Sine Mora is a captivating game that provides an amazing amount of detail and depth that’s hardly seen in the shmup genre. Gameplay wise the game may not be a flawless masterpiece that deserves to be displayed as the epitome of a perfect game experience, but the gameplay is put together in a smart way that forgoes needless difficulty ramps in favor of slick encounters and scenarios that don’t always involve blowing up giant bosses or mass enemy fleets. Not only is the game fun to play, but Sine Mora is also a beauty as well as it features visuals that are varied and are just filled with originality. The extent of shmup games may be limited, but if you’re looking for a good XBLA game then Sine Mora fulfills that quest as it’s one of the best games released on the platform.
+ Game design is perfect in how it doesn’t rely on constant difficulty to entertain the player but instead provides boss encounters that are presented in a unique and logical way.
+ The story of the game is really intense but is captivating in how it provides something different within the genre.
+ Visually the game is beautiful as the graphics have a nice sheen to them and the art design doesn’t stay within one style.
+ Akira Yamaoka’s score suits the game perfectly and creates an outstanding mood.
- Occasionally it’s difficult to differentiate between enemy fire as it melds into the background easily.
At this point when I go into a game I like to believe that I know what to expect. Being a game “journo” and all I do have a rather extensive knowledge on some games leading up to their release so I know a thing or two about game X before I ultimately have the pleasure of reviewing it. I don’t know if saying such a thing totally makes me out to be silly, but I’m just passionate about games so I often religiously follow a property way farther than most people tend to do. So with that said I found myself in a unique scenario in which I played a game I knew about previously but was constantly surprised with each passing level. The game that managed to chip away at my jaded gamer exterior was none other than Sine Mora, the new shmup from Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture that in my eyes is immediately one of those special games that should be cherished by those who play it.
Leading up to the release of Sine Mora I did know a thing or two about the project having covered it on Shogun Gamer in the past and playing the demo at PAX Prime. But with that said actually playing the game I felt like I was transported to my days as a young gamer back when GamePro Magazine was my only outlet for gaming news. To put it simply, I was simply staggered by the experience Sine Mora provided as it goes beyond the standard realms most shmup games have gone in recently.
I don’t know if it’s my general admiration of the shmup genre that made me like Sine Mora so much or simply because the game is epic to play. I think it’s likely a combination of both of those things but I also things but I also think it’s because Sine Mora has an obscene amount of depth. Most shmup games provide depth in the gameplay through different battle tactics, weapons, etc., but Digital Reality went beyond that to provide a game that is riddled with an amount of depth that I think is almost unparalleled in shmup games. What Digital Reality has done is that they’ve actually gone about not only designing a fun game but they’ve also done what I think is ever important but always looked upon as a minor aspect in some shmup games: they’ve fleshed out the world and characters to create a well-rounded experience instead of simply going from zone to zone with next to no explanation at all.
Sine Mora is one of those games where I could talk endlessly about the game and potentially drop a few spoilers for folks but the last thing I want to do is either bore people or ruin the game for them. What I will say about the game, in particular the narrative, is that it isn’t an overly arcade or serialized game in which an evil invader/dictator needs to be stopped or some weird alien force that’s never really explained needs to be annihilated. Instead of dealing with narrative fair that is not only tired but cliché in some respects, Sine Mora delves into heavy subjects like mass genocide and a father whose thirst for revenge has no boundaries. The story itself has a resounding punch to it as it makes the missions feel more impactful since there’s a backstory to what’s happening that honestly is the mature style subject matter I like to see more of in video games. What makes the narrative approach of Sine Mora even more interesting, and in my mind that more brilliant, is that the game is set on a far off alien world with humanoid animals in place of humans. No, Sine Mora isn’t Star Fox: Hardened Edition as there aren’t any annoying support characters like Slippy Toad, but the cast of Sine Mora is instead one that features complex characters that have either put themselves in situations where the end result won’t be good or were simply blackmailed into helping a madman fulfill his quest for revenge.
