A word of warning about Cinders: there isn’t a bibbidy-bobbidy-boo in sight. This isn’t a Disney spin-off, by any means. Nor is it an attempt to shove the traditional Cinderella foot into a visual-novel glass slipper. Instead, developer MoaCube have taken a refreshingly new approach; a revisionist story that waves a magic wand and turns the helpless, stay-at-home Cinderella into someone altogether modern, and the result is fascinating.
The story starts at the end, which seems to be customary nowadays, and then rewinds to a point seven days before the Prince’s masquerade ball. You play Cinders, coerced into doing manual jobs around the house by her stepmother, Lady Carmosa, while being heckled by two (not at all ugly) stepsisters, Sophia and Gloria. So far, so familiar – until the dialogue options hit. Rather than being demure and accepting, you get the chance to add a bit of snark. There’s passive-aggressive snark, self-righteous snark and full-on firebrand snark. Even if you choose the most neutral of options, you’ll find that the scripted elements bring back the snark regardless. Cinders has a bit more crackle than you might expect, then, which is a good thing: no one wants to play a game with antiquated values that casts you as the scullery maid.
Also unlike the Cinderella stories you might know, Cinders spends more time outside of the house than in it. It’s a bit of a wrinkle in the believability, as Cinders wants us to believe that she is a housebound slave, but then she regularly wakes up at noon and travels to the local town on a whim. You soon overlook it; it wouldn’t be much fun to play a visual novel set in a single dungeon room (your tastes may differ here). A Cemetery, Forest, Town and Palace can all be travelled to from the house.
There are choices out there, beyond just dialogue. Press materials reliably inform me that there are 300 different choices to be made, and that feels about right. They fall into roughly three categories, but aren’t labelled as such: romantic choices that determine who you might want to run away with; relationship choices with your immediate family, which is largely a tug-of-war with your sisters; and choices around your plan – what you will do to escape your drudgery. These all culminate in a bunch of different endings.
This highlights one of the real draws for Cinder: you don’t have to follow the traditional path of the fairytale at all. You can elope. You can blackmail. You can murder. In fact, definitely don’t do what I did and have a first-time playthrough that adheres to the traditional story. You’ll miss the good stuff and misunderstand why Cinders is so interesting. The game thoroughly encourages you to go off piste and etch-a-sketch the story in completely different directions.
And you will want to see those different directions. Cinders is short, only two hours long at the very most, but it’s been designed from the ground up to be replayed. You can press Y to skip any sequences you have seen before. You unlock new ending options for future playthroughs. With every different ending, you will update and change the title screen of the game (and unlock achievements to boot), which is such a cheap but effective idea. With these features, replays will soon become 10 minutes long.
There is real narrative craftsmanship in creating a structure that allows for so much divergence and replayability. I occasionally stopped to appreciate how the dev team managed the different directions without the whole thing toppling down like Jenga. I was also smitten with how the whole thing didn’t feel like a feminist tract, but it is most certainly feminist.
So, with so much positivity, why not a 4 or 5 at the bottom of the review? Aye, there’s the rub.
In character and dialogue terms, Cinders is no Steins;Gate or Doki Doki, or even last month’s Jisei. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is choc-a-block with people explaining their feelings, being judged on their feelings and then complaining that the other has hurt their feelings. It’s a melodramatic seesaw at times, and I often just wanted to get off. This might be some people’s idea of a good time, but I needed more humour, variety and unpredictability for it to engage consistently. For large swathes of the game, particularly in the House sections, I longed to be out and playing around with more meaningful choices again.
This was made more problematic by the main character of Cinders. While you might be able to nudge her occasionally into the direction of empathy or other softer dialogue choices, a few lines later she will – without any input from you – snap back to being self-righteous and pompous. It can be frustrating to pick what feels like the correct dialogue choice, only for Cinders to flip out and say something brambly and damage your relationship. At no point did I ever like my character, which is odd for a game that prides itself on putting dialogue in your control.
What this amounts to is a visual novel that is structurally brilliant, with a vast choice map that you’ll get a nagging urge to explore, and mechanics that positively invite you to do so. But this is bittersweet, as the story you will be repeating and exploring can be plodding. Sure, you can skip the dialogue on later playthroughs, but a visual novel should be something I would choose to read.
So, approach Cinders on Xbox One with caution. If you like a bit of melodrama in your life, and the prospect of a well-crafted, alternate take on Cinderella sounds appealing, this glass slipper may well fit.