Circus Reviews - Cinders

I've been playing around with Cinders for a few weeks now, and have been meaning to write a review. But just tonight I saw the live-action 2015 version of Cinderella in theaters, and that reminded me to sit and get it done. (As for my thoughts on Cinderella: No real fleshing of the story, but some welcome depth to most of the characters, very impressive visuals, and an overall charming experience. Also, Robb Stark has a much better time with this marriage than with his last one. Har har.) So here I am!

Disclaimer: I am going to assume you know the basic tale of Cinderella. Even our main character, Cinders, knows the tale: she references it early on in the game, and decides that it might be a dangerous story for young girls to read, lest they develop a martyr-like attitude towards life. This visual novel adaptation, however, goes way beyond that. There are 120 decision points in the game, and each one changes the personality of your Cinders or your relationships with the other characters. What this gives us is a much-needed expansion on the original fairy tale, with all kinds of variants to how things can play out. You can take a path that is roughly the same as the true story, or you can shake things up in a bunch of different ways. Will you mend your relationships with your stepfamily? Try to romance an old friend or a new one? Retake your childhood home? Leave town to start anew? And how are you going to get all of this done when the chores aren't finished?

Cinders, our protagonist, lives with Carmosa, her stepmother and the lady of the house, and her two stepsisters Gloria and Sophia. Prince Basile rules from the palace, and a Fairy Godmother of sorts lives in the woods near your home. There are new characters added as well, most prominently in the form of your two potential love interests besides the prince. There's Tobias, a shop merchant and your childhood friend, and Perrault, the captain of the guard and a close friend of the prince. There's also Madame Ghede, a local healer who is constantly accused of witchcraft by the townsfolk, and a potential alternative to the traditional fairy godmother. And a shady character hangs on the edge of the story, holding cards that will change everything should you manage to get them revealed.

The characters from the original tale get the lion's share of development, and it serves to give them some refreshing and much-needed fleshing out. I love what's done with the stepfamily in particular, and my favorite of these three is the stepmother. Carmosa is given reasons for her behavior, and it gives her sympathy that was nowhere near present in the original version. At her core, she's a woman trying to do the best for her daughters, trying to give her family a life that she didn't always have. Sure, she's an abrasive personality at her nicest and she's abusive to all three of the girls under her care, but she's also been seriously warped by her past experiences. It doesn't excuse it at all, but it does explain it. Gloria and Sophia are similarly developed, and it's shown what they've become as a result of their mother's ambitions. Gloria is so fully consumed with her goal of impressing her mother that she has almost no personality outside of it, while Sophia hides behind a shell of bitter cynicism and lashes out at everyone around her. Your relationships with all three are pretty bad, needless to say, but your decisions can help change them for the better...or they can shatter them beyond all repair; it's up to you.

The story branches out quite a bit due to all the decision points. There are four basic endings, but each ending has a set of variants depending on who you've befriended, who you've romanced, and what kind of character you've played. It certainly promotes replayability; going through one playthrough isn't so long when compared to other visual novels, but getting each variant for each ending is going to take more time. The problem is that going back to get the different variants takes a while, and your ultimate reward is one different line in your ending text. There is a skip mode that lets you speed through any lines you've already read, which is pretty standard for a visual novel. However, you get kicked out of skip mode whenever you're introduced to a new character, which of course happens a lot in the beginning of the game, or when the scene changes, which is a lot throughout the whole game. If you're just going back through to get to a different ending, you're going to have to reactivate the skip mode a lot. Also, the game pauses if you click outside the window, so you have to watch it do all the skipping as well. It's a nitpicky complaint, but still an annoying one.

Presentation-wise, outside of the above complaint, the game excels. The art has a wildly different aesthetic than most visual novels, but it's simply gorgeous. Backgrounds are beautifully detailed, and the character sprites are quite expressive. I don't really like the way that the sprites glow when someone is talking, but that's more of a personal issue and I can't call it a design flaw.

Overall, the themes here are more adult than what the original fairy tale provides. At its heart, the story is about growing up, learning the consequences of your actions, finding the multiple sides that everyone has to their character. Nothing is necessarily as it seems. Your stepfamily is probably the biggest example of this, but another big one is one of your possible fairy godmothers, the actual fairy. She is creepy, frustratingly vague, and makes constant references to a price for her help that she refuses to define. It's strongly implied, however, that she'll definitely be coming to collect on it. You get the impression that you've just sold your soul to go to a ball...Is that really worth it?

So in front of you is, at its heart, a fairy tale. But your choices shape it into something more: a relateable story about life, love, family, responsibility, and adulthood. If you're looking for an updated, more mature retelling of a classic story, you've found the right game.

Also, there are no talking mice. Which is great.

Cinders is available on Steam or directly from the developer.

Final verdict: A high quality adaptation of a fairy tale that expands on its source material in countless ways, boosted by beautiful art and wonderful characterization, Cinders is a great game, even if getting to 100% completion is frustrating as hell.

Cinders is developed by Moa Cube. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I was not compensated in any way for this review.

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