What’s interesting about Sine Mora’s story and in my view makes it surpass other stories within the genre is that the subject matter is deep but it doesn’t feel too forced or like it’s trying to hit you on the head repeatedly by focusing on certain themes. I think the use of characters that are anthropomorphic animals does create a fresh feeling within the narrative that also lessens the emotional impact ever so slightly so gamers won’t be completely depressed over hearing how characters were rapists or an entire species was wiped out just for the sake of it. The key thing that shocked me the most when I played Sine Mora is that not only was I enthralled in the story with each passing story. These interludes may be a bit long at times but I was fascinated whenever they popped up since they delved into why the world of Seol was filled with strife and pure hatred.
When people first saw gameplay footage of Sine Mora it was believed amongst core shmup enthusiasts that the game would be a Euro shmup and wouldn’t hold a candle compared to Japanese shmups from developers such as Cave. I think it’s stupid for people to think like that and upon playing Sine Mora the game has a style that’s completely unique to its own as it neither falls into a pattern that other European shmups may have fallen into nor does it present an overly stylized and simply crazy scenario that some Japanese shmups go in. Sine Mora is just a game that had a clear creative vision and that vision seemed to be fully realized in the finished product with a huge amount of detail and attention put in.
One of the most important things in a shmup game can be the pace of the game. It’s important in any game to have a good pace in respect to enemy encounters and boss battles but seeing as how constant action is the only thing that’s provided in most shmup games it’s good to find the balance between dishing out tons of enemies, giving the player room to breathe, and then throwing a challenging boss battle their way. I wouldn’t say that the pace of Sine Mora is subdued, but it instead knows how to present enemy encounters in a way so as to they’re not relentless in addition to providing boss encounters that actually feel natural given the setting of the level or are introduced in a unique way.
With a regular attack, a special attack, and the ability to slow-down time briefly, certain encounters in Sine Mora can be easy but ever so slightly the difficulty is indeed raised with each passing level and boss encounter. If anything I think Sine Mora does a good job at balancing the bullet hell elements that the shmup genre is known for and still providing something folks can play, and I’m not referring to casual gamers, without having to memorize each enemy pattern and missile placement prior to beginning a stage. By no means is Sine Mora an instantly easy game as it did kick my ass now and then which resulted in me starting a stage over again to clear it perfectly. But the game still presents that somewhat sadomasochistic difficulty level that some shmup games are known for as the higher difficulty modes (Hard and Insane) may be the de facto difficulty for many of the core shmup gamers out there as it provides that constant challenge and razor sharp reflexes that the shmup genre is known for.
Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of Sine Mora’s style is unique to itself and a perfect example of that are the boss encounters. Sine Mora keeps the shmup tradition alive by going big with many of the boss encounters, but instead of randomly throwing in an enemy that almost has no bearing on the story or design of the level each boss has a unique purpose within the world and makes sense in that given situation. Seeing a boss teased briefly during a stage only to see it crash through a rock structure and the battle to begin lends a dynamic element to the game that is consistently felt through all the battles, not in just how the bosses are introduced but how the actual battles go down as well. The actual mechanics of each boss battle don’t vary or are vastly different compared to other shmup games, but instead of a boss mostly being static and having only three or four major animations the bosses in Sine Mora will actually move, shift, and given their mechanical nature they’re switch modes to present new firing options that I had to deal with. Seeing things like a massive submarine turn around to open a different barrage of firepower results in battles that have a larger scope instead of simply shooting a glowing spot for a minute or two until the boss goes boom.
One element that kind of left me on the fence about Sine Mora is how player health is handled. A set amount of Continues is offered in the game if I sadly perished during one encounter, but even if I was in tip top shape I was always trying to beat the clock in order to survive. You see, for reasons that make a lot of sense given the plot of the game which I don’t want to spoil too much, each stage in Sine Mora has a set amount of time for you to complete such as 30 seconds. Now that may sound crazy, but I didn’t have to do a speed run for a stage as I instead had 30 seconds from the start and I could earn more time, a mere few extra seconds, upon destroying enemies. In a lot of ways the time element of Sine Mora is interesting since it required me to be quick on my toes and not spend too much time dilly dallying to do whatever, but it does present some issues.
