Heaven and Hell
As a relative newcomer to the bullet hell variety of side-scrolling shooters, I have to say that I approached Sine Mora with a sense of giddy anticipation and eager expectancy. What I got myself into was a game that took all my preconceived notions, lifted them to new heights in terms of artistic vision and gameplay engagement, and then proceeded to repeatedly crush me to the ground and happily grind my face into the dirt with its unrelenting difficulty. Whether it’s because I haven’t earned my wings in the genre yet or because the developers were simply aiming to create a game that showed and demanded mastery, this collaboration between Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture goes well beyond the normal call of duty and will give players exactly what they’re asking for – in spades.
The premise behind Sine Mora, from what I’ve been able to gather (mostly through independent research), is that there is a madman on the loose, who’s committing nefarious deeds, and the only ones who can stop him are a squad of anthropomorphic talking animal pilots and their flying/swimming vessels, each equipped with some sort of time-altering secret weapon. Oh yeah, there also seems to be some sort of quasi civil war going on, and the narrative jumps between different characters from stage to stage, following different chunks of the story from new perspectives all the time. At best, it’s mildly-to-severely confusing; at worst, one might say it’s “batshit crazy!”. It doesn’t particularly help that all of the game’s dialog has been kept in Digital Reality’s native Hungarian, with only English subtitles to put any semblance of order to the story’s madness. I found this to be rather tragic, as some thought has clearly been put into making a game with a diverse cast of characters who work together to achieve a similar end, but it just comes across rather unintelligible. As I’ve stated, I haven’t played a ton of bullet hell shooters in the past, but I have yet to play one that pursues an engaging narrative as something more than just a pipe dream to be shoved aside in favor of the gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, this is arguably the game’s biggest selling point, as well as its most attractively addictive feature. To say the game is one of the toughest experiences I’ve ever encountered might actually be doing an injustice to the superlative. Of course, the term “bullet hell” doesn’t imply any sort of merciful vacation, but Sine Mora was clearly designed to make players sweat it out. The amount of punishment inflicted for just a simple hit is quite extreme. There is no health bar per se; in fact, your ship can withstand a virtually unlimited number of hits, as long as there’s time left on the clock. Each and every hit you take subtracts several precious seconds off your limited time limit, in addition to it naturally ticking down on its own. Let it reach zero, and prepare to use up one of your equally sparse continues and start the level over from the last checkpoint. The only way to extend the time limit is by defeating enemies and through the occasional item pick-up.
Boss battles are both suitably epic and frequent. Taking a cue from other legendary titles in the genre, and incorporating design work by famed anime artist Mahiro Maeda, bosses are screen-filling machines and constructs; in fact, many of them have to be taken on in stages, as they are large enough to fill the screen many times over. In fact, the bosses are deemed such an integral (and awesomely fun) part of the overall game, there is an entire mode dedicated solely to them. In addition to the self-explanatory Story mode and the aforementioned Boss Training, Sine Mora also offers up an Arcade mode which offers the same gameplay as the Story mode but without the cutscenes and plot; and a Score Attack mode, which will let you pick any previously unlocked level to take on by itself, attempting to set a score record and survive. Each mode comes with its own number of limited continues, with arcade mode offering the most at eight, and score attack offering none. In addition, the game can also be played on varying difficulty levels, from “Normal” all the way up to “Insane”, which further reduces the number of continues to five, but offers an alternate narrative upon completing levels.
While your fighter’s arsenal to defend himself against the onslaught of ordinance on-screen is limited, you do have a few pluses on your side. To begin with, each fighter is equipped with a time-slowing device, which can help you dodge particularly hairy bursts of bullets heading your way (outside of Story mode, this ability can be exchanged for different time-altering effects, like being able to rewind time, or a bullet-deflecting shield. The second weapon in your arsenal is an upgradable main gun, which is powered up by collecting red orbs dropped by enemies. The drawback? A single enemy hit will cause you to lose all of your power-up orbs, instantly dropping your gun back to default strength (AND taking a few seconds off your clock!). You’re given a few moments in which to recover as many of the dropped orbs as you can; of course, jetting around frantically to recover dropped loot can easily lead to more enemies getting free shots at you… Finally, each fighter has his own secondary weapon, which causes massive area damage, but only has limited uses.
Roses Blooming on the Field of Battle
Somehow, between hanging on by a thread in the heat of battle and holding on to the seat of your pants, you may want to take a moment or two to admire the scenery as its passing you by outside the cockpit. Sine Mora offers some truly gorgeous 3D backgrounds, literally bursting with color and style, evoking an almost cel-shaded look. Whether you’re skimming an ocean’s surface, submerging beneath the waves, or approaching an industrial mega-city, Sine Mora‘s steampunk enemy designs juxtaposed against its serene backdrops makes for a visually stunning game. Interspersed with short cutscene animations that have your pilots show off some fancy flyin’, the game hits all the visual high notes. Just remember to keep your eyes on what’s important, lest you be blown into so much shark bait to chum the waters with.
The Final Verdict
Sine Mora hits the mark in all the right places, giving shoot-’em-up fans a great addition to their 360-exclusive library. To top it off, all this has been gift-wrapped in amazingly beautiful visuals, and is a joy to look at. Almost deceptively so, because the steep difficulty once you’ve gotten past the first few stages may be enough to turn off all but the most hardcore; that, and the game’s story, which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity, doesn’t do it many favors either. Overall, it is a more-than-solid shooter though, and one that’ll draw you back to it again and again, making it easy to recommend.