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2013-08-10

Cinders Review




Title: Cinders
Release date: 2012-06-20
Developer: Moa Cube
Publisher: Moa Cube

Many VN fans are exaggeratedly critical of OELVNs, but that is not without a basis. Sturgeon’s Law applies to this niche more than to any else. On the other hand, if you search really hard, you might find real nuggets of gold amidst the piles of steaming… fecal matter. In a subversive situation, there was no need to search hard for “Cinders” – a retelling of “Cinderella” fairy tale – as it was a really visible visual novel since even before its release.

Despite only now sitting down to play “Cinders”, I have heard of the game even before it was a finished product and owned it since half a year ago. What can I say… my backlog is the size of T-Rex on steroids.
We start in medias res.
The very first thing you will notice upon starting the game is the art – it’s fucking beautiful. No, seriously, it’s not only the best looking original English language VN ever released (it's not technically an "English" VN as the producers are Polish), but it also beats many of Japanese games in that area. What’s even more shocking is not even the art itself, but the vividness of the scenes. Lights are gently moving, shadows are flitting on the walls, birds are flying in the background, plants are swaying behind the window and so on so forth. Character sprites are a tad less dynamic, but even they constantly change their facial expressions and move their lips together with the dialogues. Everything, and I mean everything uses some sort of simple animations to create a feeling of a living environment in a constant flux. The accomplishments of the artist became even more pronounced when I managed to reach the end of the route without realizing that the game has no CGs. And I wasn’t even missing them! Oh, it’s not all God-perfect as the main bodies of the characters are much less animated than their faces and appear strangely static in a constant environmental flux. Additionally, the amount of facial expressions and sprite positions is a limited one and some of the expressions appear ill-suited for the situation at hand, but that all can be forgiven.
A happy family.
It was especially strange for me to see a Western VN not made in a Ren’Py engine. Rather “Cinders” uses GameMaker, which is a first in my experience. Moreover, you can choose a format you want to play the game in and can pick either fullscreen or widescreen from the options. That is a very satisfying inclusion as it makes happy all the potential players. Another technical feature I have never seen in any other VN is the text that moves according to the speakers emotions. When the speaker is angry, the text appears almost instantaneously; calm and thoughtful dialogues move along at a slow and ponderous speed.

The soundtrack in the game is pretty minimalistic, but well fitting the thematic of the VN. The composer even released the OST on his website for any price you pay (you can take it even for free if you want). There is no speech, but, as told in the previous paragraph, the “paper doll” mouths move, which works really well in this situation. On the other hand, the ambient sounds are almost non-existing. It would have really added to the atmosphere if, for example, we could have heard birds singing or trees rustling, or water murmuring… Therein lies an unrealized potential, I think.
Smart girl!
We never learn our protagonist’s name, but she was called Cinders by her father due to her red hair and this moniker became an insult on the lips of her stepfamily after they relegated her to the kitchen. Cinders is immediately characterized as a very Genre Savvy and proactive protagonist, who reads a lot of fairy tales… and does everything contrary to them. At the very beginning of the game, Cinders reads a fairy tale about a goody-two-shoes girl who suffered the abuse at home and waited for a Prince Charming, who would take her away to a better life. She concludes that the book is shit. Cinders believes that you have to take matters into your own two hands if you want to accomplish anything and that is exactly what you have to do as the player. You take Cinders’ fate into your hands and lead her through a multitude of choices that would determine the ending. Of course, you can play her as stupid, but it is counterintuitive and will probably kill you in the end.

Sadly, the characterization of Cinders is my biggest problem with this game. Throughout the whole game Cinders is portrayed as a knowledgeable, slightly fickle and determined young lady. However, the choices you make do not appear to change her personality in any significant way until the very end when you are hit with a good or an evil ending. “Cinders” uses a two axes personality map similar to D&D. However, instead of “good-evil / law-chaos” it’s “good-evil / stupid-intelligent”. In my opinion, Cinders’ personality and her inner thoughts should have subtly changed depending on your position in those coordinates. Now it was especially jarring for me to get “Evil Queen” ending as my Cinders was a pleasant and understanding person most of the time; I just made one evil choice too many. It all comes down to the fact that Cinders in not really well fleshed and is more of a traditional blank slate protagonist you mold to your liking. It would work well, though, if she were not so static in her inner expression. At the very least, her inner expressions should have reflected her choices more clearly.
Fun activity, if you ask me.
The plot of the game is, well, Cinderella done in a completely un-Cinderella fashion.  The basic premise is still the same as in the fairy tale. Cinders’ father remarried after her mother’s death and his new wife Lady Carmosa brought her own two daughters Sophia and Gloria with her. After he died Carmosa took over the house and immediately relocated Cinders to the kitchen, so that her precious Gloria could have her bedroom. Soon our heroine becomes nothing more than a glorified servant and is constantly picked upon by her stepmother and stepsisters.

