Developer: Digital Reality, Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: 3/21/2012
The traditional shooter game has come a long way from its roots in eighties. Classics like Gradius, R-Type, and even more recent games from the 90’s such as Radiant Silvergun have inspired many entries over the last few years in the genre, especially those of the challenging “bullet hell”Â variety. Featuring art direction from the quirky Grasshopper Manufacture, and game design by Hungarian developer Digital Reality, Sine Mora flew into the Xbox Arcade exclusively this month with its unique love letter to the twitch inducing style of game gamers around the world have come to love.
Unlike many shooter games, Sine Mora is presented with a considerably complex and deep narrative that is, at times, difficult to comprehend, but is nonetheless interesting, due partially to the kind of game it’s attached to, and the bleak and serious tone that it’s set with. Through a series of in-game conversations and text passages between stages, a story unfolds, detailing the conclusion of an ongoing war between a group of dedicated pilots and a tyrannical empire. The assorted band of anthropomorphic characters each pilot their own unique plane. Across the game’s seven stages, players will take control of a number of different characters at various points in time, including the game’s antagonist and those under his control as light is shed onto his particular motivations that lead him to the position he’s in. As mentioned previously, the reasonably intricate plot is difficult to follow, but is one of those stories that pieces itself together more vividly each time it’s taken in, and given the type of game Sine Mora is, repeat playthroughs are almost guaranteed for those who enjoy the genre.
Sine Mora‘s stunning and meticulously detailed visuals are presented under the efforts of Grasshopper Manufacture, who are usually renowned for the stylistic and aesthetically interesting way they present their games. Though no particular style effects or filters are used in the graphics of Sine Mora, the breathtaking “diesel punk”Â design of the game’s world is beyond compare to just about anything seen in the genre to date. Presented in a traditional 2.5 setting, the ships and projectiles sit on one layer as the environments themselves are presented in 3D. The game’s collective design does everything imaginable to make certain the world in which it takes place is as specific and unique as the concepts behind it. Each of the seven stages are drastically different in their presentations, yet all of them fit seamlessly into the diesel punk aesthetic found throughout.
A few examples of the game’s astounding attention to detail would be individual shell casings popping out with each shot of a plane’s gatling gun, tiny silhouettes of soldiers appearing on runways as they use hand gestures to ease out giant boss ships, and the intricate furnishings of a series of office cubicles affixed on a giant construction robot’s arm that can be seen once the walls around it are destroyed amidst the fight with the massive contraption. Sine Mora is full of visual splendor in all possible regards, and even if you yourself are not into the side scrolling shooter genre, you’d be doing your eyes a considerable disservice to not watch someone play the game from beginning to end.
A good soundtrack is an undeniable staple for any good shooter, and much as the visuals of Sine Mora do an incredible job of painting the picture itself of the game’s unique setting, the soundtrack and effects in general do not slouch with respect to their duties as well. Featuring a score by the well known Akira Yamaoka, Sine Mora‘s soundtrack typically steers away from the genre’s usual pulse pounding guitar driven techno in favor of more delicate ambient electronic compositions and somber piano ballads. There are times where more hectic pieces are in place, but more times than not, the vivid visual presentation is accompanied by a haunting and melancholy soundscape that lends itself extremely well to the game’s dramatic sense of things.
Your typical explosions, laser sounds, and bullet firing effects are all in place in Sine Mora, and sound just as good as they did in any other comparable shooter of quality, but much like the visual presentation, extra lengths have been taken to make the sound effects stand out within the unique trappings of the game as well. Wooden airships creak, giant metal vibrates occasionally with motion, and powered up attacks make a satisfying “locked and loaded”Â effect when initiated. Also in need of mention is the voice acting work in Sine Mora, which is spoken in Hungarian. This interesting touch compliments the game’s unique efforts very well, and gives a certain level of personality to the characters that I don’t think could have been achieved if the voice work was recorded in Japanese or English.
At its roots, Sine Mora plays almost identically to a number of other side scrolling horizontal shooters. The player’s ship scrolls along a predetermined course, shooting at anything else that moves, and collecting power up and point related items. The key element that makes the game unique when compared to any other entry in the genre is the time mechanic that is in constant play. Sine Mora doesn’t grant extra lives for amassing huge point totals like just about any other game of its ilk, nor are there any reserves or extra chances to speak of. Each section of the seven stages in Sine Mora allocates a certain amount of seconds that literally act as the amount of time you have to make it to the next time lapse, which also acts as a checkpoint should your counter reach zero. By shooting enemies, collecting certain items, and destroying parts of bosses, more time is added to this counter. In opposition, colliding with enemies, projectiles, and the environment will take precious seconds away. While not entirely different from some kind of “reach the checkpoint”Â mini game you might come across in another product, using this mechanic in place of the traditional lives and extends of the shooter genre works wonderfully in favor of playing the game and becoming gradually better. Since the timer is constantly ticking down and going up, given the player’s performance, a session with Sine Mora translates itself into some kind of proverbial tug of war against the clock rather than the usual “don’t get hit X amount of times”Â.
