The shoot-'em-up is one of the oldest video game genres, with classics like Asteroids and Space Invaders. It is also a genre that has had ebbs and flows; drastic changes would occur almost all at once and then there would be little to no changes for a while. For current shoot-'em-ups, this means the embrace of bullet-hell, where the screen fills up with enemy projectiles and your task is more avoidance than aggression. It's a type of shoot-'em-up that works well but is intimidating enough that casual fans either revert to playing older shoot-'em-ups or simply abandon the genre. As if to answer their prayers, Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture have teamed to create Sine Mora, a shoot-'em-up that caters to both audiences and delivers enough exciting mechanics that it can easily be called the best of its genre for this console generation.
Sine Mora has some traits of a classic side-scrolling shooter. With an exception or two, levels automatically move to the right at a decent speed while enemy swarms come in from all directions and you shoot forward at all times. Your arsenal consists of a basic gun with unlimited ammunition as well as a limited supply of special weapons, including cluster bombs and a concentrated laser beam. Destroyed enemies drop power-ups, including the ability to increase your primary weapon's firepower and refill your special weapon supply, all of which are needed when you face any of the multi-stage bosses.
There are a few twists in the gameplay, especially in regards to time. Aside from your primary gun and secondary weapon, you have the ability to slow down time. Though your enemies and their projectiles are slowed down, you move at a normal speed, giving you the chance to better dodge things coming your way. Every level and section contains a timer that ends the game once the counter reaches zero. You can grab some power-ups to extend the timer up to 100 seconds, but the best way to add a few seconds to the clock is through the destruction of enemies. Colliding into the environment, an enemy, or a stray bullet doesn't immediately take you out of the game but removes seconds from the clock. Death may not be immediate with this mechanic, but it still punishes players who play sloppily instead of with precision.
The game consists of a few modes. You must go through Story mode if you want to unlock everything the game has to offer. The plot is fairly pedestrian. During a government-ordered bombing run on a time-traveling civilization, one pilot refused to follow orders and was subsequently executed. While the nation felt that justice was done, the pilot's father felt otherwise. After joining up with the last survivors of the destroyed race, he utilizes their talents and expertise against the empire in an act of revenge.
While most shoot-'em-ups don't have great stories (if at all), this tale is downright bizarre. A rape victim who speaks with a voice box is blackmailed into fighting or else she'll be exposed as a half-breed instead of a pure citizen. A member of the upper crust takes out her frustrations on every enemy she faces because she is unable to have children. A government goes as far as robbing its test subjects of their senses to produce better experiment results. It's an eerie tale made even stranger by the scenes between levels and sections, which are simply walls of text with no visual accompaniment. Several sections are also played out of order, though different perspectives and radio chatter show the characters to be anthropomorphic; it dulls the horror a bit but ratchets up the weirdness.
Story mode plays with the typical shoot-'em-up level layout and progression in several different ways. Though there are only seven formal levels in the game, including the prologue, each level is split into sections where you take control of several different planes. The crafts control the same but have some differences, such as the upgraded primary weapon and the type of secondary weapon. The sections are also truncated in length, so while there are normal enemies to fight, you'll encounter boss fights faster and more often than you would in other shoot-'em-ups.
The biggest change in Story mode is in the difficulty level. On Normal, the game represents shoot-'em-ups prior to the rise of the bullet-hell shooter. Some elements of newer shooters are present, like the notion of a hit box being the only vulnerable part of your ship. For the most part, your enemies dole out manageable fire while the bullet patterns and shots from bosses aren't as harrowing as expected. Your continue count also starts out at 10 with a generous checkpoint system, and the only penalty for depleting the 10 continues is that you start at the beginning of the last level. Bumping up the difficulty level makes things more difficult, with more bullets being fired and only five continues, but it feels tamer than what you'd normally find nowadays.
The focus on this reduced level of difficulty does a good job of opening up the genre to fans who have felt intimidated or bored over the last few years. Seeing a bevy of bullets come at you for the first time can feel overwhelming to new genre fans, and the infinite continues and ability to start immediately where you left off can cause some players to play through the game once and never come back. Here, death sends you back to a checkpoint, and real progress is made by those who try to be careful and plan their moves accordingly. It feels more accessible, and it wouldn't be surprising if this mode brings old shoot-'em-up fans back to the fold.
