluctant to hold the position. It does make sense that having ambitions to lead would not be what Claude wants, though if Byleth doesn’t want to lead, it is a rude move on his part.

Anyway, Ch. 20 is called “Conclusion of the Crossing Roads,” and it shares the name with the same battle in Silver Snow. I’ll be honest: This battle holds a lot more meaning in SS than VW. Wanting to walk the path with Edelgard, Edelgard confessing she did as well, the tragedy of her character… all these things read better when you had her as a student for an entire year.

That said, I hold the VW version in high regard anyway because it speaks to the overall importance of the Edelgard-Byleth dynamic. It’s an overriding theme of the entire game, and even in the most disconnected route, it finds a way to have meaning.

Explanations for everything are hinted at when you rescue Rhea, but the game drags them out… again.

Ch. 21 - The fight in Shambhala is the one fight I’d have liked to see in an epilogue for CF. I know the methods with which the Adrestian Empire would take them out would not resemble this one (because Edelgard would know a frontal assault would likely lead to the Javelins coming down), but there would have to be a way to work in a battle similar to this.

Anyway, there’s not much of importance in this chapter other than the destruction of the TWSD base and Rhea nearly destroying herself stopping the missiles. Nemesis gets revived as a result of all this, and thus we get to the final chapter.

Ch. 22 - “God-shattering Star” is the best final boss theme I’ve ever heard in any game and that alone makes this fight great. We do get a glimpse of the future Claude had in mind after the battle, and the power of friendship speech is great and all, but really, the bulk of this chapter is front-loaded.

Rhea’s account of the fight between her people and TWSD does a good job of explaining why the crests and Relics exist, though it doesn’t really go into why she felt like these remnants of her own people’s genocide should be given positions of prominence in the Church.

Ultimately, I see the maintaining of her people’s blood and bones as a means of A) honoring her loved ones, and B) having Nabatean blood on hand for her “questionable” resurrection experiments.

In all seriousness, for all her talk that she was going to give Claude and Byleth the full truth, she handwaves the crimes against humanity stuff pretty quickly. It’s only in Silver Snow that you get those details. As for the war details themselves, they do a fine job of setting Rhea up as a victim in this too, but it is worth noting that we only get her perspective on the matter. DLC content (which I go over in that blog) seems to indicate the dispute was fear-based so I’d be curious to see a past in which both nations are active.

Anyway, Verdant Wind is a great deal of fun, though it is not as morally black-and-white as many try to make it. As this blog has shown, this is the ‘ulterior motive’ route through and through. And for all the truth we gain, the most important truth is just how much people like Claude and Rhea can leave out while still claiming to be transparent.

It’s a lore-heavy route that would be a one-time-only playthrough if not for the excellent banter of the cast keeping the story from simply being exposition and nothing else. It’s definitely one to play once, and who knows? Maybe more.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Analysis - Cindered Shadows (DLC route)

The following is a series on Fire Emblem: Three Houses that analyzes the story elements, characters and theming. For reference, here are the links to each one:

Intro/Basic review, White Clouds (Common Part 1), Cindered Shadows (Ashen Wolves DLC Route - Part 1.5), Crimson Flower (Black Eagles/Eagle House Part 2, Adrestia route), Silver Snow (Black Eagles/Eagle House Part 2, Church route), Azure Moon (Blue Lions/Lion House Part 2), Verdant Wind (Golden Deer/Deer House Part 2) Non-house leader characters (Eagle, Deer, Lion, Church) Music analysis (very surface level)

PART 1.5: Cindered Shadows, or, The Make-up on Each Storyline’s Face

Lucky for me, Cindered Shadows is a Part 1.5 in the same way Lion King 1 ½ was a part 1.5 - it exists to bring support characters into the main narrative but is fairly easy to ignore in the long run.

Ultimately, the DLC content is there so you can have some new, distinct challenge levels and have a bunch of lore to parse through. Those are not aspects that particularly interest me in the grand scheme of this game. What interests me more from this DLC is how it informs the characters we already know of in the main game.

For the sake of people who never bought the DLC, I will do a quick rundown of the storyline in play:

The three house leaders, Byleth, and a separate representative from each house (Linhardt, Ashe and Hilda) go through a passageway to an underground dwelling beneath Garreg Mach where the “social undesirables” seem to be living.

This is where we meet five notable characters: Aelfric, a major church leader and former friend to Byleth’s mother, Sitri; Yuri, a former hitman/former adopted noble who feels like Claude if his expertise was more exclusive to Fodlan; Balthus, a former noble who abandoned his house and is friends with Hilda’s family; Constance, a disgraced former noble who is prone to manic-depressive episodes; and Hapi, a rural girl who was imprisoned by a TWSD-led insurrectionist group in the Kingdom.

