Chances are good you’ve never heard of the term “visual novel.” If you have, then you either associate it with Japanese sex games or are a fan of the genre who knows better. I’ll save those in the latter category some reading and say up front that you should buy Cinders because it’s one of the best Western visual novels I’ve read. Everyone else might want to read on to find out more about this game, and the genre it occupies.
Visual novels are fully illustrated choose-your-own adventures. You’re shown a static medium-long frame of the characters in the scene. Their dialogue is displayed one line at a time, which you click through to read. Every so often, you’ll be given a choice of what to do, what to say or how to react, and these decisions affect the outcome of the story in meaningful ways. I liken the experience to watching a play in that there’s no dynamism of perspective, and an emphasis on dialogue over prose.
Cinders retells the tale of Cinderella in the form of a visual novel. Titular protagonist Cinders is an orphan girl who is trying to get out of the clutches of her domineering stepmother any way she can. She has two step-sisters who are as cruel to her as they are to each other. There’s a prince and a masked ball, and a couple of fairy godmothers to choose from, one literal and the other not. The plot takes place in the days leading up to and during the ball, after which you are shown a resolution that depends on your choices in the game.
The production values are excellent for an indie visual novel. The art eschews the genre’s de facto doe-eyed anime look in favor of a painterly Western style that is very distinct. What’s more, the backgrounds also contain subtle animations that give the game a much greater feeling of life compared to others in the genre. The music suits the fairy tale theme perfectly, although at times it is too “generic fairy tale” for my tastes, but it never gets in the way of the experience, as any good music track should. The sound effects, what little there are, are similarly well-suited. There is no voice-work, but I didn’t mind that.
The writing, though, is the star of any visual novel, and that’s where things get a bit more iffy. The plot itself is engaging and kept me interested just to see how it all turns out, but the actual script made me roll my eyes constantly. Every character in the game constantly spouts misguided observations about life that’s supposed to make them seem wise, but makes them appear childish instead. Cinders herself is the worst of the lot and, to add insult to injury, she gets praised for having such a “mature” outlook, even by characters who should know better. It’s enough to make me want to reach into the screen and slap the poor girl.
And yet, thematically, the inanity fits. Cinders is a young adult coming to grips with her burgeoning maturity and the reality of world around her, so it’s only natural that she’d want to share the ridiculously stupid observations that enter into her head, just like every other person her age. I’m not convinced this was a deliberate choice on the writer’s part, because the script is also filled with ham-handed and unnecessary exposition. Cinders is, again, the primary vector for this, feeling the need to monologue the obvious at every turn, especially at the end of each day where she recaps everything that just happened.
There’s very little finesse exhibited in the writing but the plot alone is strong enough to keep you engaged all the way to the end. There’s a lot of depth added to the original Cinderella story, with some interesting side characters, events, and twists that make it worthwhile to see. Trying to figure out how to get the four major endings, along with their variants, is similarly compelling, especially since the plot changes a fair bit depending on the choices you make.
99% of indie visual novels are made with the free Ren’Py engine, but MoaCube opted to roll their own engine using GameMaker instead. This has the benefit of making Cinders feel unique from other VNs, but also means that some of the niceties that the mature Ren’Py engine (as well as the proprietary engines used by bigger VN publishers) offers are missing or limited. The biggest issue is the lack of full keyboard support. There are some keyboard shortcuts, but you can’t control decision-making without reaching for the mouse.
Another problem is with auto-read. It exists, but you can’t set the pace the text is displayed at. I’m usually a pretty fast reader, but even I have a hard time keeping up in spots. If you’re a slow reader, you’re not going to be able to play with auto-read on because it just goes by too quickly, which means you’re going to be spending a lot of time clicking through dialogue. Both of these are minor issues, however, and I don’t think they’d be a dealbreaker to anyone.
Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?
Here’s where it gets tricky. Cinders costs just shy of $23, which is pretty steep for a three hour experience with limited interactivity. Trying to get the various endings will extend that playtime significantly (my 6 hours netted me about four variants), but you can certainly get “more” game for less money in other offerings. However, the price is also much less than what the usual visual novel runs (we’re talking $60 – $75 dollars here), and considering it’s the best visual novel I’ve played to date, I think it’s a steal. So, yes, Cinders is worth the money, especially if you’re a fan of the genre.
Cinders Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 6 hrs
- Widescreen Support – Yes
- 5.1 Audio Support – No
- Bugs/Crashes Encountered – None
- Control Scheme – Mouse
- DRM – None
- System Specs – AMD A6 @ 1.6 Ghz, Radeon integrated graphics, 6GB RAM
- Game Acquisition Method—Review Copy
- Availability – Moacube
- Demo – Yes
- Version – 1.0.5