Sine Mora Reviewed
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 console.
They call it the Eternal War, a conflict spanning centuries that is not limited by the linear constraints of time. The Layil Empire, interested in tightening their grip on the world, seek out and destroy a troublesome racial minority within and without their borders. Known as Enkies, these rare creatures are the object of the Empire’s ire not because they control a resource so prosaic as land, fuel, or precious metals, but because they can control one of the most important resources of all: time.
The Empire is far from helpless, even against bands of time-travelling warriors. In a bold move, they launch a vast armada of bombers and fighter aircraft to bomb the mountaintop fortress of the Enkies to wipe them out. Five bombs are slated to drop, bringing ruin to some 600,000 Enkies.
Only four drop. The pilot of the fifth bomber, refusing to participate in this unheralded act of genocide, refuses to drop his bomb. His reward for his act of mercy is a bullet in the head from his co-pilot, unflinchingly punishing him for his futile mutiny. The father of the pilot, a tolerated but untrusted denizen of the Empire, immediately vows revenge for everyone involved in his son’s death.
An act of genocide, an act of mercy, a murder, and a promise of revenge: This is the incredible introduction to Sine Mora, the self-styled “diesel-punk” horizontal shoot-em-up (or shmup, in the common gaming vernacular) co-developed by Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality. Slated as a game that simultaneously pays tribute to the classics of horizontal shooters and utilizing the latest technology and graphic design to bring an unparalleled playing experience, Sine Mora is a unique, challenging, and alluring game that completely upends the notion that arcade shooters are a thing of the past.
The riveting story takes off with you playing through the initial bombing. Though you don’t get to see the suicide, you’re treated to that bit of story in a poetic and chilling retelling from the father of the murdered pilot, Ronotra Koss. Though you will have already seen a glimpse of the fantastic graphics, the layered backgrounds, the responsive controls and exceptional music, it’s this brief, emotional narration that really calls attention to the game’s excellent production value. The voice actors – particularly those who read the chapter intro portions – are universally good, able to convey believable emotion even while speaking in Japanese (with subtitles – there’s no option to change the language, although that’s not detrimental in the least).
It’s a good thing the voice acting is superb, because any kind of typical budget-title stiffness in the dialogue could easily shunt you away from the narrative, which twists around each chapter in a way that’s sometimes difficult to understand. Koss, who narrates most of the chapter panels and gives direction to some of the pilots in each level, is driven to do some pretty terrible things in pursuit of his revenge. Collateral damage is lamented, but considered a cost of his justified revenge, and he even goes so far as to blackmail an Empire pilot – the victim of a past rape – into serving under him. He’s not a terribly good guy, and the eventual introduction of Argus Pytel, an Empire agent and honorable fellow, lends quite a lot of moral ambiguity to the tale.
But enough about the story. Sine Mora is a shooter, first and foremost. The gameplay involves weaving your plane around obstacles and enemy fire, avoiding damage while destroying everything you can. Though it’s fairly standard, the time-traveling sub-plot lends a lot of creative tweaks to the somewhat typical core. You don’t take too much damage, per se, but each attempt to complete a level is limited by time. Get hit, and you lose a few seconds, but destroy an enemy and you earn more. Pulling the right trigger will slow time, allowing you to nimbly swerve through walls of enemy fire while ensuring that your shots don’t miss the mark. It’s extremely helpful against the numerous bosses, all of which are elegantly modeled and appreciably unique. In fact, some of the set-pieces of the boss battles were choreographed by Mahiro Maeda, who directed the anime sequences in Kill Bill.
There’s also the inevitable power-ups. Your slow-time is very limited and only enemy-dropped power-ups can charge it up again. Finding that fine line between using it to avoid hits and saving it for the bosses is a constant struggle, as taking a hit under any circumstances can be painful. Your weapons level up to nine tiers, going from a lazily-firing needle-thin line to a gun that fires so rapidly you can barely distinguish between shots as it covers half the screen. Each plane also carries a secondary weapon, which ranges from single-beam lasers to what looks like tacticalnukes. The power-ups come in the form of ammo for the secondary weapons, single-use shields, bundles of points, and weapon levels.
There’s a lot to appreciate, graphically. Enemy fighters, submarines, tanks, and ships sometimes drift into your firing zone from the background, which means that keeping an eye on the periphery of the action is hugely important. There are some breathtaking visuals thrown into each background, and each level is lovingly rendered and totally different. You’ll fly over tropical seas, travel through undersea caves, navigate tight maintenance tunnels and bomb manufacturing centers all in the span of a single chapter. Sine Mora isn’t about to repeat itself, and the time-control element even inflects on the narrative, which overlaps and intertwines in clever ways.
The music and sounds, which can sometimes be limited to whatever the developers can scrounge from public domain sources in other arcade games, is just as high quality as the rest of the game. The score comes right from the brain of Akira Yamaoka, known from his work on the Silent Hill series.
Getting through each mission takes a bit of dedication. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever run out of credits – an artificial way of limiting your play-through attempts – but you will get destroyed fairly often if you’re not a hardcore shmup player, and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what you’re supposed to do, but those instances are few and far between. The ability to replay each level with the addition of selecting your aircraft and weaponry lends quite a lot of replay value, which will be necessary if you plan on achievement hunting. On that note, Sine Mora is appreciably tight-fisted with its achievements, not going the safe route of throwing a bunch of worthless five-point awards for learning that enemy fire does you damage. Each achievement is earned through point accumulation during each run, making the higher level achievements extremely difficult to unlock.
All in all, this is a game that deserves to be played. Sure, there might not be any real need to bring in big names to choreograph boss battles or direct the score, but the fact that the game has it is wonderful. Great writing, excellent voice acting, superb level design, and gameplay make Sine Mora a complete package. That it’s an XBLA title should not detract from appreciating this gem of a game.
Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality’s Sine Mora costs 1200 Microsoft points and is available exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade. It earns a perfect score of 5 burned-out bosses out of 5. Pick this game up, you won’t regret it.
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