As it turns out, each of the teens is part of a secret fourth house called the Ashen Wolves, and they have been helping Aelfric find a chalice that will help resurrect the dead. Unbeknownst to the Wolves, each is a descendant of four apostles who had helped Rhea try to resurrect Sothis ages ago, and Aelfric (who is creepily obsessed with Sitri) is using the four to find the chalice and resurrect her (at the cost of the four’s lives).

Through this failed plot, Rhea eventually reveals that Byleth has Sitri’s heart because Byleth’s heart wasn’t beating at birth. This leads to Aelfric transforming into a giant beast. The subsequent victory grants the Wolves status to walk the above-ground world again.

As I said, The story itself is fairly basic and uninteresting. What matters to me is how the four Wolves affect other characters and help shape the larger plot as a whole.

Let’s deal with the main thing we learned from all of this: Sitri gave Byleth her heart because ours wasn’t beating, and yet Byleth still has no heartbeat even as an adult and with the transplant. This, of course, adds to the mystery of what is going on with Byleth, and it isn’t until one of the Part 2s that we are finally given explicit confirmation that Sitri’s heart was Sothis’s heart, aka the Crest stone of Flames.

The impact of this, plus the whole resurrection attempt, seem to do more to paint Rhea’s motivations and much of what she does as a byproduct of grief. This is not a DLC story that reflects extremely poorly on Rhea as a person, when all is taken into consideration, but it does speak miserably of her as a leader.

Nothing is more damning to Rhea’s entire history than the library of Abyss, where Seteth has apparently been busy burying and burning texts that might give away uncomfortable truths about the world. Rather than paragraph form, here’s a short list of all the insane revelations that were censored:

  • A letter explaining an issue regarding Crest-based marriage and how it affected the breakup of House Daphnel of the Alliance. As a reminder, House Daphnel lost its ‘five major houses of the Alliance’ status before the start of the game. Additionally, since the writer was a daughter of Riegan, it’s possible that this hidden letter held pertinent details for Claude and Judith.

  • Multiple papers outlining the close relationship between Seiros and the first Emperors of Adrestia. One of which was a recipe that was meant to be prepared at the crowning of the emperors. As a reminder, Seiros/Rhea was traditionally present at every crowning since the Empire’s founding, until Edelgard got her turn.

  • A book/possible novel that Seteth had removed told a story about the early Empire, making particular note of a romantic relationship between the first emperor and Seiros/Rhea. It was likely removed due to both its less-than-academic nature as well as its peak behind the curtain at Seiros’s private life. Seteth appears hell-bent on keeping his family’s identities secret.

  • In a slightly hilarious twist, Seteth destroyed a love manual that specifically references a “love garland” named for Saint Cethleann. (If I haven’t mentioned it, Seteth and Flayn are Saints Cichol and Cethleann, respectively.) I’m going to assume this was removed at about the point where Flayn started living at Garreg Mach.

  • A report that seems to indicate Loog and the Kingdom of Faerghus managed their rebellion through the assistance of TWSD and other questionable individuals. Since they were using Heroes’ Relics (or at least close approximation replicas) and were the descendants of the 10 Elites, it seems the Church granted legitimacy to the Kingdom in order to maintain their false history and (possibly) avoid direct conflict with the Relics.

  • A report that the King of Faerghus was assassinated and a will faked to give nobles the idea that the Kingdom was meant to be split among three heirs, hence why a segment of nobles may have founded the Leicester Alliance in the first place.

  • A document that indicates that the Western Church was deeply critical of the Central Church after the Tragedy at Duscur and that the “dogma” of the church’s false history might get tested. It seems, to me, to imply that Lord Lonato’s son, Christophe, may have been targeted for silencing because he was a prominent critic.

  • A report that seems to believe Duke Riegan’s son was killed by Lorenz’s father so that a new noble house might take control. This obviously was thwarted by Claude’s arrival.

  • A book with a fake insect title that gave a list of scientific achievements that Rhea had suppressed - among them are a telescope/binoculars, crude oil, a printing press and autopsies as a procedure in general. Given that a standardized method of organizing bookshelves is absent, and the purchase of a single book set back Ashe severely, we can assume that books largely remain available in elite households, academies and the church itself.

  • An Agarthian text that sees the arrival of Sothis as their culture’s equivalent to the anti-Christ. Sothis, in their opinion, would bring down a great flood to drown everyone and wipe out the world. Given the Sothis we see in the game, I’m inclined to believe that the Agarthians were superstitious and prone to reactionary hysterics (can’t imagine that happening today!), but it does nonetheless inform why the group acts as it does.