Here the similarities end as neither Carmosa, nor her daughters are Stupid Evil as in the tale. They are fully realized human beings with their own complexes, fears and insecurities. Sophia and Gloria are deeply damaged after having lived under Carmosa’s ironhanded rule and Cinders makes an easy victim to pour their pent-up grudges on. After living for so long in cruel conditions Sophia became a snarky cynic who hides her insecurities under a cold fa├žade, believing that no one can hurt her behind a wall she has constructed for herself. Incidentally she is my favourite character in the game and I was very pleased to hear that “Moa Cube” is making a sequel to “Cinders” with Sophia as the protagonist. Gloria takes a different approach and always strives for Carmosa’s approval. She even dresses and acts like her mother in hopes of being praised without even noticing that she is losing herself. Meanwhile, Carmosa is so fearful of her family breaking apart that she assumed that becoming a tyrant is the only way to keep everything together. It goes without saying that the game allows us to point their fallacies out to them.

The writing is extremely good, especially considering the problems "Moe Cube" had regarding the writers during the production. The dialogues are believable and the narration flows really well and introduces no contradictions.What I like the most is the fact that this novel explores many significant themes. The characters contemplate the significance of free will in relation to the fate, explore the connexion betwixt duty, honor and independent thought, also portraying that those concepts cannot always be reconciled. Some of the same themes explored in "The Royal Trap" also appear here, like the insistent need for many people to wear socially presentable masks in public. All in all, this is a pretty thought provoking game.
You're fucked either way.
I have a small quibble that I would have liked to see a bit more of the backstory. There are so many hints about Cinders' mother and her fate, that it really got me interested what really happened. At least three major characters feed us small pieces of history, but that is not nearly enough and with the sequel focusing on Sophia, I don't think we will ever learn the truth of what happened to her.

The game doesn’t clearly tell what it expects of you. You can try different things: restart your life anew in a different place, re-take the residence from Carmosa or even become a queen. Yes, there is the famous Ball and even the Fairy Godmother, but about that later. While you do that you can also snag one of three love interests for Cinders.

One of your potential suitors is Prince Basile himself as per the fairy tale. It was expected and it is as abrupt as in the tale, but it’s given a much better explanation in the game. You see, Basile is preparing some big changes for the kingdom and he wants a supporting female at his side. He distrusts the nobility and is pretty sure that any of the houses would love to shove a stupid bimbo into his arms so that they would have an easily controllable puppet for a queen. He eventually decides to do a Masquerade as in such a way he can choose a wife blindly, only paying attention to her wits and not family status. Interestingly, Sophia manages to really impress him due to her frank no nonsense talking manner, but it’s Cinders that he becomes really interested in. Sadly, it all happens at the very end of the game, making it more of a match of convenience than of love. The other two suitors are much better realized.
Ouch! That's gotta hurt.
Perrault is the Captain of the guards and the Prince’s friend, but he is currently suffering from an identity crisis that stems from him feeling obsolete. That is not only in his mind though – the Kingdom has been at peace for quite a while and Perrault as a former knight feels that everything was simpler during the tumultuous times of yore. He did what he could by protecting the nation with his sword. Now his duties consist making rounds through the city as a Captain of guards and rooting out simple criminals and vagabonds. He feels that this all is beneath his abilities. The last drop is to hear the fact that his current position is not even needed anymore from the Prince himself. That’s when Cinders comes into his life and sweeps him of his feet. It seems that a grizzled war veteran is a romantic at heart and you can help him find a new purpose in life. I find Perrault the most interesting of the three potential suitors as their interactions appeared to be the most genuine and heartwarming.

