Sine Mora Review
Game: Sine Mora
Developer: Digital Reality/Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Available on: Xbox LIVE Arcade Only
Every once in a while a game appears completely out of nowhere, from the most unexpected source, and completely blows you away. This is particularly prevalent in the downloadable games market, which has been home to some under-the-radar stunners in recent years that provoked a genuine “Where did THAT come from?” reaction. Need proof? Cast your mind back to last year, when the otherwise dreadful Bloodrayne franchise was rebooted as a kick-ass, hardcore 2D platformer. Well I am pleased to say that once again I find myself taken aback by a game I had heard relatively little about, and this one was almost as if it was made just for me.
We all know about Grasshopper Manafacture. Suda51’s crew are mavericks of the gaming industry, having created cult classics like Killer7 and Michigan: Report From Hell, as well as the recent No More Heroes franchise. We know that they are not averse to releasing a left-field title, and that they are active in the industry right now, building up to their forthcoming Lollipop Chainsaw actioner. What we didn’t know, however, is that Hungarian studio Digital Reality, purveyors of tactical sci-fi wares like Imperium Galactica, and publishers of recent disappointing zombie misfire Dead Block, were secretly harbouring thoughts of crafting their own Western take on a resolutely Japanese game genre.
As my recent Vault article attests, I love a 2D shooter, particularly a horizontal scroller. When done properly, a good hori shmup is one of the last bastions of genuine, old school arcade gameplay and as a rule, the Japanese are the masters at making them work. In recent times, Western developers have had a crack at putting out their own homage to the great titles of the past. German indie NG:DEV:CO even went as far as making their own original Neo Geo AES shooter, but the result – the disappointing Last Hope – was an overworked and prohibitively difficult mess. Even during the days where arcade games were still relevant, Western companies never quite got the balance right when making their own hori scrollers, the likes of Project X and Apidya for the Amiga may have been aesthetic stunners, but had gameplay that was pitched way too hard, to the point of near-masochism.
So here I find myself, after being delivered a surprise XBLA code, sat in front of another Western-developed shooter. Digital Reality have paired up with Grasshopper, who handled the concept art and sound. It looks Japanese, it sounds Japanese. But the story and the game engine – the meat and drink of this product – is straight out of Europe. To say it has astonished and delighted me is putting it rather mildly. This is the finest stab at producing a horizontally scrolling, traditional blaster that has ever emanated from this part of the world. It is the genuine article in every sense. Let me tell you why.
Upon booting it up, the first words that came to mind were “Progear No Arashii”. You pilot biplane-type craft, and the art style is proper steam punk. Then the swirling bullet-hell patterns begin to emerge, and you cannot fail to compare it to Capcom’s superior outing with Cave. There are other obvious comparisons, the relatively subtle power-ups recall G-Rev’s Border Down, an underwater section was pure In The Hunt, the way your characters pop up with captions, and the multiple selectable pilots and craft took me back to Area 88. It is clear from spending only a few minutes with Sine Mora that Digital Reality love shooters, and wanted to pay tribute to the classics they loved with every ounce of their being.
The game is rendered in 3D, with 2D gameplay; at times the camera may shift around your character, mainly during cutscenes or when you are circumnavigating some of the huge bosses encountered sometimes several times during the same level. You begin with two basic weapons, one of which (the standard forward-shooting projectile) can be upgraded by collecting power-ups dropped by enemies. A second smart bomb style weapon can be used if you have enough stock in a chargeable bar, and will wipe out a ton of enemies if you are in a sticky situation, at the cost of resetting your score multiplier which is racked up by carrying out consecutive kills. There are two main projectile types – red and blue – and at times you can add a corresponding-coloured shield to your craft which, like Ikaruga’s colour-swap technique, allows you to deflect projectiles of that type.
Given that the game’s title means “without delay”, it is fitting that the game is played against the backdrop of a constantly ticking countdown. You can add seconds to the clock by collecting dropped orbs, but are constantly battling against time. If the counter hits zero, you die. It is just one of several touches that make this brilliantly frenetic shooter such a sublime arcade experience.
There are special abilities available which you can select between in arcade mode, or are given as par for the course in Story mode depending on which character you are controlling, the most impressive of these being a “rewind” function, which allows you to literally rewind gameplay backwards, even after you have just been killed. There is also an ability which allows you to slow down the action to a crawl for a limited time, allowing you to more safely navigate the insane patterns of swirling, deadly projectiles. Mercifully, each time your ship is hit, you are given a window of a few seconds to snatch back your power-ups, failure to do so will leave you high and dry and open to the elements.
Story mode allows you to play through Sine Mora’s crazy plot, which centres on a horrible protagonist called Ronotra Koss, a genocidal, serial-killing piece of work, and a bunch of do-gooders who are attempting to thwart his plans to kill all and sundry. The labyrinthine story takes you through branching paths, controlling several different characters over the course of the game, and features some superbly funny dialogue, with Koss the main culprit – delivering lines like “Hidden away – deep inside the DEVIL’S ASS!”.
Arcade mode strips away the plot and limits the amount of continues you are given, and there are score attack and boss rush modes, with more boss encounters unlocked the further you progress in story mode. Different selectable ships and characters to use in arcade mode are also unlocked in this manner. The game has two main levels of difficulty – Normal and Insane – and features 7 challenging, visually arresting stages. Choosing the more difficult Insane stages in Story mode and conquering them will unlock more of the mental narrative.
VERDICT: Suda51 has done a splendid job of designing this game – it looks absolutely sublime, the arcane space-junk and antiquated planes framed by some gorgeous looking backdrops. The sound design is equally impressive, with the guttural voice of Koss backed up by some haunting, wildly impressive musical compositions.
But the real kudos here has to go to Digital Reality, who have shown that it is possible to emulate the finely tuned arcade sensibilities of Japanese developers, by respecting their influences and wearing them proudly on their sleeves, albeit with Grasshopper having a word in their ears with some encouragement. It is short, overwhelmingly sweet and the best horizontally scrolling shooter I have played in many moons. What a game, what a surprise. Best of all, unlike the real deal likes of Border Down, it isn’t going to cost you an arm and a leg. Pick up this stunning title, without delay.