Sine Mora really surprised me. I’m not a huge fan of the side scrolling shooter genre, but I found a lot to love here. The game is a great introduction to those who haven’t played these types of shooters before. In a genre that is so difficult to enter as bullet-hell that is a huge accomplishment. Combine that with its quality production values, fascinating and nebulous story, great difficulty scaling, and the best bullet-hell gameplay I’ve ever seen, and you get one of the best games so far this year. Though it may be short, the quality of the game and its extensive replay value makes it worth your while.
The gameplay in Sine Mora is excellent. It controls as you would expect a bullet-hell shooter to. If you are not familiar with the genre these are games where you move up and down and forward and back across a constantly scrolling screen, in this case the screen moves horizontally, picking up power ups and shooting enemies while dodging projectiles and obstacles that come up in your path. In these basic tenets Sine Mora does very little to differentiate itself from other shooters, though the flying and shooting are very responsive and feel great. It is in the details that Sine Mora truly excels. The most important of these are the special abilities.
There are three to choose from: a slow-down ability, a projectile reflecting shield, and a rewind feature. You are forced to use the slow-down ability for the story mode, which is the only mode where you can play the normal and challenging difficulties. This is fine, however, as the slowdown is a fantastic training tool. Dodging projectiles is the core of what a bullet-hell shooter is, and also the most difficult part to learn. Though at first I was holding down the button for a long time, as I played more and got better at dodging, I found myself using it in quick bursts to ensure that I would be able to navigate some of the more difficult patterns. Because of this aid I was able to slowly acclimate myself towards dodging without the aid of a special ability. All the abilities do lower your score and are limited by a bar that does not recharge, so you can’t simply use them to clear a hard level and get a perfect score. I did not find the rewind feature very useful, though I could see it being better suited to the play style of others. The shield ability is not as useful as the slow-down either, but it is still good and provides some nice variation.
The other major difference between Sine Mora and other shooters is the way it utilizes time. You almost never die from being hit by enemies or obstacles, though certain objects can kill you in one hit. Instead you lose time and some of your weapon power ups. When your time runs out, you die and you either use a credit to continue or the mission ends. You gain time back by destroying enemies and picking up certain power ups. This system is yet another example of how Sine Mora eases you in to its challenging gameplay, as the penalties for being hit at lower difficulties are fairly light, but get worse as the difficulty rises. Your time is periodically reset at checkpoints, preventing you from either losing or gaining too much time in the early part of a level. This system creates a fun, if occasionally stressful, dynamic.
The game is very short. It has seven stages which take about 90 to 150 minutes to clear in story mode on normal depending on your skill level. This makes the massive amount of variation provided by the modes and load outs is very important. There are four modes: story, arcade, score attack, and boss training. Story mode is the first you should play as it has the easiest difficulties, normal and challenging. These feed into one another quite well and once you are done with one difficulty, moving to the next is an appropriate jump in challenge. Afterwards you can play through arcade mode, where you try to clear all seven stages, minus the cut scenes and dialogue from the story, with only three continues.
You can also play score attack, where you try to achieve the high score on a single stage. These modes can only be played on hard and insane, but again the jump in difficulty is appropriate. The final mode is boss training, where you can take on any boss in the game on any difficulty setting. In all the modes except story mode you choose your own ship, pilot, and special ability. The ships, of which there are three, are largely similar and fly the same, but have slightly different hit-boxes and weapon upgraders, so trying out different ships can matter. Your choice of one of seven pilots determines what special weapon you have access to. There is a fair amount of variation amongst the special weapons, so experimentation is required to find the best combination of pilot, ship, and ability.
The game looks fantastic as well. The art style is cartoony, but more in keeping with Western aesthetics then anime ones and it looks great. Patterns of colored bullets are amazing and graceful, explosions are dazzling, and the environments are colorful and vibrant. The boss design deserves special mention here as they all look unique, insane, and deadly. Watching this game in action is really a treat. Thankfully the framerate can keep up with all the things on the screen and never dipped for me once. The music is not quite as sublime as the graphics, but the score compliments the events on screen very well. The only downside to the game’s presentation is that the small number of stages means that you eventually run out of things to look at and you will end up seeing the same sights and sounds over and over again.
Sine Mora can be very difficult, but the game never makes you feel cheated. Even when I died time and time again on the same boss, I was still having fun and kept coming back for more. When you finally succeed, you truly feel like you have accomplished something. As great as the gameplay is, the most surprising part is the story. It is shockingly dark and complicated considering the cartoony art style. The story telling is done through a combination of cutscenes and plain text on loading screens. You play as several different members of the Enkies, a race of anthropomorphic animals. You will switch between the seven different characters during the course of the story. They all have different motivations and issues such as finding vengeance for their murdered son or dealing with the genocide of their race. The story involves murder, time travel, rape, and revenge, but what is most shocking is the mature way that the game handles this serious content. In a genre that is overflowing with games starring buxom anime girls and giant robots in increasingly ridiculous situations, Sine Mora’s mature nature really stand out. While the ending is a little flat and could have been handled better, the story is so good leading up to that point that I can still highly recommend it.
I’m usually not a huge fan of games like Sine Mora, but this one is really amazing. While it is a little pricy at $15, especially considering its length, I think that it is certainly worth the money. The story is also shockingly poignant, the graphics are beautiful, and the gameplay is challenging but precise and fun. Most importantly, it makes an intimidating genre open for new comers. The words “sine mora” are Latin for without delay, and I recommend that you apply these words to your purchase of the game.