  • A confessional from an early priest who seems to have realized the Heroes’ Relics were not made from a traditionally forged material. Though they lacked the words at the time, there’s a clear implication they understand the weapons are made from dragon bones and that the 10 Elites may not have been gifted these weapons.

  • A memoir from one of the Elites (likely Maurice, the Erased Hero). It seems that the false history was already being perpetuated by the Empire at the time they were fighting Nemesis because this Elite thought Nemesis was a divinely ordained king. This lack of understanding may be why Rhea didn’t simply wipe out the bloodlines.

  • A long discussion of how the first Emperor and Seiros altered the calendar to create an effective soft reboot of time. This made history harder to track from before the Empire’s creation and would help mask Seiros and her race’s histories and identities.

Long story short, Rhea (and Seteth, via the execution of these orders) have clouded the histories of the world to the point that no one is able to get an accurate idea of what is happening in this world. Even Sothis, the progenitor, has her memory wiped out. 

There is A LOT of deception here that has forced the church to double- and triple-down on lies. Heck, the whole reason three houses exist in the game is because the Kingdom rebelled, and that is because of the false dogma THE CHURCH wrote. What blows my mind is that Rhea has espoused so much false information that she actually internalizes a lot of it. She’s mad that the Western Church is rebelling due to a disagreement over how the rules SHE MADE UP should be followed. On one hand, yes, she wrote them, but on the other hand, SHE WROTE THEM, not Sothis.

One of the side quests that is particularly damaged by this information is the paralogue where you help Seteth and Flayn protect his wife’s grave. At the time, I understood his emotions far better than the Western Church. You don’t deface an innocent’s grave. But it feels like more of a self-inflicted wound considering he used his wife’s grave as the site for his tomb when he faked his death.

Heck, just consider how uncomfortable the whole battle is. The Western Church believes the Central Church is failing to uphold the ideals espoused in the false narrative the archbishop crafted herself. They seek to take Cichol’s gravesite to protect it from defacement, only to have Saint Cichol and his daughter march down to personally execute them. There is something deeply unsettling about how hard Seiros and Cichol fight to maintain this false narrative to everyone, to the point that they fight as if the made-up histories they concocted are true.

Anyway, I’d like to talk about the four Ashen Wolves to close this blog out and how they affect the main story. They won’t get the same character studies as the main houses, but I do feel they should get some discussion.

Yuri - Much like Claude, Yuri is someone who has had to rely on his wits to survive and has a full understanding of what it’s like to not have noble privilege. Unlike Claude, however, his grand ambitions were only ever about protecting those he cared about. This was likely sparked by his hesitancy to assassinate Bernadetta when he had been contracted to do so. I take this to mean that Yuri is less willing to see people in a transactional light, the way Claude does.

My explanation of the two as parallels of each other may be best described using Batman and Green Arrow. Both are attempting to stop crime in a city full of corruption. Both are unfathomably wealthy. Oliver Queen, however, has lived with nothing, both when he was on the deserted island and when he lost his fortune. As such, Green Arrow sees corruption at the top as the biggest problem and focuses the bulk of his work on stopping white-collar crime.

Batman’s origins are tied to street crime, and so while he does deal with crime bosses, his abilities are spent dealing with the street-level, everyday criminals in hopes it will lead to a bigger fish. Batman fights through the symptoms, hoping a path to the root cause will reveal itself. Green Arrow directly targets the root cause and only brushes against the symptoms if they get in his way.

I see Claude and Yuri similarly. Claude is trying to instill overarching change to the world, but he becomes so focused on the main issue that he forgets there are everyday problems that shouldn’t be pushed aside. Yuri prefers to help people on a personal level, but he has no real interest in the larger-scale world other than what avenues are available for him to navigate through it.

Interestingly, where this hurts Claude in terms of actual personal connections, it hurts Yuri, as he struggles to fully grasp the bigger picture when he’s not involved in it personally. Probably the worst example is where he goes through his history with Count Varley to Bernadetta. His conclusion is that he actually does care about her, but given what other things she’s gone through, that may not be a comforting place to leave such a conversation. 

Obviously, Yuri isn’t aware of what Bernadetta has been through, but it shows he’s very capable of blind spots when he gets close to a situation. He views things through his own lens and stops looking at what he might have missed while he was more removed from the situation.

In any case, I find Yuri uniquely suited in relation to Claude, and since he has little personal connection with anyone beyond Bernadetta, I don’t really see a particular route where he’s best suited.

Constance - So without question, Constance is best suited for the Eagle route - whether it be via Silver Snow or Crimson Flower - and that is due to her position as a disgraced former noble. Her obsession with regaining her status requires her to be of use to the Empire, so she has to in some way start by working with them.

