What comes to your mind when you think of Cinderella? Do you think of a “Disney Princess” movie with a happily-ever-after ending? Perhaps Aschenputtel, a slightly darker piece of folklore collected by the Brothers Grimm, comes to mind. Maybe a few of you out there recall that 1980s glam metal band who named themselves after the Cinderella softcore adult film. To the folks at MoaCube, however, Cinderella is a shallow and unsatisfying tale of instant gratification that glosses over a veritable treasure trove of deeper questions that could potentially flesh out the bigger picture and create a more substantial story.
Ponder this. What if Cinderella weren’t a submissive little dishrag who passively waited for a magic miracle to change her life? What if she were the master of her own destiny? What if she chose not to pursue the fairy tale ending? And even if she did, why couldn’t it be on her terms? We know Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters abuse her, but what made them so cruel and hard-hearted? And what about the prince? Is there a brain or a personality behind his sickeningly handsome visage? Such simple questions like these may be the most difficult to answer and MoaCube answers with Cinders, a visual novel that presents the deepest, most complex, most original, and ultimately most compelling re-imagination of the Cinderella universe.
Our heroine, Cinders, is not the Cinderella you’re probably familiar with. Although she is subjugated by her stepmother and stepsisters, she is spunky, clever, and has a lot to say. She doesn’t passively accept her meager lot in life, but actively does what she can to improve it instead. A key part of shaping Cinders’ destiny lies in developing her relationship with her family. Conversations with the stepsisters reveal that they are not one-dimensional harpies and that it’s actually possible to feel sorry for them. In fact, all the characters are fleshed out in interesting ways and are not always what they seem. The prince, the fairy godmother, even new characters like the general store shopkeeper and the captain of the guard all have depth, personality, a story to tell, and secrets to uncover. I would love to say more about the dramatis personae, but doing so would reveal spoilers.
The trajectory of the story and of Cinders’ development is wholly dependent on player decision. Every decision, even the most subtle, matters. The most interesting ones are those that affect Cinders’ character development, such as whether she reacts to something her stepsisters say by placating them, sympathizing with them, or outright defying them. There are multiple paths and multiple endings, so replay value is immense. I had great fun playing Cinders as a defiant rebel the first time around and couldn’t wait to play again. Although I reluctantly played Cinders as the good girl the second time, I thoroughly enjoyed the resulting storyline, thanks to excellent dialogue and scenario scripting. Each of the four possible ending types has a bunch of variations as well. For example, if Cinders pursues the “fairy tale ending” by winning the heart of the prince and becoming queen, the type of queen she ultimately reigns as depends on the personality shaped by her decisions over the course of the game.
“Visual” is the first half of the term “visual novel,” and the visuals are stunning. Polish artist Gracjana Zielinska has crafted a marvelously drawn world. The scenery backdrops have meticulous detail and subtle animations here and there. The character portraits mesh really well with the backdrops and also have subtle animations like moving lips and changing facial expressions during dialogue. Not only is the visual design excellent, but the use of colors and textures is fantastic as well. I wish I could define the art style and explain why it’s as breathtaking as it is, but I don’t have that kind of expertise in art jargon. All I know is that Cinders is one of the most uniquely beautiful visual novels I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The atmosphere is further enhanced by Rob Westwood’s evocative soundtrack. Put simply, the heady classical-style compositions are wonderful. The pieces fit their respective locations and scenarios and never get tiring, even after multiple playthroughs. I simply cannot imagine this game without this particular soundtrack. Any other music or no music at all would simply not feel right. The only potential issue regarding sound may be the lack of voice acting, but I didn’t miss it in this game. The game is so great as it is that I wonder if even top-shelf voice acting would spoil the experience. Sometimes, it’s best to leave well-enough alone.
Just like Cinderella enchants the prince at the ball, Cinders grabbed my attention from the start and did not let me go. It even made me want to replay it immediately upon completion. Replaying visual novels is something I do often, but almost never without a break between playthroughs. With excellent writing, engaging storytelling, interesting characters, perplexing decisions, incredible visual style, and great music, Cinders is everything you could ever want from a visual novel and every fan of the genre should try it.