Release Date: March 21, 2012
Developer: Digital Reality / Grasshopper Manufacture
I have not played a shoot ‘em up game in years… The last time I played one if I remember correctly was Aegis Wing (2007), another Xbox Live Arcade game. Sine Mora is one of many in the line of shmup’s that pushes the boundaries of its genre and tries to break its comfort zone. It succeeds in many ways and disappoints in some, but in short, Sine Mora is a surprisingly deep shmup with an interesting plot, characters full of intrigue, and enthralling visuals.
Aside from the elements I just mentioned, Sine Mora also implements a star-studded cast in its developing staff. Some of these stars include Goichi Suda acting as producer here, Akira Yamaoka (famous for scoring the Silent Hill series) handling the music, and Mahiro Maeda as the boss designer. Maeda is notable for working in the anime industry as a key animator in Evangelion 2.0 and for directing the highly acclaimed Gankutsuou. All of these talented individuals contribute into rising Sine Mora far above the rest in its genre. It’s also interesting to note that while the game may be a shoot ‘em up, its aesthetics are done in steampunk fashion.
The game’s steampunk-inspired set pieces are a nice accompaniment to Sine Mora’s beautifully realized art direction. The boss battles are Maeda’s contribution to the game and also add sophistication to Sine Mora’s art direction. As a matter of fact, the art direction as a whole is a major factor that helps this game rise above your typical shmup. Certain levels take place in industrial facilities, valleys, oceans, caves, and obviously the skies. Flying your aircraft through these areas while dodging incoming attacks from your adversaries is a daunting task indeed. You might get a bit too distracted by what’s behind you and around you, as opposed to what’s in front of you. As a result, you have to maneuver yourself in the playing field very precisely.
The playing field is setup like that of its side scrolling genre. You must control your airship through hordes of enemies in real time. However, there are a few elements that spice up your adventure. One of them is the fact that this game has an unusual health system. When you take damage instead of seeing your health meter dwindle, it’s a timer. Once it hits zero, your game ends and you die. In each and every level you receive a certain amount of time in which you must complete the level, but you can also add more time to your timer by racking up enemy kills and rushing through the stage until you reach a “reset” zone. Reaching these will once again reset the countdown on your timer. There are also several powerup items scattered in the stages that provide shields, time bonuses, and stronger weapons.
As you advance through the single player mode in the game, you will unravel its plot through load screens or through character interaction. The plot is pretty interesting and it deals with a heated battle between two races of anthropomorphic aliens (but they look like animals instead), and a father avenging the death of his son at the hands of an opposing empire. I noticed plenty of racial and sexist undertones, though the concept of “freedom fighters” is not hard to miss either. Either way, I don’t want to spoil it because the game is rather short and sweet, and the plot is one of its sweeter elements that deserves to be experienced. Now, Sine Mora’s single player is divided into normal mode or insane. I personally recommend you play on normal…. even if you’re a huge fan and expert on shmup’s.
Sine Mora is not an easy game, and it doesn’t help that some of the levels in it are even tougher than the enemies themselves. The game allows you to go back and retry the stage you were just playing in, and I strongly advise that you do. Because you will die…. You will die. Thanks to some of the level designs — particularly the caves — and some of the latter levels that involve a spaceship and are extremely painful to play through. The problem with Sine Mora is that when it encounters cramped spaces, these desperately attempt to swallow you whole. And since you do travel across several of these in your quest, they swallow the whole game instead including the enemies and items. Nothing is sacred once you reach a cramped space in Sine Mora. What’s worse about this isn’t even how cramped these spaces are, but just how awkwardly they’ve been shoved into the stages. I am sorry, but this kills the fun factor in this game quite a bit.
That is one of the poorest parts of this otherwise polished shmup. Well, that and the forgettable soundtrack. Call me what you please, but Akira Yamaoka’s work here is not his strongest, me thinks. What Yamaoka composes here isn’t nearly as good as the rest of his body of work, especially after a string of hits such as the Silent Hill series and Shadows of the Damned; games in which his musical talent took those atmospheres through heaven and hell. The only good song I recall is the one that plays during the main menu screen, or so I thought. Maybe, it was the only good one because I had to hear it so much after I exhausted all of my retries and got kicked back to the main menu. It’s funny how the dialogue the characters speak in this game (which sounds like Polish or Russian, though it’s gibberish from what I’ve read) is actually more intriguing than the music.
Grasshopper Manufacture co-develops with Digital Reality here. Mahiro Maeda is a designer, Gez Fry is the main art director, and Akira Yamaoka composes the music. It’s an all-star collaboration spearheaded by Goichi Suda (Killer 7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned). This dream team definitely helps Sine Mora stand tall amongst thousands of Xbox Live Arcade titles and certainly amongst peers such as Aegis Wing. I don’t think this game would be as revered as much if another cast of developers were credited. Although, I must give credit to Sine Mora.
I will credit it for providing an atypical approach at such a genre. A genre that truly isn’t explored nowadays, and that needs more attention. It’s also smartly-written and has a memorable cast of characters. I’d say they’re the most memorable talking animals since the Babe film. I kid… Though I don’t kid when I admit that they’re great characters trapped in a world full of hatred and intrigue. That’s the best part about Sine Mora.
The worst, well, the fact that it crunches you in its hungry caves and strange mazes enough to take away your eight to nine lives, because that’s typically how many you have per round. Also Yamaoka’s score… That really did sting for me. However, Sine Mora can still firmly hold its head up high because it’s still a pretty damn solid addition to anybody’s gaming library, despite its shortcomings. Hell, a game that features a cheetah being kidnapped and raped, as well animals cursing constantly should be on anyone’s play-list. Ahem, furry lovers, I’m looking at you!
- Surprisingly deep characters and story
- Beautiful art direction and mechanical designs
- Greatly polished shooting mechanics
- Certain things such as dialogue help make this game unique
- Some levels are awkwardly put together
- Musical score is quietly forgettable
- Some of the game’s plot twists are not timed well with its difficulty