Of course, those aiming for the top spots on the game’s Leaderboards are going to need to navigate through any given stage as quickly and efficiently as possible, but again, the system in place makes the process of playing a considerably difficult game not necessarily easier, but friendlier, rewarding those who can prove their mastery with top marks and scoreboard bragging rights. This is not to say Sine Mora is a lightweight shooter, quite the contrary. On anything above the normal difficulty available in the story mode, the game pulls no punches, and demands the concrete attention and twitch reflexes of even the most seasoned shooter aficionado.
Besides the just mentioned story mode, the game also features score attack and traditional arcade modes for any of the stages that have been cleared in the story. These modes are not for the faint of heart, as high scores and flawless performances are the top goal for taking them on. There is also a boss training mode for any of the bosses you’ve encountered within the story. Like any other shooter game, the bosses themselves make up the brunt of the challenge, and a mode like this is a great asset for those who wish to polish their abilities with the product in hopes of claiming a high spot on the Leaderboards. Any of these modes can be played with your choice of pilot and ship that, again, have been unlocked via the story. Pilot and ship combinations yield different cannon fire and sub weapons, so there is a good amount of variety to experiment with in finding the right match for your preferred play style.
Sharp control is obviously another key ingredient in a worthwhile shooter, and once again, Sine Mora delivers. Precise movement is found with any of the controllable player ships, and only three buttons are used for firing the main and sub weapons respectively, as well as activating a speed up time ability when it’s available. There are a few sections where your ship is fighting against gravity that can prove to be a bit more frustrating than necessary, but it’s nothing to get worked up over. Also worth mentioning is the visible info on hit box locations for the player ships in arcade and score attack modes.
The replay time you stand to get out of Sine Mora depends on your motivation to become increasingly better at the game, and earn top spots on the Leaderboards. For true shooter fans, this is reason enough to sink considerable hours into the product, playing the seven stages over and over, and besting bosses in little to no time without a scratch. For the less than hardcore shooter enthusiast, completing the game’s story mode will unlock just about all the content to be had, with the exception of ship colors.
The alternative time counter mechanic in place of the usual lives and extends in Sine Mora easily makes it one of the most balanced shooter experiences I’ve played to date. This simple formula swap encourages the player to perform more effectively without breaking it off to the point of losing interest, and actually makes the product accessible to pretty much anyone with decent hand eye coordination. Again, it’s not to say Sine Mora is a push over, as the game itself can sit comfortably next to the most demanding bullet hell endeavors one might attempt to play through, and the product’s damage output is only limited by the skill of the actual player.
When broken down to its core elements, Sine Mora does little that is different from the roots of the shooter genre, and in fairness, it’s not a formula that can altered dramatically to favorable effect. That said however, the time based mechanic is incredibly new and innovative in the way it makes the game both accessible to those who don’t have the reflexes of a chihuahua on speed, and simultaneously incorporates a new realm of challenge for seasoned shooter pros.
Visually and audibly the game is a masterpiece, and the art designs of just about everything within could even make the likes of Miyuzaki proud. Sine Mora is a not only a unique shooter, it is a uniquely accomplished game in all respects.
Much like the variable replayabilty to be had with the game, the likeliness of one getting full blown addicted to Sine Mora will vary. Once you manage to complete the story mode, the rest of the time spent with the game will be replaying stages and improving your performance in the attempts of making it onto the Leaderboard.
Sadly, I only heard about Sine Mora in passing briefly before its Xbox Arcade debut, and I’m afraid many others might miss such a terrific game as well. Seeing as Microsoft themselves funded the creation of the game, you’d think more would be done to get its existence out to those who might be interested, but such is obviously not the case. Upon investigating, the game’s Facebook page had less than 1500 “likes”Â, and I’ve yet to see a single advertisement for the product anywhere online or in print. It’s true that the shooter genre collectively is an acquired taste, but one this good definitely has the potential of recruiting some new fans. Its just a shame that it probably won’t get the chance.
FUN FACT: Animation specialist Mahiro Maeda is listed in the game’s credits as being responsible for the boss sequences in Sine Mora.
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Getting down to brass tacks, Sine Mora is easily one of the finest shooters I’ve played since the genre’s recent resurgence some years ago. The gameplay stays firm within its multiple decade old roots, and at the same time, offers a unique and fresh spin on the tried and true formula that grants accessibility to those who might not be as skilled as the genre typically demands, but still can be a stone cold bitch for those who are. Artistically the game is second to none when compared to similar games of its kind, and while the story can be a bit muddled at first, a few retreads of it will bring its dramatic and melancholy narrative to light. Sine Mora comes highly recommended to those who like beautiful games, and is a must own for any and all shooter fans with an Xbox 360.