Sidescrolling shoot’em ups (shmups). It is a niche genre of games. They requires lightning quick reflexes and dexterity not usually tested. You must always multitask. Bullet hell is often a name used when describing these games because there is an obscene amount of bullets on screen that you have to dodge in almost a supernatural way. And as a result, it’s extremely difficult, hard to master, and requires rote memorization.
Sine Mora is everything I mentioned and more. It is a beautiful game with lavish visuals and fantastic dieselpunk art style. Worlds are gorgeous in 3D that are not linear paths. The camera takes on a cinematic motion at times during transitions within stages. Levels span not only high above the clouds but close to the ground, in factories, downtown cities, and even underwater as the planes transform to aquatic traversal. Music is composed by the Sound Director of Silent Hill and Shadows of the Damned, Akira Yamaoka. Each stage has a serene and beautiful score that blends in with the chaos on the screen. A dramatic shift of shmups in the past with japanese rock and other fast paced genres.
As with all shmups, points are part of any game mode you play and determines your place on the leaderboards. One of the ways to earn a high score is to increase your multiplier. It does not cooldown through lack of continual kills – if you get hit, it will reset to 1X. And the end of a Stage you are graded for your performance, from ‘F’ to ‘S’. Should you die, the game uses the arcade credit system. You get 10 credits in Story Mode, 3 in Arcade Mode and a whopping 0 in Score Attack.
You’d expect that that the controls would be fast and fluid, as that isn’t the case here. It’s not detrimental to success, the planes have a certain weight to them. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it – it is barely noticeable. You have a primary weapon with infinite ammo that can be upgraded on-the-fly by collecting floating icons in the sky, once an enemy has been downed. You can earn special weapon ammo along the way too, that you should store for boss battles and large swarms of enemies.
The crux of the gameplay is time. You are not only battling a herd of enemies on-screen, but are fighting time as well. There is a clock counting down continuously. By eliminating enemies you will earn precious seconds back. Pacifism will not benefit you in Sine Mora. Should you get hit by enemy fire in the game, and five seconds gets deducted from the already ticking clock. It increases the tension and probably will make you a bit more frantic and get you into more trouble.
The story is actually worth playing, an uncommon feature for a shmup. It is told in Hungarian voice over with English text. It’s a deep, troubling story that shows sacrifice, loss, and just utter despair in desperate times. There’s even a Call of Duty aspect to the story telling as you frequently play as different heroes struggling to stop the oppression and destruction that has befallen their great city. Stages frequently introduce you to bosses. Boss Battles require a specific strategy to defeat. This is where most of the bullet hell occurs, boss spawn enemies and shoot all weapons that you must duck and weave through and around to avoid taking damage. Luckily the game does Autosave at certain locations to allow you to use a credit and jump back in.
Other modes are Arcade Mode which features an adaptive AI, learning how you play for a customized challenge. Score Attack is brutal as gets as you only have one life to get as far as you can. Time is still an ever-present danger for you to battle against in turn with the enemies still. You can also go into a Boss Training mode to learn the fastest and best strategy to take down the bosses, a not uncommon feature for shmups as time and score are what every player strives for.
Achievements are handled uniquely as they tie in to gameplay. There’s just two achievements for basic things, but there’s a ranking system in place that you can go to the Achievements in the main menu and view what is required (rather than the Xbox default menu) to get promoted and subsequently the next achievement. They aren’t easy, but provide another level of detail and replayability to the game.
Sine Mora features a clean presentation all around, the menus are just so simple and elegant. The visual fidelity and sound quality is great. Gameplay is responsive and hectic. Rarely did I find myself frustrated (if only for my own inept moves into the line of fire), but I always had a smile on my face. Step out of your comfort zone and at least give Sine Mora Trial a download. What you will find may surprise you.
A Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes