The arcade generation of gamers is quickly fading away, as the rise of home consoles replaces the classics. Gone are the days of Galaga, Pac-Man and Centipede. The influence these games had on the industry is still legendary and necessary, but rarely is anybody ever found in an actual arcade anymore. Maybe while waiting for a movie to start or waiting bored in a supermarket, but today’s arcades just don’t hold the treasures that gamers were raised on. Of all the genres to go the way of the buffalo, bullet hell shooters are easily the most obvious missing suspect. These quarter-stealing games emptied more pockets than a doe-eyed orphan, but there hasn’t been a resurgence in this particular genre to take hold. That’s where Sine Mora comes in.
Developed in conjunction by Grasshopper Manufacture (Suda 51‘s crazed company that released the excellent yet overlooked Shadows of the Damned) and Digital Reality, Sine Mora hails back to the days when games were unforgiving challenges that were meant to be conquered as much as they were mean to be enjoyed. These games never held your hand through everything, throwing gamers into a hell filled with bullets and missiles that were nearly impossible to survive instead. Just like these classics of old, Sine Mora is an extremely challenging yet highly enjoyable throwback to the bullet hell genre, although it doesn’t come without its downfalls.
The biggest drawback to be found in Sine Mora is the story. These types of games are simply not meant to contain a grand, sweeping narrative, yet Sine Mora tries to cram one down our throats. Throughout every mission, the action is interrupted by dialogue between lifeless animal characters whose motives are unclear. The general story is that Ronotra Koss is seeking to destroy a race of these animal people, which he does by kidnapping a young girl and commandeering an AI. Another group of animal people band together to fight Koss. This was literally all that I could understand from the plot. The flowing interludes did nothing to help explain just what was going on, and the dialogue felt slapped together. Simply put, the plot is indecipherable, and after the first few attempts to discern why everything is happening, gamers will eventually give up.
Despite the story not being as affecting as it could be, it’s hard to fault the developers for at least trying to put a story to a genre that isn’t known for its standout plot lines. Compared to other shmup games, the story told here is the equivalent of a modern classic simply because it exists.
While normally a lacking story would bee a critical blow to a game, Sine Mora hearkens back to the days when bullet hell shooters were more about the insane amount of enemies and bullets on screen at one time. In this aspect, Sine Mora is a smashing success, presenting an engrossing challenge that will have arcade lovers drooling at the scope of it all.
Gameplay is simple enough, as players fly through a 2.5D world that is beautifully drawn and rendered. All of the environments are unique and distracting in how amazingly animated they are. The diesel punk setting is also quite jaw dropping, and the developers can’t be faulted for any of their design decisions. Boss battles are staggeringly huge, with clockwork creations almost too beautiful to destroy blocking players’ paths. Bullets and missiles fly through the air seamlessly, as the engine burns on all cylinders to present a flawless representation of what the bullet hell genre can become. Sine Mora goes to great lengths to retain many of the bullet hell mainstays (simple controls, expert challenges, etc.) while also adding more modern twists that will help the genre find a resurgence in popularity.
One of the new twists is the time based health system, which eschews the classic health bar for a time mechanic that has its ups and downs. By killing enemies, players add some time to their clocks, which they can also do by picking up various dropped power ups. However, take a few hits, and time is shaved off, making the rush to kill more ships all the more tense. It’s interesting at first, but once bullets start filling the screen, it can become frustratingly difficult to monitor. Despite this, the time mechanic is excellently executed, adding a challenging twist to the normal health system.
Players are also given secondary weapons to help clear the screen for a second, a tool to slow down time, weapon upgrades and score multipliers that can help boost scores to astronomical levels. This help doesn’t come at a cheap price, though. By either getting hit or using the secondary weapon, players forfeit their score multipliers, resetting it at once. This is definitely an intelligent choice, as it gives an appropriately difficult degree of caution to the hardcore shmup fans while not being too harsh on casual players.
Aside from the story mode, there are three other modes that are all much more entertaining to play through. Arcade mode lets gamers play through all of the stages present in story mode without having to sludge through incomprehensible stories and awful dialogue. Score attack mode presents the most challenging mode of play, as gamers are tasked with getting through a whole level with the highest score possible using only one life. As difficult as it is, the experience is engrossing and rewarding for those willing to push through it. Finally, there is a boss training mode, which allows players to practice against any of the bosses they have previous conquered, of which there are many.
All of these modes are fully customizable, giving players the freedom to choose their pilot, weapons, stages, difficulty and every other tiny aspect imaginable. Xbox LIVE Arcade leaderboards are also connected to each mode, allowing players to compare their scores to each others’, but other than that, there is no multiplayer. This is disappointing, because there was a great opportunity to drag your friends down to hell with you. Another odd decision was the rating of Sine Mora: the game is rated M for strong language. Had the developers simply removed a few f-bombs here and there, they could have released this to a much wider audience.
But aside from the various modes of play and leaderboards for gaining bragging rights, Sine Mora offers nothing but furious shmup gameplay. For every flaw that can be found in the game, it can quickly be remedied by simply playing through a stage and remembering what attracted gamers to this genre in the first place. Sine Mora is a masterful send up to a genre thought long dead that will hopefully catch the attention of the uninitiated. However, it will mostly appeal to those already familiar with the genre, as the extremely challenging gameplay will most-likely scare away more casual gamers. I consider myself at least decent at video games, and many stages found me dead within seconds.
The frustration found in the challenge is one that will be appreciated by those gamers who remember spending allowances in the arcade down the street. Sine Mora easily makes up for any of its downfalls by offering an overall stunning product that shines with high production values and a true love for the shmup genre. Lovers of shmups will find enough to love here in order to last them for years to come.
This review is based on a copy of the game that was provided to us for review purposes.
Sine Mora offers purely insane bullet hell gameplay, set against beautiful backdrops and excellent overall presentation.