With side scrolling shooter Sine Mora developers Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture have aimed to do the seemingly impossible - deliver a bullet hell shmup that can be challenging enough to satisfy the most hardcore maniakku fans of the genre, but also enticing and accessible to casual fans and STG (ShooTing Game) first-timers.
The premium price-tag of 1200 MS points (£10.20) may seem a little steep, and it would be were this just another revision of a formula which, let’s face it, hasn't changed much since the mid-1990s. However, with Sine Mora Microsoft have published a game which offers far more than repetitive dodge-bullets-and-hold-down-fire antics.
Immediately noticeable is just how beautiful this game looks. Indeed, the graphics are, without a shred of hyperbole, nothing short of breathtaking. The diesel-punk aesthetic of the airships and artillery contrasts against lush oceans and vivid rainforests, whilst complementing robotic manufacturing plants and mine-filled claustrophobic underwater bases. In fact, Sine Mora isn't just one of the prettiest games on Xbox Live Arcade (on which it is exclusively released); it is one of the most visually stunning games available in any medium. Although the game is played on a 2D plane in classic side scroller fashion, it takes full advantage of its 3D engine, the camera dramatically swooping and banking at various junctures. Run into a boss, be it a mechanised giant squid or a towering robotic death machine, and its name is stamped onto the screen with a satisfying clunk, a la Guy Ritchie. It is no surprise that these frequent boss battles are among the most visually stimulating moments of Sine Mora, given that they were designed largely by anime guru Mahiro Maeda, of Neon Genesis Evangelion/Kill Bill fame. As well as the jaw-dropping eye candy a nod must be given to the excellent soundtrack. A suitably intense 1970s style electronica score accompanies the levels, with satisfying arcade ‘dings’ permeating the action every time a power-up is nabbed.
Luckily, the game is not just a pretty face. Featuring a cast of anthropomorphised time-bending animals (apparently because art director Gez Fry feared humans ‘wouldn’t be crazy enough’), Sine Mora makes excellent use of a very simple gameplay mechanic. In lieu of a standard life-bar there is a ticking clock: take damage and the player loses valuable seconds, hit an enemy and they gain time. Once out of time, the player’s craft explodes into a ball of flame and, invariably, a joypad is tossed across the room in a minor fit of rage. Like Battle Garegga and R-Type before it, Sine Mora inspires that primordial ‘just-one-more-go’ feeling, managing to delight and infuriate in almost equal measure. The ticking clock is wonderfully complemented by the refreshingly varied level design. One moment the pilot might be frantically dodging hundreds of bullets in a vast open vista, clinging to whatever precious seconds are left by avoiding gunfire and picking off fleets of enemies. The next could see the player scouring sparsely populated caverns for something, anything, to shoot in order to gain time and health which, in the world of Sine Mora, are one and the same.
The controls are stripped back and straightforward – at the player’s disposal are a main weapon, a more powerful sub-weapon and a ‘time capsule’. The former can be levelled up a maximum of nine times by collecting floating power-ups. However, take enough damage and these power-ups spill out over the screen, forcing the player to frantically gather them up again (invariably under heavy fire) before they disappear for good. In a screen filled with enemies, every bullet counts and the pilot is often encouraged to attempt risky manoeuvres which could cost precious seconds, in order to cling onto their ordnance.
There are a large variety of aircraft at the player’s disposal, each of which has a different sub-weapon, but in reality these guns all serve the same purpose – wiping out a vast number of enemies, but at the cost of the player’s multiplier bonus. For fans of the genre, top score is paramount, so this weapon is only used in extremis. More interesting is the time capsule, a device which can either slow down time or rewind it, allowing the player to navigate the narrowest passages or correct grave errors, respectively. It is also worth noting that each plane handles slightly differently, and hardcore shmup enthusiasts will no doubt make use of the diagrams detailing where each craft’s hit box is located.
As well as playing like a dream, Sine Mora boasts an uncharacteristically deep science fiction storyline which ties in nicely with the time manipulation aspect of the gameplay. There are two main strands of narrative, one which revolves around two warring factions, and another more interesting one focussing on a jaded, crippled buffalo named Koss (seriously), seeking revenge for his murdered son. Don’t let the furry characters fool you – this is a game for grown ups. There is plenty of unintentionally hilarious blue language (“F**king die, you son of a f**king ass!”) and the plot is fairly dark stuff. A large portion of the story concerns Koss blackmailing a cancer-stricken rape victim in order to suit his own ends. Admittedly, the storyline gets a little confusing, is often overly verbose and arguably won’t add a lot to the enjoyment of the game for some players. However, others will enjoy delving into the deep mythos, and the non-linear way in which the plot unfolds rewards repeated playthroughs.
If variety is the spice of life, then Sine Mora is one hot tamale. As well as a great deal of variation between the playable characters, the aircraft and the levels themselves, there is an array of game modes designed to appeal to both score-hunting experts and newcomers to the genre. The story mode can be completed on normal mode in about five hours without too much hair-pulling, whereas ‘challenging’ mode ups the difficulty significantly. Arcade mode removes the storyline completely and allows players a greater amount of customisation, whilst ramping up the challenge even further to either ‘hard’ or ‘insane’, the forming being ‘for the true STG enthusiast’ and the latter ‘for superplay attempts only!’ There are also score attack and boss training modes for players to further hone their skills.
Easy to pick up and nigh on impossible to master, Sine Mora is a joy from beginning to end. Playing like a love letter to the best shoot-em-ups of the past 20 years, it also manages to vastly improve upon the formula. Boasting an unprecedented level of depth and variation not normally associated with the side scrollers, Sine Mora rejuvenates the increasingly stale bullet hell genre and elevates it from an arena for elitist fanboys to something anybody with a passing interest can enjoy.