Breathing fresh life into an old genre is never easy, especially when your source material has been around since the earliest days of the Atari 2600. Over the past 30 years the side scrolling shooter has been transformed and fashioned-over in innumerable ways, granted a plethora of new skins and had its internal mechanics tinkered with in much the same way a mad scientist continues to evolve his original creation. Each incarnation working off the foundation of its predecessor, and attempting once again to revolutionize those bare foundations laid when games like Defender first graced our screens.
Sine Mora, created by Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture is the most recent metamorphosis of this genre, and it too attempts to make its mark and push the boundaries. I'm happy to report that Sine Mora succeeds in all the right ways, and even adds some unexpected surprises.
Sine Mora (Xbox 360)
Developer: Digital Reality / Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: March 21th, 2012 (NA)
To speak of Sine Mora one cannot begin without first mentioning how aesthetically beautiful this game is. Over the years, side scrolling 'bullet-hell' shooters have always had impressive visuals, but Sine Mora's art direction takes a specific direction in eschewing the standard high-digital futuristic setting and opting for a more Steam-punk inspired world that combines gears and airships with iron-clad World War II war machines. The result in definitively more Crimson Sky than Einhander, and is complimented by full 3D ship models and environments which not only make for fantastic visuals during the action, but also allow seamless transitions between cutscenes and the gameplay beforehand.
Boss and enemy designs are varied and top-notch, the former being designed by Mahiro Maeda known for his work on Neon Genesis Evangelion. Boss fights in particular are exciting and frequent affairs, some requiring multiple stages -and multiple screens- to complete. But each one, 4 per stage, feels like a fresh experience due to the varied designs and attacks they unleash upon the player. And at normal difficulty, most will present a moderate challenge without resorting to cheap attacks that cannot be learned after a few tries. Regular enemies are no pushovers however. Coming in multiple waves and firing like a criminal with nothing to lose, they will often times fill up the entire screen with more bullets than the player could possibly handle. 'Bullet Hell' the game surely becomes, but not without giving the player specific tools to deal with it all.
And this is where Sine Mora begins to make its mark on the genre. Rather than relying upon lives that the player needs to juggle -between dying, retreating and the collection of 1up's- Sine Mora uses a time system. At the beginning of each stage the player is given a certain amount of time to clear it. Shoot an enemy and you gain some time, get hit and you lose some time. When time runs out, you die. It allows the player to approach each level with time management -rather than life management- in mind and make decisions about what to kill, and when, based upon the clock. This system not only gives the player more leeway in their attack and defense posturing, but also has the added benefit of not simply ending the game or dying when one gets hit. By letting the player stay in the game through multiple failures, Sine Mora creates a superior atmosphere for improving, and graciously cuts down on moments of frustration.
If that wasn't enough, the player can also slow time to get out of particularly sticky situations. The right trigger slows down time roughly 50%, and is good in short bursts for when you've found yourself in a corner of speeding bullet patters and need a few extra moments to assess an escape route. This ability can't be continually used, however. Not only is it regulated by a meter which drains and can only be filled up by collecting orbs which are, only rarely, dropping by enemies, but your main time does not slow down. Meaning that the clock is essentially moving at double the speed during these moments.
There is also the standard shooter trope of collecting weapon and time upgrades -in the form of orbs- from fallen enemies, which will indubitably fly out of your ship upon being hit and fly away as you desperately try to find the few moments for recollecting them. And here is one of the stranger design decisions of Sine Mora, albeit a small one. Orbs which fly out of your craft do no exit, spread and slowly fly backward, giving you a better chance of recollecting them. Rather, they fly outward and to the right at high speed against the flow of enemies, making recollecting them a fools errand in most occasions. It also doesn't help that Sine Mora seems to favor the practice of filling up the entire screen with bullets rather than utilizing patterns which let the player to find safe passage, even if by mili-seconds.
But these are small complaints in a game that not only offers fantastic gameplay, but wraps it up in a story thick with lore and character. I was surprised, not only how quickly I was thrown into the middle of a inter-racial conflict, but also how deep that conflict was. Told mostly through text and, non-english, voiceovers it weaves a tale of loss, intrigue and struggle of a depth rarely found in full scale AAA games today. Some might find it hard to make it past the multiple paragraphs of text, and the Hungarian language barrier, but if you take the time to read you'll find yourself fairly enthralled by the story. Its tone, similar to that of The City of Lost Children, contains enough sorrow and desperation as to make most French cinematographers weep.
Sine Mora strives to make its mark and succeeds in not only doing so, but also in firmly tattooing its initials upon it. It is a game who's name will surely come up over and over by equestrians of the genre, and will be a superb introduction for neophytes who might have stayed away. But beyond that, Sine Mora does even more. It treats its subject matter with a maturity and solemnity that redefines what a side-scrolling shooter can be and, in doing so, almost creates a genre all its own. Within a genre that has been around almost as long as video games themselves, Sine Mora stands tall as a perpetuating knight, carrying its banner into the next phase.