Review: Sine Mora delivers bullet hell bliss, moody themes, and sick dieselpunk style to PS3
Over the past several years we’ve seen a number of great shoot ‘em up games. It’s obvious that the genre isn’t dead, and developers continue to turn out rewarding takes on this classic style of gameplay. That said, no 2D shooter in recent memory attempts to take as many risks as Sine Mora. The project, which was developed by Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture, ultimately succeeds, and it’s because most of those risks pay off. What you get is a stellar shmup that it isn’t afraid to be bold and actually manages to make advances in the genre that are quite significant. This proved to be the case when Sine Mora originally launched on Xbox Live Arcade earlier this year, and it still proves true now that the game is available on the PlayStation Network.
It would’ve been easy for the developers to craft a solid shooter with no real story, but Sine Mora tells a tale that expands with every passing level. The game deals with death, destruction, and war, and it does so in a manner that’s engaging. Unfortunately, so much goes on and none of it is ever very clear or concise that it’s easy to get confused by it all. Thankfully, even if you don’t fully understand the story, there are memorable moments to be found regardless, primarily with the game’s cast of talking bipedal animals. One character, for example, is motivated by revenge after the death of his son. His quest for retribution drives him to exploit a rape victim for his own gain. As coldhearted as that may seem, this character is actually easy to sympathize with. This is just one of many interesting cast members in Sine Mora. No two characters are alike, and they all have multiple traits that keep them from ever being one-sided and disposable.
This is easy. Just kidding. This is actually pretty tough.
The shooting in Sine Mora is a unmistakably bullet hell in both style and fiendishness. This is a tough game even on its lowest difficulty setting, and it takes some real effort to progress. That’s part of what makes Sine Mora so spectacular — you actually have to try to reach the endgame, and when you do, it’s incredibly euphoric. Pacing is also pleasant and constantly gives you a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Rather than forcing you to play through lengthy levels with a tough boss thrown in at the end, you constantly encounter massive threats. The game flows superbly, tasking you with taking on smaller enemies in small bursts and frequently feeding you to massive mechanical monstrosities. Not only does this keep the tension high, but it also manages to keep you interested the entire time.
As if this approach to level progression wasn’t already impressive enough, Sine Mora also presents an interesting take on survival. Rather than having a life bar for your ship, you instead have a clock that measures how long you have to get through a stage. Killing enemies and collecting pick-ups adds time to the clock, while taking damage removes precious seconds from the timer. This “health” system is one of the most unique mechanics seen in a video game in recent memory and it forces you to be quick but careful as you fight your way through countless enemies and thousands (or possibly millions) of projectiles.
You also have the ability to slow down time in Sine Mora. This is especially useful when you’re being bombarded by heavy fire from enemies, and it allows you to maneuver around the rain of bullets being blasted your way. A meter measures how much of this ability you have left, so it’s best to use it wisely. Thankfully, defeated baddies drop power-ups that increase this meter, but even these items are rare. Sine Mora constantly requires you to make tough calls, and it’s all the better for it. It isn’t long before you’re trying to decide whether you should slow down time while facing a horde of enemies or save your resources for the inevitable boss battle ahead.
The world of Sine Mora is a spectacle to behold.
Sine Mora isn’t a simple one-trick pony and gladly treats you to a number of great modes. Story Mode is the most approachable of the lot, granting you several continues to get through the complex narrative. If you run out of continues, you can restart from the last chapter you played rather than being forced back to the very beginning of the game. The one setback here is that you lose all of your firepower upgrades, which means you’re very likely to restart a later stage with some seriously underpowered weaponry. The result is a slightly forgiving mode that still punishes you for your failure.
Arcade Mode is a more standard offering, and it plays like a traditional shooter compared to Story Mode. Here you have multiple ships, pilots, and power-ups available to choose from. You can continue to use the game’s slow motion ability, or you can change things up and use a different enhancement that’s not available in Story Mode such as the rewind ability. Having multiple options to choose from adds to the variety in Sine Mora. As you may expect judging from its title, Arcade Mode is where high score chasers will go. This option is also less forgiving than Story Mode, and if you run out of continues, it’s back to the start for you.
Boss Training is another nice addition to Sine Mora, and it presents you with the chance to battle the game’s bosses. Given just how much fun the boss encounters are, this is a welcome mode that truly showcases the gigantic forces that test you throughout your journey. Exclusive to the PlayStation Network version of Sine Mora is the brand new Challenge Mode. That’s actually a fitting name for this component, because it will truly kick your butt without remorse. Challenge Mode features a string of quick objectives that test your speed, shooting ability, precision, and power-up knowledge. Despite the fact that these challenges are short, they can feel deceptively long due to how difficult they are. If you’re a completionist, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
This is Papa Carlo, a boss that really doesn't give a damn about you.
While Digital Reality handled the gameplay mechanics of Sine Mora, Grasshopper Manufacture was brought onboard to create the game’s visual style. Simply put, this is easily one of the most lovely-looking shmups around. Environments range from lush and vibrant to moody and dark. Whether you’re flying over oceans, exploring forests, visiting mechanical lairs, or going underwater, the world design of Sine Mora is a sight to behold, and its dieselpunk trappings shine as true stylistic splendor. The soundtrack, created by famed Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, is equally pleasant, with some truly standout themes that fit the action and tone perfectly.
Playing through the campaign in Sine Mora will likely take you anywhere between two to four hours, but thanks to the additional modes, shooter fans can get even more mileage out of the game. To be quite honest, this type of shooter isn’t really for everyone, and even fans of the genre may find themselves frustrated due to the difficulty, confusing story, and punishment for dying. That said, Sine Mora still shines brightly as a great example of a classic genre being refined and expanded upon. This is easily one of the most brilliant shmups of the last decade, and now that it’s available across multiple platforms, it deserves to be played by anyone who dares enter its unremorseful yet wondrous world.
Want to talk about indie games, Kirby, or cheap pizza? Follow me on Twitter @dr_davidsanchez.