Game Rant's Jacob Siegal reviews Sine Mora
Sine Mora is a shoot 'em up co-developed by Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture. Grasshopper was in charge of concept art and sound design, while the actual story, gameplay, 3D modelling, and general coding was done by Digital Reality.
This team effort between a less well-known developer and the all-star cast over at Grasshopper is decidedly weird. It contains one of the most complex and terrifying storylines of most any video game on the market, possibly only rivaled by other Grasshopper games like Killer7. Oddly enough, Suda51 and his team had nothing to do with this tragic work of fiction - Digital Reality wove this tale on its own.
The story revolves around a central cast of fighter pilots on a mission to avenge their race by taking down an ominous empire. This might seem like an appropriate, tried and true archetype for a game's story, but the devil is in the details. Specifically, accounts of genocide, patricide, rape, tyranny, and countless other crimes against humanity. As an XBLA title marketed for SHMUP experts and newcomers alike, these shocking revelations could certainly turn away the faint-hearted.
That said, the story is fascinating and well told, both through title cards and in-game cinematics featuring a stellar cast of Hungarian voice actors and virtually flawless translation. If you can follow along, the diluted time traveling narrative is genuinely engaging, it just might take a few playthroughs to catch everything.
Bullet hell shooters, as the name implies, are often extremely difficult - so difficult, in fact, that a single level can require hours of practice to complete. Sine Mora is much more approachable than many of the old-school SHMUPs, and it is all the better for it. The game contains varying degrees of difficulty for all of its modes. Normal mode is recommended for beginners, but do not let the name fool you - even Normal mode can seem insurmountable at times. Keep in mind that the story mode only lasts about 90 minutes though, so each level beaten means significant progress to the end.
There are some interesting mechanics at play that separate Sine Mora from others in the genre. First of all, your ship does not take damage. Instead, any bullet or ground collision will take time off of the clock at the top of the screen. The end result is the same (time runs out, ship explodes), but it feels much less punishing than a health bar depleting or the one-hit kills that are so common in this genre.
Sticking with the time travel motif, players are also able to slow down time in short spurts, making maneuvering around bullets a touch simpler. There are also a few occasions where shooting is not the main focus, but instead traversal becomes the primary foe. Those sections are better left without description, but the controls do not quite hold up well enough to ward off the inevitable frustration of continuously scratching against a corner of a wall and losing all your power-ups. Luckily, they are few and far between.
Other than that, the game plays similarly to others in the genre: the screen scrolls from left to right, throwing enemies at the player's ship from every conceivable direction until the player either dies or reaches a boss. There are a few playable characters, all of which pilot unique ships with special secondary attacks. Collectables litter the screen which can increase the main weapon's firepower, add extra time to the clock, replenish used up secondary weapons, or just bestow points. For anyone who has ever played Ikaruga, a CAVE game, or any other shoot 'em up, these should all be familiar tropes.
Boss fights are surprisingly abundant in the game - there are 13 major bosses throughout the seven stages, along with smaller minibosses along the way. Bosses are inventive, enormous, and always make grand entrances. I cannot remember more than one boss that failed to take up a majority of the screen, filling the rest with barely dodgable orange and blue bullets.
If there is a major criticism to be leveled against the title, it's that some of these bosses seem entirely too difficult for a player new to these games, especially considering the fact Sine Mora is being marketed as an introduction to shoot 'em ups. Although survival is likely (thanks to the time limit replacing a health meter), the reward is cheapened by constantly cursing from the unavoidable barrage of bullets.
So if you manage to make it through the story mode in one piece, there are three other modes to play through in order to perfect your Sine Mora skills: Arcade, Score Attack, and Boss Training. The Arcade mode strips the narrative out of the game and allows players to work their way through the game sans interruption, with only three continues. Score Attack and Boss Training are both rather self-explanatory. Each mode brings something extra to the game, and although none of these extra modes are overly complex, they do not feel shoehorned in. Considering the challenge of the more brutal difficulty levels, training is a necessity to learn boss patterns and bullet avoidance techniques.
Credit must be given to the art teams at both development houses, Sine Mora is beautiful. The environments range from bright, vivid forest settings with free flowing water and imposing mountains to downtrodden, dystopian factories. From bright to dark, each setting pops out with a staggering attention to detail. The ship might only be controllable in a 2D space, but the art design and the choreographed enemy movement patterns bring the 3D world to life. You might find yourself distracted by some of the breathtaking vistas while bullets careen toward you, so make sure to take the time to sightsee in moments of safety.
Akira Yamaoka, famed sound designer behind the soundtracks to Snatcher, the Silent Hill series, and all of the most recent Grasshopper games, knows how to set a tone. The electronic beats keep the tempo up while simultaneously reflecting the morbid tale of these warring anthropomorphs. The soundtrack, along with the well-acted dialogue, really helps nail down the serious nature of the story amidst the ridiculous bosses and hellish rain of bullets.
Despite the ineffable storyline and extreme difficulty, it is easy to recommend Sine Mora to anyone looking for a SHMUP. The story lasts about an hour and half (a perfect amount of time without overstaying its welcome), the other modes can be endlessly entertaining, and the game begs to be beaten multiple times. Even for the less capable SHMUPers, myself included, the backgrounds and enemy design are almost worth the price of admission on their own. If you are in the market for a challenging side-scrolling shooter, this might be the best one out there.
Sine Mora is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15.00)