I recently played through the visual novel Cinders, a project created by the indie game studio MoaCube. To be more accurate, I played through it nine times, partially because I wanted to be a Good Journalist and ensure I’d seen a wide variety of plot lines, but mostly because it was just that fun. So, spoiler alert: I loved it. I loved the hell out of it.
Cinders helpfully opens up with a brief guide that explains what a visual novel is, so even if you’ve never even heard of a visual novel before you won’t be lost. I’ll simplify it further: If you can read and click a mouse, you can play Cinders.
As the name implies, Cinders is a retelling of the classic tale of Cinderella. On MoaCube’s website, developer Tom Grochowiak states that, “Of all the fairytales, we picked Cinderella because we honestly don’t like it.” Citing the story’s passive protagonist and weak message, they set out to change it. “We want our Cinders to be a clever, active woman who makes her own choices,” the website reads. “Even if she goes for the fairytale ending, it should be her decision.” It’s a distinctly feminist re-telling of the old folk tale – instead of our titular heroine pining helplessly and silently tolerating her abuse, she resolves to change her life through her own actions and choices. The story told in Cinders also focuses almost entirely on the lives of the four women in the story – Cinders, her stepsisters, and her stepmother. While it’s entirely possible for Cinders to find the love of her life over the course of the story, the game’s focus is not on romance, and the female protagonist is not defined by her love life. Visual novels have a tendency to make female-centric games all about romance, so to see this attitude gone is a breath of fresh air.
It’s always difficult for visual novels to make protagonists both relatable and three-dimensional. To an extent, the player is meant to put themselves into the character’s shoes, but the protagonist also has to be a distinct, unique character with a personality of their own. Cinders manages to blend these attributes perfectly in order to create a player character who is immensely likable and memorable, while still allowing the player to shape her the way they see fit. Cinders’ dialogue and inner thoughts are witty and clever while remaining real enough to be believable. Of course, depending on your choices throughout the game, you can influence her personality. Is the Cinders of this story ruthless and cunning, willing to do anything to ensure her freedom? Does she do what’s expected of her, pushing aside her own happiness? No matter which path Cinders heads down, she’s always written consistently and brilliantly.
The other characters in the story are just as intriguing. Cinders’ stepsisters, Sophia and Gloria, are far from the ugly and evil caricatures so often seen in the traditional story. The interactions with them are some of the most interesting in the story, and reveal a lot about their own distinct personalities. The classic evil stepmother caricature is gone too, replaced with a complex woman named Lady Carmosa. She still makes our heroine’s life miserable, but she isn’t painted with a broad brush of negative traits. If you take the time, there’s a lot more to learn and see about her – I don’t want to spoil anything about your interactions with Carmosa or the stepsisters, because those were some of my favorite moments in the game. There are other characters that really stand out as well, such as Madame Ghede, a strong woman who defies the traditional idea of a fairy godmother, and the captain of the guard, a potential friend and love interest for Cinders. Getting to know these characters, and replaying the game to find out more about them, is where so much of the joy lies in experiencing this visual novel.
While the gameplay itself of Cinders (or any visual novel) is simple, Moacube has really gone the extra mile to emphasise player choice. In a lot of visual novels, you might only get to make choices rarely – in the lengthy horror VN Saya no Uta, for example, you’re only asked to make a decision twice. Cinders has a whopping 120 decision points, which is pretty staggering. What’s more is that every single choice impacts something. Nothing is a pointless decision, no matter how small it may seem initially. The game also does a great job of using intrinsic rewards to drive this point home even further. After every choice is clicked, a small sound effect plays that manages to sound both ominous and exciting at the same time. During some scenes, a small branch will appear in the top right corner of the screen, signifying that there’s a different way the scene you’re watching could play out. These additions, while small, made me even more excited to replay the game. All these choices will lead you to one of four ending scenarios, but these scenarios all have variables that make sure every playthrough leads to something new. In one of the scenarios alone, there are sixteen possible combinations of ending variants to discover. I haven’t even come close to scratching the surface after nine playthroughs, and I fully plan on diving back in again soon.
The writing in a visual novel is always the most important aspect, but Cinders manages to impress graphically as well. Cinders is truly one of the most stunning games I’ve ever seen, with beautiful art by the absurdly talented Gracjana Zielinska. Every background and character took my breath away – even the menu screen is gorgeous! The artwork is so complex and detailed that sometimes I found myself just staring at my screen long after I’d finished reading the text on screen. Screenshots don’t even do it justice. In every background, there are details that make everything all the more pleasing – sunflowers gently swaying in the sunlight, a crackling fireplace, lanterns slowly swinging back and forth. This level of detail is present on all the characters as well. Some of their facial expressions in particular are excellent (Gloria’s sad face broke my heart), and the way their eyes slowly shift around is a great touch. This is all topped off by a memorable and mood-setting score that, importantly, never once becomes tiresome.
Cinders is the complete package, and there’s something for everyone to enjoy and appreciate. It offers a fresh spin on a fairytale everyone knows, turning a story about silent suffering into a bold tale about a smart young woman taking control of her life. You can purchase Cinders from MoaCube’s website for both PC and Mac, or download the demo if you’re on the fence. I strongly urge you to at least give the demo a try, even if you’ve never played a visual novel, or if you don’t tend to like VNs. It’s a story well worth experiencing.