In this reviewer’s eyes, the shoot ‘em up genre hasn’t seen a whole lot of mainstream action for awhile. Once a hallmark of classic gaming, players have moved onto bigger and more action packed games while the shmup exists quietly in arcades and direct download services. They are held in a much higher regard in Japan, however, especially those that fall within the Bullet Hell genre. Famed for their insanity and difficulty, they show no mercy on the player who is forced into navigating ludicrous, mind breaking projectile patterns. Sine Mora is the perfect example of the genre as massive bosses and hundreds of smaller enemies fill the screen with beautifully designed orbs of death. After its XBLA debut, the game finds itself on the PlayStation Vita and while its not a particularly long adventure, this temporal-themed shooter is a memorable one.
Believe it or not, Sine Mora has a story. Most of the bullet hell games I’ve played don’t go beyond the simple goal of “fly to the right and blow stuff up,” so to find one as complex as this was certainly a surprise. Set in a fictional world comprised of anthropomorphized animals, the conflict involves two groups that share a common goal: the destruction of the genocidal Layil Empire. Ronotra Koss, whose son was murdered by the Empire, seeks revenge while a time traveling band of Enkie mercenaries attempts to bring down the Layil army before they gain the ability massacre their race.
Built upon the foundation of bullet hell shmups, Sine Mora offers a number of gameplay enhancements that differentiate it from similar games. Time plays a major role in the adventure and as such, a standard health system is replaced with a ticking clock that decreases each time your ship is hit by enemy fire or collides with the environment. Shooting targets, be it enemy fighter, boat or turret structure, award bursts of additional time - an award far more precious and valuable than points (although those are good too!).
There’s a small menu of powerups to enjoy with those that boost the spread and power of your ship’s main guns as the most important type to collect. The stronger your cannons are, the easier targets are to destroy. Apart from the main cannons, each craft is equipped with a sub weapon that can easily plow through a large group of enemies and have the added benefit of clearing away all nearby projectiles (though it has the negative effect of resetting your score multiplier with each use). Playing on the game’s theme of time, pressing the right shoulder button will slow everything on the screen down to a crawl, granting your ship the increased maneuverability it needs to navigate difficult portions of a level. The duration of this skill is determined by how full the time gauge is and can be replenished by collecting the appropriate powerup.
Sine Mora is a beautiful game that draws inspiration from a subculture near and dear to my heart, steampunk. Specifically, many of the designs borrow elements of dieselpunk, as massive mechanical hulks are designed with a 1940s futurist art deco flair and drip with style and substance. The real stars of this show are the epic bosses that nearly take up the entire screen. The 2.5D effect is nicely done, adding a layer of depth that make battles appear larger in scope. It’s a shame that Sine Mora moves at such a frantic pace as opportunities to take in the sights are very few and far between.
With as much thought and depth given to the campaign, it’s a little disconcerting that it can be completed in a very short time. Playtime can be extended by going through the story again under the Challenging difficulty setting, which nets an alternate narrative and “true” ending. Outside of the main game, Score Attack, Boss Training and Arcade modes are available and can be played through using any of the game’s playable ships (instead of being forced to switch between them) once they’ve been unlocked. The narrative is deserving of a shout out, despite its convoluted nature. As much as I love time travel stories, I found this one harder to wrap my mind around. It doesn’t help that most of the story beats are presented through mid-level cutscenes that I ignore in order to psych myself up for the difficult road ahead. Still, I respect the effort put into it.
Sine Mora might not suitable for those with short tempers. Not only does one have to weave through multiple complex projectile patterns, there are also environmental concerns to fret over. Structures, cavern ceilings, massive pistons and load bearing machine all have the capacity to ruin your day causing all of your collected firepower upgrades to fly away in different directions which has a bad habit of ruining momentum. While most of the bosses are easy enough to defeat, the second to last is a complete nightmare as it resides within a spinning death maze filled with dozens of turrets and the structure will move in opposite directions without warning. I came pretty darn close to throwing my Vita out the window.
Sine Mora is one of the most beautiful shmups I’ve ever had the chance to play. It’s also a solid action title with a surprisingly deep story about the lengths someone will go for revenge. Purists will find it a fresh addition to their collection while casual observers may be turned off by the short length and the game’s masochistic delight in punishing players with nearly impossible odds.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.