The genre of shoot 'em ups, affectionately known as Bullet Hell, has been pushing gamers to their breaking points for years. Now an eclectic combination of developers, Hungarian developer Digital Reality and Suda51-led Grasshopper Manufacture have joined forces, and the result is a new entry to this punishing genre, Sine Mora. This XBLA exclusive shooter is not just your ordinary shmup, bringing much more to the table, to the benefit of players everywhere.
Sine Mora follows several time-traveling pilots who seek to save the world from Ronotra Koss, who is hell bent on committing genocide with his AI robots. Each of the story's seven stages begins with a few paragraphs of text explaining the situation and furthering along the story. Pilots will also be in constant communication with each other throughout the game, seamlessly integrating story and gameplay. All of the characters are anthropomorphic animals as opposed to humans, giving the game an Animal Farm meets Star Fox feel. Should you tire of the communications during stages, you can hold the Left Bumper button to fast forward to the next gameplay segment.
Since Sine Mora is based on time travel, it's only fitting that the gameplay mechanic is based on time as well. You start each segment with a certain number of seconds, which can be increased by shooting down enemies and decreased by taking hits. This allows more flexibility than traditional shmups where one hit can be death (especially in the easier Story mode). That said, Arcade and other modes increase the difficulty so that time lost for each hit becomes fatal much more often, keeping the challenge high. Enemies often drop time bonuses, score bonuses, and weapon upgrades upon their defeat; the latter of which improves your weapon up to nine times during the game. But if you take a hit, you may lose your weapon upgrades and must catch them before they fly off the screen.
Throughout the campaign, the game switches between different pilots. Each pilot has their own special weapon (one has a destructive, large laser, another has a field of smart bombs). All pilots share the ability to slow down time around them, which is great for dodging the hundreds of on-screen bullets and coming out unscathed, but that power is limited, so efficient use is necessary.
During each level you will encounter multiple boss battles. Each conflict pits you against a colossal opponent, armed to the teeth with powerful guns ready to shred you to bits. These battles will move you around the massive foe, challenging you to defeat each threat throughout the entirety of the skirmish. The bosses range from mechanical arachnids to large sawblade robots to a rotation laser maze of death. These encounters are the greatest, most memorable part of Sine Mora.
Speaking of memorable, the art in Sine Mora is a wonder to behold. Though the gameplay is on the 2D plane, the art is all rendered in 3D. You'll blast your way through futuristic cities and vivid oceans, all the while gawking at the amazing scenery. As gameplay progresses, you'll be taken over, under, around, and through the scenery and get to fully appreciate how much effort was put into Sine Mora's art; it is an animated painting, with bullets. It's almost a shame to have to destroy such beautiful creations, but at least they go down in a blaze of visual glory. The music matches the futuristic suspense of the story and blends in with the scenery and the sounds of constant gunfire. The voice acting remains in its natural language, without a dub, but English subtitles are provided.
Like other shmups before it, Sine Mora's value will be determined by what you want to get out of it. Playing through Story Mode will take only two to four hours and not be enough to justify the $15 price tag. But between the more challenging Arcade modes, the Hard and Insane difficulty levels, and the online leaderboards, those who are always looking to improve their score will get plenty of value.
Sine Mora does some great things that are not seen in this genre very often; breath-taking 3D visuals, re-invention of the traditional gameplay mechanics and a captivating story mode that also successfully introduces new gamers to the bullet hell experience without immediately scaring them off. While not everyone is going to feel that they got their money's worth at $15, what Sine Mora brings to the table is well made and a shining example of the sidescrolling shooter.
This review is based on an Xbox Live Arcade copy of Sine Mora, provided by the publisher.