At times having to compete against the clock and a barrage of enemies can make things more frustrating than they should be, even by shmup standards. Going up against some enemies early on in a stage was often a breeze but having nine seconds left on the clock and having two boss gun placements to destroy did lead me to psych myself out in a way and die, an event that I think other players may face. My occasional issues with the time mechanic aside, however pity they may be, I do think the element takes away from the true level of difficulty by having a set amount of lives (let’s say three for the sake of the argument) and perhaps a more refined health bar. I don’t think the time element will draw the ire from most shmup fans in how it’s executed or how it may make the game easier in a few ways, but I do hope Digital Reality refines things if we see a successor to Sine Mora in the future.
The unique presentation of Sine Mora is of course attributed to the design of the world which is one part steampunk, complete futuristic sci-fi, and one part reality. It’s kind of hard to peg down the exact style of Sine Mora since each stage is vastly different both in tone and how it’s presented. One minute I was flying above the sea of an alien world rich with color but then later on I was deep in a dark robotic factory with flying mechanical droids and hot metal being poured out of cauldrons. There’s a very retro look in the ships featured in Sine Mora, especially the three key character ships, which isn’t too niche in a way that it’s obviously trying to be an ode to something but instead manages to be entirely unique to itself. Just like the story Digital Reality devised, the world of Sine Mora is incredibly dense from a design point of view and isn’t filled with superfluous things merely to add a bit of flash to everything. Each stage, whether it’s a sun filled green landscape or a dense city has a purpose within the game and feel like a proper 3D stage instead of a simple background being repeated to serve as a backdrop for the primary action.
Not to jump backwards too much, but the design of the bosses in particular was one of the big highlights for me as it’s one of the strongest elements of the game. As I said the bosses feel natural in how they’re introduced in a stage and feel like real machines of war through their actions, but they look the part as well. The overall art design of the game is good and consistent, but the bosses really gave the game a somewhat grounded sense as they seemed like logical weapons of war instead of being some absurd machine that would feel in place in a Gundam cartoon. Seeing things like a flaming skull emblem on a shipped dubbed a Sentinel may seem like a minor detail but it’s things like that which give the game an incredible sense of detail and depth since it in a way creates atmosphere that the world of Seol is a living place instead of being a setting for a video game.
The colorful presentation in Sine Mora is never once too much or feels contrived but it does have one drawback every now and then: it’s hard to decipher enemy bullets against some backdrops or even your own bullets from that of enemies. It didn’t happen to me too often as some enemies shoot missiles or rather distinguishable red orbs, but every now and then it was hard to pick up a blue enemy bullet with a blue/light colored background or even distinguish an enemy bullet from the red ones I’m shooting towards it. Now there is a way to tell what’s coming your way in some cases as there’s a slight glow to enemy fire, but in the heat of battle it was a bit difficult for me to keep my eyes that keen since I was trying to survive and beat the clock if I was running short on time. The issue of certain enemy fire being difficult to distinguish is far from being a game breaking issue as it wasn’t a huge issue for me and perhaps such a thing may be adjusted via a post-release patch.
Sine Mora is a deep and simply beautiful game that is far from being yet another flashy shmup that has no real entertainment value outside of trying to repeatedly beat a high-score. The shmup basis of Sine Mora isn’t just an excuse to blow stuff up and have a good time but is also the driving force behind a story that’s wonderfully written and is rather bold material to be told not only in a shmup but any sort of video game. The gameplay isn’t completely perfect but it feels right and has a near unprecedented amount of depth in how things are laid out to the player instead of going the rollercoaster route in which the dives and turns are completely expected and the boss battles are dully designed. I know the shmup genre only caters to a select few that are extremely picky in what they play, but for the shmup enthusiasts out there Sine Mora is a game that needs to be played and supported as it could be one of those defining games which reinvigorate a once declining genre.
A review copy for this game was supplied by the developer.