While I’m not a particularly big fan of Constance’s relationship with Byleth, her supports with Ferdinand, Jeritza and Mercedes are excellent. It’s through Constance that I really thought the situation with House Bartels got a more human touch to it. It’s nice to see Mercedes and Jeritza have someone around them who knows of their old lives, and it’s all the more tragic if they’re on opposite sides during Part II.

Silver Snow appears to be her true path, as she still seems to hold Emperor Ionius and the much Imperial nobility in low regard after all of this. But she’s still so obsessed with regaining what she lost that joining a side determined to end its significance as a whole does seem out of character. (Admittedly, this is addressed with her supports with Edelgard, but she still strikes me as a character who you recruit to replace Hubert for Silver Snow.)

She’s also a unique character because of how visibly (through her manic and depressive sides) the loss of noble status affects her. It gets to the heart of how broken the system is that it can literally break someone in two.

Balthus - This string of supports probably gives you more information on Fodlan’s Throat and the Alliance than most of the Deer House. It’s also the only support that feels like it actually explains what happened with Claude’s life.

Balthus is the only one who actually deduces Claude’s origins before he reveals them and has somewhat of a connection to his mother (this conversation gets hilarious at points), so it’s great to see. His personal connection to Holst and, by extension, Hilda, also fits nicely into the larger story.

I will say, though, that because of the debt he feels he owes Count Ordelia, and the frustration with current society in general, I can see a real argument for Balthus being there for Crimson Flower. Without question, Verdant Wind is his main route, but his interests absolutely would align with CF, especially the part about protecting his brother from losing power to his mother (a system not based on blood would wipe out whatever footholds might give her a claim to influence).

Balthus is a pro-reform kind of guy and should be used in the pro-reform routes.

Hapi - I don’t fully understand why Hapi’s supports are mostly found in the Lion route, but I also kind of do.

On one hand, she has a personal connection to Anselma von Arundel/Lady Patricia, so she informs the backstory that Dimitri is so obsessed with. Ironically, she also reveals the tragedy of Dimitri and Edelgard losing their connection to each other. The way that Dimitri responds to Hapi’s backstory, I get a real sense that had Edelgard and he spoken to each other, they might have been allies.

It’s through Hapi that I fully understand the Tragedy of Duscur and what TWSD was trying to accomplish. Anselma had deep connections to Emperor Ionius and King Lambert, both of whom were trying to make reforms to the current system. Hapi reveals that Anselma believed Lambert had hidden Edelgard from her while Dimitri knows his father was never in a position to speak privately to her in the first place.

By keeping everyone’s origins hidden from each other, isolating Anselma and Edelgard while both were in the Kingdom, and turning Lambert into a scapegoat, they were able to orchestrate a massacre that should have wiped out the royal bloodline, but as a consolation, left them a prince too young to rule and obsessed with vengeance.

Rather than have the two strongest nations in the continent allied with each other, the two leaders were destined to go against each other. TWSD hoped that Edelgard would eventually wipe out Dimitri, then they could take her down once Fodlan was captured. (Only in Crimson Flower does Byleth tip the scales and put TWSD in a position where they hold no influence.)

So Hapi absolutely is needed in Azure Moon, and I love that Ashe’s pure idealism even wins her jaded heart over. Even so, I’d love an Edelgard support stream for Crimson Flower. They wouldn’t even have to bring up the connection to Dimitri; just the information that Hapi knew Edelgard’s mom and that she wanted to see her would be a worthwhile info-dump for Edelgard to have.

Hapi is vehemently against the Church of Seiros, so it seems natural to put her in Crimson Flower, but aside from Linhardt, she doesn’t have much to say to anyone.

Overall, I did like how much the characters and conflict were informed through this DLC, and it’s clear a lot of positives came from this run. Even so, a lot more could have been achieved.

As a final thought, I’d like to discuss my favorite character interaction in Cindered Shadows. In one of the exploration stages, you see Edelgard and Dimitri talking, and Dimitri asks if her hair was always white. Edelgard is confused how he would know about her younger, brown-haired self, but the two never talk any deeper about it, due to Edelgard’s wariness on the topic and Dimitri’s hesitancy to open up wounds from his past. 

It’s a cruel irony. The two leaders in CS actually do start the conversation that needed to be had in order to create an alliance between the two, which would have rendered TWSD obsolete for Edelgard’s purposes and left Fodlan’s leaders united in a desire for major reforms, to the point that the Church would have to adapt or fight a destined-to-fail war. Instead, the scars of the world they live in render them unable to speak further on the matter. And even if the conversation had happened, it would have had to navigate the fact that both now view the world in such opposite lights. The world itself is too damaged to allow for a “Golden Path,” and that is the greatest tragedy of Cindered Shadows.