Cinderella is an incredibly well-known story: a poor girl gets stuck living with her awful stepmother and stepsisters who treat her like a maid until one day she wows the prince at a masquerade ball and they live happily ever after. But what if Cinderella just wanted to escape, or she wanted to take back the home that was left to her stepmother and make it her own? What if the stepmother had her reasons for being awful, and the stepsisters did as well?
Cinders is a visual novel that allows players to explore these possibilities and more. Choose your own fate and chase your dreams, but be careful you don’t turn out just as rotten as your stepmother… or worse!
Developer: MoaCube / Crunching Koalas
Publisher: Crunching Koalas
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by publisher
Interface: Handheld Switch console
Available on Switch and Steam
Cinders is a witty young woman living with an overbearing stepmother and her two daughters, as if she was reenacting a certain well-known fairy tale. But unlike its protagonist, Cinders is not afraid of taking fate into her own hands. Even if it means breaking the rules…
The game takes a look at four women and what made them who they are. It’s a story about freedom, dreams, sisterhood, and finding your own Happily Ever After that may not exactly agree with the stale morals of classic fairytales.
With multiple endings, 120 decision points, and over 300 choices, Cinders gives you total control over the main character’s personality and how her story unfolds.
I love story-driven games, but I’d never played a visual novel until Cinders (not counting Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, but I never want to think about that game again). I loved the idea of taking a very basic, simple fairytale and expanding upon it, and I figured it would be a great starting point into the world of visual novels. Heck, my “day job” is as a book reviewer, so combining gaming and books sounded like a dream come true.
Cinders ended up being pretty much exactly what I expected, but slightly better in almost every way. The game begins a week before the prince’s ball, but Cinders doesn’t know anything about that yet. Instead, her life is pretty much exactly as you’d expect it: she cooks, she cleans, and she gets berated, insulted, and mocked. Heck, even her name is a mockery of her existence. In fact, the explanation of the title was one of my favorite things about the game: she was nicknamed Cinders by her father because of the color of her hair, but her new family decided that it would be funny if she lived amongst the cinders in their home.
Despite her crappy existence, you’re given choices of how to interact with your family and what to do right from the start. You can treat your stepsisters just as badly as they treat you and rebel against your stepmother’s wishes, or you can suck it up and be the better person. There are additional, unique characters added to the story as well, such as a childhood friend who has become a merchant, a “witch” with a mysterious link to your family, and the prince’s right-hand man with an unshakable sense of duty. These characters have some real depth to them, and you’ll only get to see a little of that depth with each playthrough, depending on your choices.
The gameplay of Cinders is incredibly straightforward: you read dialogue, you get presented with choices, and you make said choices. That’s basically it! There’s no movement (aside from selecting from a map at specified moments), there are no puzzles (aside from figuring out how to get the endings you want), and there are no minigames to play. You don’t have to worry about stats or inventory or anything aside from choices, and you’re given an unlimited amount of time to make each choice. That isn’t to say the game is simple by any means; according to the developers, there are 155,000 words in the game, 135 scenes, and 120 choices to make. The game contains 50 profile variables to track how you relate to different characters and what kind of ending you’ll get. None of this is voiced, mind you, but I’d say that’s fair given how many lines of dialogue there are. I play the vast majority of my games muted anyway, and I read far faster than people speak, so I really didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything.
The first playthrough took a bit over 3 hours, but there was still loads to do. In fact, I spent about as much time with subsequent playthroughs as I did with the first, despite my heavy use of skip mode that allows players to get through a run in less than half an hour. Skip mode is a brilliant feature, and it’s one I almost missed entirely. Pressing the skip mode button sets things in fast forward, automatically continuing on until you exit skip mode, you’re given a choice to make, or you’re presented with dialogue you haven’t seen yet. This is amazing since there are four completely different endings to unlock, and when you include all of the potential possibilities of each ending, there are over 300! For example, if you end up with the fairytale ending (as queen), you can be one of four types of queens, you can have one of four love interests (you heard right, being married to the prince doesn’t mean he’s necessarily the one you love, or that he loves you!), and you can have one of four advisers (including none at all). These are all decided by the choices you make, and every time you play through the game you unlock those individual attributes in the Endings section. As you unlock more, you can mix and match them, although you’ll only see the last several screens of the ending if you make up an ending this way. The game shows you what percentage of the variants are found, and completionists will be incredibly busy unlocking them all. With all of my experimenting and messing around, I’ve only found about 60% of all of the variants, and it would’ve taken me far longer to figure out the fourth type of ending without help from the developer’s wiki. Without spoiling anything, I really wish there was a fifth major type of ending though. There’s a specific element in the game that seemed like it should have far bigger repercussions, but instead, it has minimal effect on the story. This would be a big deal if the other endings weren’t so terrific; the slightest changes in endings could lead to learning more about the world of Cinders. I was frequently blown away that the 5th, 7th, 10th, etc. times I played through the game I was still finding out more about various characters and seeing people in a new light.
I loved the themes Cinders explores. For one, the concept of choice itself is shown not only for Cinders (as you can see in the image above) but for everyone else in her life. The whole premise of Cinderella is that the titular heroine is trapped, unable to live her own life until magic intervenes. Even then, how does the story end? She marries a prince she knows almost nothing about, all to escape her former life. But in Cinders, you’re able to choose from all sorts of possibilities, and merely the fact that Cinders is making choices for herself is miraculous to her. But that’s the thing about starting to make choices for yourself: when you feel trapped for so long, every choice seems better than your current life, no matter where it leads. Who hasn’t blown a bunch of money after getting their first job, or eaten way more than they should the first time they have spending money at a fast food place? For Cinders, there are plenty of bad choices too. Then there are the other characters, who have gotten exactly where they are in life due to the choices they’ve made, or the lack thereof. Numerous characters are doing what their parents did, and feel just as trapped or indebted to their families as Cinders does, although they find themselves happier about it because of their attitudes. Even Cinders’ stepmother has made choices for reasons that make more and more sense as you discover her secrets, although she could still be less of a jerk.
The game does a terrific job with other topics and themes as well. The writers make light of the idea of Cinders settling down with the prince without really knowing anything about him, among other things. I appreciated the way that nearly every character is likable, even the ones that shouldn’t be. One of Cinders’ stepsisters, for example, is as sarcastic and bitter as I’d be in her position. The romanceable characters are likable, cool dudes, and I personally think Cinders would be happy with any of them (depending on how you play it). The “fairytale ending” of becoming queen is even deeper than just fairytale love, and if you play things wrong (or right, depending on your point of view) you can take control of the entire kingdom with an iron fist.
Cinders is terrific for fans of visual novels or “mature fairytales”, and folks who love twists on stories they already know well will especially get a kick out of it. However, this doesn’t limit who can enjoy the game – while the developers call this “a mature take on Cinderella,” it has a teen rating for a reason. While some adult things can happen, there are no sordid details and things never get any kind of gory or overly naughty. But if you’re the type of person who skips through dialogue, you’re definitely in the wrong place.