Playing Time: 8 hours
Visual novels aren't exactly a genre that I'm a big fan of, so I'm not entirely sure how I even ended up owning this game. Regardless, I found myself in the mood for something without a real-time component after my recent run of loot-grinder ARPGs (and Helltaker), so I decided to give this a go.
Cinders is basically a retelling of Cinderella, with some alternate endings and modern framing. You get to play through the final week of Cinders' time living under the rule of her stepmother, and depending on how that goes, she can end up either becoming the new queen, striking out for a new life on the road, taking over the household, or dying in the castle's dungeon. The exact choices that you make along the way determine secondary details such as Cinders' demeanor (if she ends up in a position of power), love interest, and family relationships.
So far, it's not exactly breaking new ground, since I'd expect that sort of stuff is rather standard for visual novels (and it's certainly commonplace in open world RPGs, even terrible ones like The Witcher 3).
There isn't much to say about gameplay, either, since it's pretty much one big dialogue tree. What you can do on any given day is quite scripted, which makes sense in the setting (the stepmother isn't exactly big on freedom) but started to grate on me after the first time through. Also, while the dialogue options are generally reasonable and varied, they do lead to the inevitable problem of choosing between what makes sense to me (from a roleplay perspective) and what I think the developers expected (from a "manage all of the hidden meters to get the ending you want" perspective). Still, while it's easy to gripe about that, most of the choices have fairly sensible impacts, so it's not really a problem unless you're trying to get all of the possible ending variations.
On which note, I will give credit to the developers for not expecting players to get literally every single one of the 329 ending combinations. Once you've seen a certain ending detail (e.g. "Machiavellic Queen" in The Fairytale Ending), there are no extra benefits to getting that same detail again in combination with different other details (e.g. a different love interest). I would hope that's normal for visual novels, but given how certain games emphasize tedium as a substitute for actual satisfying playing time (like Path of Exile), I appreciate it when a game respects the player's time.
On a related note, the option to fastforward dialogue on repeated playthroughs is also nice since it disables automatically when you get something that you haven't seen before. Granted, that's often only a handful of lines, but again, the quality of life is appreciated.
Of course, any discussion about the good points of a visual novel has to talk about the characters. While a number of them were uninteresting, I was generally pretty happy whenever Sophia (the younger stepsister), Madame Ghede (the Magical Negro who mostly replaces the original story's fairy godmother), Shady character (a vagabond/Almighty Janitor), or The Fairy (the other possible fairy godmother) had something to say, and Cinders herself was mostly well-developed and nuanced, even if you picked the most sanctimonious options. The love interests all felt lame, but maybe that was a byproduct of having to rush their romances to fit in the one week framing. There were certainly moments where the dialogue was stilted or whiplash-inducing, but they were quite limited in comparison to the total volume of text, so I wouldn't hold that as a strike against the game as a whole.
Art is obviously an important part of a visual novel, and Cinders was beautiful in that regard. The characters all had incredible detailing without feeling overly busy, the outfits all fit with the overall setting and tone (aside from Perrault's Too Many Belts problem, which I'm not going to excuse just because the game's own dialogue points it out a couple of times), and the backgrounds were great at setting a stage without interfering with visual clarity. With all due to respect to everyone else who worked on the game, Gracjana Zielinska sure seemed to be the most talented person on the development team.
The music was also a strong point in general, if not quite to the same degree. Most of the major characters had an appropriate Leitmotif to set them apart, and the variation in the main song as tensions rise on the night before the masquerade was very well-executed. There are some pieces I could pick at, but honestly, I think most of that is from hearing the first five-to-ten seconds of them so many times while replaying with fastforwarded dialogue (it took me some brute forcing to get the last few ending variations). While I wouldn't say any of it was remarkable in the way that Helltaker's music is still bopping in my head, it was solid overall and added to the playing experience.
Altogether, I did like Cinders, and I don't regret having played it. However, I didn't like it enough to give it a universal recommendation. If you want to play a visual novel that keeps a reasonable sense of logic, has more interesting characters than not, and doesn't devolve into farcical madness (and not of the amusing, Hatoful Boyfriend type), Cinders is probably worth trying out. If those criteria don't fit you, you aren't missing much by giving it a pass.
Playing Time: 8 hours