Developers: Digital Reality, Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
There aren't many games in which an anthropomorphic bison explains how he blackmailed a cancer-suffering rape victim to help him go time-travelling on a spree of murderous vengeance. Then again, Grasshopper Manufacture aren't your usual band of games developers. Their sweeping designs, combined with Digital Reality's impressive execution, have created a modern shoot 'em up that tries to be a little bit different.
Well, they've certainly succeeded.
Sine Mora attempts to bring a number of things to the genre. SHMUPs are classic games, often considered niche titles, thumb-blisteringly difficult, and predicated on a spirit of score chasing, evasive manoeuvring, and hardcore bragging rights.
The first thing to note about Sine Mora is its welcoming tone. One of the driving design choices behind this game, as we've been told every time we've had a chance to see it in action, has been the desire to create a side-scrolling shooter that includes rather than alienates. To that end, there are three main modes in Sine Mora: Story, Arcade, and Score Attack.
The first is by far the most forgiving, serving up a friendly banquet of multiple continues, offering chapter restarts should you run out, and presenting gamers with 'Normal' mode - a difficulty level specifically designed for newcomers. There are fewer enemies, the downpour of deadly projectiles is more manageable, and margins of failure of lessened. If that sounds a little bit lightweight for you, don't worry. The 'Hard' and 'Insane' modes ratchet things up nicely. The former sees more aggressive enemies, bigger swathes of bullets to avoid, and a shorter timer. Insane turns the heat up even more, and chucks in enemies that explode once defeated.
So far, so SHMUP; but Sine Mora begins to diverge slightly from the usual bullet-hell affair as soon as the game kicks in. Avoidance is not enough in this game, and timing is everything. Smack bang in the middle of the screen sits a timer, constantly counting down. Not only is it partially responsible for the score you'll achieve at the end of each chapter, but it's also your lifeline.
The dieselpunk denizens of the sky don't have armour or a life bar. If you get struck in Sine Mora, not only do all of the weapon upgrades you've picked up leak from your shuddering vessel, but the timer takes a hit. When the clock hits zero, you're toast. thankfully, blasting enemies out of the sky adds precious seconds to the timer, so the game forces you to play with an aggressive mindset - constantly aware of the time ticking away, desperately trying to avoid the firework blasts of temporal doom, whilst attempting to gun your foes down as quickly as possible.
That said, there's still an awful lot of enemy ordnance to avoid, but players are aided in this by Sine Mora's capsules - gifting the player time distorting abilities. In the Story mode, you only get one - the ability to slow time down by holding the right trigger. This is useful for slipping through the nets of bullets when things get a little hairy, or snatching up dropped powerups after you've just been hit. On the higher difficulties, it gives you just a hint of respite, and you'll need it. In Arcade and Score Attack, though, you do have the choice of two others, with one offering up the ability to rewind time (and cancel out unfortunate deaths), the other giving you the ability to reflect projectiles. Opting for either may very well change you're own style of play.
Sine Mora also veers somewhat from the norm in trying to present a grand, sweeping story at the heart of the game. Story Mode tells the incredibly dark tale of a disillusioned ace pilot's desire for revenge, hopping between different characters, alternative perspectives, and warring factions as the narrative sees fit. Indeed, on the first pass, some might find it a little disorientating.
The fact is that SHMUPS don't need a vast story, not really. Furthermore, although the Sin City-esque jumps in narrative provide a reason for gifting us with new pilots and new alternative weaponry (limited use items such as cluster bombs, megalasers, deflector shields, homing missiles etc.), I'm not sure just how much of an impact it really has. A page of white text on a black screen, no matter how prettily written, doesn't particularly inspire connection. In fact, had I not had to review the game in depth, I'd probably have skipped them. Considering that this is a game that's constantly spurring you on against the clock, pausing to read the tiny text - read in Hungarian - seems almost unnatural, with momentum slipping away.
It's a shame, really, because the game world has been fleshed out fantastically, no more so than in terms of making an aesthetic impression, superbly underpinned by a brooding score from Akira Yamaoka. The dieselpunk environments you'll fly your way through are all stunning - from lush beaches to the innards of a factory production line to subterranean caverns that see you avoid lava worms - with the game taking every opportunity available to show off its full 3D engine, the camera swooping in and out as planes circling around outcrops, scenery, and enormous bosses.
Moreover, enemies will frequently emerge from the 3D backdrops onto the 2D plane of combat. Although visually impressive, this does sometimes result in a mixup between background and foreground, and occasionally you might find yourself gunning after an enemy not actually involved in combat yet, which can be infuriating when three pop up behind you, right on your shoulder.
Back to those enormous bosses, though. The thirteen gargantuan mechanical beasts you'll face range from diesel-powered, gigantic arachnids, to a killer train, to a deadly, tentacular Matrix-esque sentinel, all brought to life in large part by Animatrix and Evangelion artist Mahiro Maeda. Even that aforementioned production line tries to kill you at some point. Finding points of weakness is the first step, with all of the boss battles taking in multiple stages, with the camera once again dancing around in three dimensions to present different targets on each boss. Once you beat any of the bosses in the Story, you unlock them for training in a separate side mode.
In fact, that's all Story mode is really for - the unlocking of options to enable a wider variety of choice in Arcade and Score Attack. It's here that genre veterans will find the most to shout about, with 63 different combinations of planes, pilots, and abilities available to unlock, to tailor to suit your needs and play style, with an eye of climbing up those leaderboards to prove your mastery. Score Attack, in particular, is ruthless in its challenge, issuing players with one life, and one life only, with the gauntlet thrown down to see just how good you really are.
At the end of the day, Digital Reality and Grasshopper have created an accessible shooter, they truly have, but in as much as this is an homage of sorts to the SHMUPs of the last three decades, this is a game really built for genre fans. 1200 Microsoft Points is a steep asking price for the newcomer, but the veteran should pay it gladly. It's not a perfect game, and CAVE purists might complain, but we should be thankful that a modern side-scrolling shooter that strives for a little freshness should exist at all, particularly in the West.
- Breathtaking presentation
- Excellent time-based mechanics
- Brilliant boss battles
- Grand story, but poorly integrated
- 2.5 D occasionally causes enemy identification issues
- Price too steep for genre newcomers?
The Short Version: Sine Mora is a game that promotes a sense of accessibility, which should certainly be applauded. But its the veterans who'll find the most value in this game, with this collaborative effort providing a fine homage to one of gaming's most enduring genres. Visually striking, with some new tricks for the old dogs, if you've ever had even a passing interest in SHMUPs, you'll want to give this one a look.