Arcade mode eschews the plot and cut scenes in Story mode in favor of more familiar gameplay progression, albeit with the same number of boss encounters. However, there are other, bigger changes implemented. The scoring system remains the same. Multipliers get reset if you get hit or use anything other than your primary gun, but the modification comes from the amount of time you spend not getting hit. The longer you are mobile, the faster a meter gets filled. It only grades your performance on a C to A scale in real time and doles out bonus multipliers. Starting stages can no longer be selected, but you can choose other things. Plane selection (with visible hit boxes) governs your firepower type, pilot selection dictates your special weapon, and the time slow ability can be swapped out for a rewind function that sets you back a few seconds after you die or a reflective shield that lasts for a short amount of time. There are about 60 different combinations that can be formed, giving you many options.
The biggest one has to do with difficulty level, which is limited to something higher than those offered in Story mode and only gives you three continues. The change in difficulty level also changes the fundamental game from a more classic style to a more modern bullet-hell shooter. The Hard difficulty level is tough for genre veterans, and Insane lives up to its name, as enemies produce bullets even after they expire. Factor in the constant challenge presented by the countdown clock, and you have something that even the most seasoned of bullet-hell fans will enjoy.
Score Attack takes on the same structure as Arcade mode, with fewer changes than expected. You can't progress further once a stage has been completed, and there are no continues in play. Your score is recorded, so your best run always makes it to the leaderboards.
The final mode is Boss Practice, which lets you face off against any boss of your choosing. It plays similarly to Score Attack except that your scores are never posted online, and you can modify things like primary firepower level and number of secondary weapons. Considering that the bosses take up most of your time in the game, you'll play this mode if you want to try a strategy you want to use.
With most of the game feeling just right, there is one thing that annoys all players, and that is the screen shake. Hitting certain objects causes the screen to shake violently before returning to normal. While it may not be bothersome when playing the game on the easiest difficulty level, the shake is detrimental on higher difficulty levels, where too many projectiles can cause cheap hits because the player's view was obstructed by artificial handicaps. The option can be turned off, but it's on by default and will irritate those who won't know that the option can be disabled.
Like most of the game, the sound blends together some unusual qualities and constructs something that works very well. Akira Yamaoka, the composer behind a good deal of the Silent Hill series and Shadows of the Damned, presents a soundtrack that is an eclectic mix of typical shooter fare and haunting material. Despite the clash of genres with pieces that are sometimes off-beat, the score is arresting and is instantly another highlight in Yamaoka's portfolio. The voice work is another feature of the game, as it's all done in Hungarian as opposed to English, Japanese or gibberish. A language barely used for North American audiences, it lends some allure to the game's world and makes the story even more fascinating.
Graphically, Sine Mora is stunning. The environments are varied and contain enough set pieces to elicit awe when you first see them, especially with the sweeping camera. The backgrounds are rich with little details and are swathed in a vibrant color palette that looks like video game concept art. The same goes for the many bosses; things like insignias and rivets can easily be seen amidst all of the action, especially on bosses who span several screens in either direction. The number of on-screen projectiles and explosions don't affect the frame rate, making for a smooth shooting experience that simpler games sometimes can't manage. The overall look does too good a job of blending together objects. These spots are few and far between, and they don't ruin the game's aesthetic.
Sine Mora accomplishes the difficult task of pleasing both camps of shooting fans. Casual fans and those more accustomed to the style of yesteryear will appreciate a new shoot-'em-up that's designed in that vein. Modern bullet-hell fans will appreciate taking on those same challenges under their own terms. Players also appreciate the layer of strategy afforded by the scoring system as well as the use of time as an eternal adversary. The technical aspects of the title shine brightly, and the story, while strange, is at least memorable. There's little to nothing to really fault the game for, so shooting fans are highly encouraged to pick up Sine Mora on Xbox Live Arcade for 1,200 Microsoft points ($15).
More articles about Sine Mora