The last of the boys is a merchant Tobias who is like a childhood friend to Cinders (at the very least she has known him for a long time). He is the more stable of the possible cavaliers and a more normal choice. That is probably the reason I didn't like him as much as Perrault, as there is not a whiff of danger and adventure in being a merchant. He is such a normal everyday guy that he pales before Perrault. Though I have to concede that the conversations between Cinders and Tobias were probably the most amusing due to all those double entendres they employed, especially after sleeping together. No pics for us pervs :-(
Attagirl! Have fun!
As much as you can do by yourself in this game, you wouldn’t be able to accomplish some things without outside help, which comes in the form of a Fairy Godmother… or two of them. Cinders gleefully lampshades that fact. In truth there are two different women that might help you: a voodoo priestess (though she is never referred to in such a way) and a real fairy. They also represent two different viewpoints that Cinders can adhere to and their help carries a price. Madame Ghede is more down to Earth advisor and advocates self-reliance and getting what you want at any cost; at the same time The Fairy is a pro-Fate choice, where you relinquish your choices to an unknown element and hope for the best (stupid choice IMHO). I personally liked Ghede much more than Lady of the Lake as she is such a no nonsense woman that she introduces a breath of common sense, especially if Cinders is acting stupid. Sadly, the game ends before we can see any consequences of choosing one or the other advisor and the endings are suspiciously silent about this matter.
That's some awesome make-up.
Oh, yes, the endings. Here the game becomes really unconventional. There are supposedly four endings, but all of them have many variations. Sooth be told, “Cinders” employs the same mechanic as seen in the first two “Fallout” games – in other words the ending is composed of all the things of note you did during the game. Thus there are literally hundreds of possible variations. The game tracks things like the relationship with your sisters and Carmosa, your love interest, your “fairy” advisor and other things that are ultimately combined into an ending. That sounds like a very neat idea, but it’s a nightmare for completionists as it’s very difficult to get all the variations. It’s aggravated by the fact, that there are more than a hundred choices in the game… and only 7 save slots! Hell, all the Ren’Py games have 90 slots; don’t tell me it was impossible to program something like that in GameMaker! If only the skip function would be competent, but it only skips to the next scene transition point. As the scenes change every minute in “Cinders”, you have to constantly keep pressing “skip” and the process is very slow. I repeat, the skip function is horrible and really annoyed me to no end. That is the main reason I spend so much time trying to get all the endings. I didn't get all of them, as eventually I got bored of holding the Ctrl button, but I wrote a walkthrough that will help any lost soul to get majority of the endings. I completely cleared "The Fairytale" and "The Traveler" tabs, got all the trophies, finished 94% of "The Independent Woman" tab and gained 25% of "The Grim Fate". Not bad I think... I also got a headache. I sincerely hope that for the inevitable sequel MC will create a less tedious ending system.
A pleasant night.
Finally a few words about the most mysterious of the game characters. He doesn't even have a name and is only referred to as "Shady character". He appears everywhere that Cinders goes to, appears to know more than he lets on and is apparently on first name basis with both Madame Ghede and The Fairy. Up until the ending I considered him just a very resourceful man with quick wits, but the Epilogue changed all that as Shady was revealed to be someone much more important. Then suddenly it hit me... well, read the spoilers.
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

To sum up, Cinders is a great visual novel that explores some interesting themes, has a beautiful art and is definitely male friendly as despite featuring a female protagonist, it's not really an otome game as romance constitutes a very small part of the game and is not a focus at all. There are some technical rough edges and a bit of an unpolished feel to this game, but that doesn't really hurt it.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Cinders site
Also get the game on Steam, Humble Store.
Get Cinders: Original Soundtrack here
Lemma Soft forum thread
Cinders Wiki
My "Cinders" Walkthrough

Final Verdict: 80%

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous16/8/13 10:33

    Thought you might want to know that the head of MoaCube posted a link to your review on Twitter.

    ReplyDelete
  2. go keima mode and find ll the ending! :P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I won't even presume to understand what it is that you have written...

      Delete
  3. Hi Beliar.

    I have a game that's similar to Cinders. Interested in writing about it?

    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wild Season? Doesn't look much like Cinders, nor is it finished if I understand correctly. Unless you are a different Verne Ongteco.

      Delete