We have one for the shmup fans up on the block with a review of today’s XBLA release, Sine Mora. A joint effort of both Grasshopper Manufacture (AKA Suda51’s company) and Digital Reality (makers of Skydrift and Dead Block), this game looks to bring a bullet hell shooter-or at least something reminiscent-to the XBLA that isn’t full of scantily clad underage anime ladies. Now sadly I am not very experienced in this genre so I’ll be coming at this from the position of simply someone who enjoys the involved companies’ works. Up front I’ll say if you’re the kind of person who is a diehard fan of shmups then walk away now, just grab the demo, and decide that way. Few enough games of this type come out anymore to be picky and from what I can tell, for that audience this game will be just fine. For those like me who just really liked Shadows of the Damned and thought Dead Block was critically underrated then read on and I’ll let you know whether this one is worth it for us as well.
Might as well start with the gameplay which at its most basic is your standard shmup fare; lots of bullets, lots of enemies, and unrelenting difficulty. What the game adds to this formula is some special weapons, some time manipulation, and a neat tracking method for those who want to make sure they try everything the game has to offer. The special weapons are determined by character and are all the basic stuff you’d expect like cluster bombs and seeker missiles. The tracking method keeps tabs on all of the combinations of characters and ships you use (there’s a total of 60) in the modes other than story which picks characters and ships for you. The time manipulation is where it gets interesting though, you have a bar with which you can activate your currently selected time power (slowdown, rewind, and bullet reflect) though in story mode you only get slowdown. This bar is extremely limited but allows you to dodge bullets like a pro, destroy an enemy left helpless in time, and just generally cut through the bullshit for a few blissful seconds. For the diehards this could be seen as cheating but for the rest of us those few seconds will be the most playable of the game and that is probably the biggest problem here.
The difficulty is going to be a big hurdle for casual players or even just regular gamers who are unfamiliar with this particular genre. Sure the story can be cleared on Normal by anyone willing to bang their head against it for long enough to clears its 60-90 minute run time (that is minus all your deaths, with them it can inflate to a good 3-4 hours) but the majority of the content requires you to play on Hard; this for many people would be like asking them to play with the controller upside down. This game asks a lot of the player and the sheer mechanics even on Normal are kind of all about fucking the player over. You see the whole game is on a timer; successfully taking down foes, destroying chunks of bosses, various pick ups, and hitting checkpoints will refill it and the passage of time and taking any damage will drain it. This combined with the fact that your firepower upgrades (the only tangible note of power progression) fly out of you whenever you take damage leads to the most frustrating part of the game. You see the game has you fly through a lot of tight spaces and those upgrades that fly out of you don’t stay on the screen but instead fly off the sides of the screen meaning you have to collect them quick or risk being underpowered for the inevitably upcoming boss. Of course collecting these moving upgrades in a tight space means in the course of doing so you’ll almost always get hit again, then lose those upgrades again, then try to collect them again until you either run out of time or take too much damage and die. It’s a scenario that rank shmup amateurs like myself will find themselves in time and time again and learn quickly to absolutely hate.
The real question for the casual fans though is how much of that trademark Suda51 craziness is on display here and the answer is sadly not as much as I’d like. In fact everything seems rather slow and laid back, it’s much closer to Contact than No More Heroes if we’re going by his other games. The story centers around an evil empire and a rebellion of an oppressed people, a small band of freedom fighters must fight the empire using time travel to stop this big conspiracy involving the death of one of the member’s son. Honestly it’s an incredibly convoluted and poorly told story (I didn’t realize it involved time travel until almost the end) as the game makes little effort to ease you into the world, it just kind of drops you in and says go. While it does unlock an encyclopedia once you beat the story that helps set up the world a bit, by the time you’ve done that you’ve probably stopped caring. It’s the kind of information that should have been integrated into the story somehow and having it congealed into what is essentially a textbook at the end devalues the fiction as a whole. Oh I also forgot to mention the whole cast is anthropomorphic animals so it’s like a super serious, swear laced, time travel heavy version of Starfox.
There are a couple of high points though for the non-enthusiast, mainly the fact that the presentation is top-notch. The visuals are strikingly beautiful and vary quite well between valleys, oceans, factories, and cities throughout both the past and present (though to be fair settings look pretty similar regardless of time). The music is also good with Akira Yamaoka doing what he does best and creating an awesome and evocatively thematic soundtrack that makes me happy to play with headphones. My favorite part of the game though is the bosses as they are generally the kind of overtly massive behemoths whose shells literally bristle with armament who are so much fun to fight against. These fights are hands down some of the funnest parts of the game as the screen stops moving so you can focus on bullet patterns, pick up your lost power ups, and just appreciate the awesomely designed crazy force currently to trying tear your shit right up. Thankfully there is a Boss Rush mode which can be played on Normal that allows you to replay all of these awesome moments while cutting out the painful chaff of the rest of the game.
In the end I don’t think this is a game for the average Grasshopper or Digital Reality fan; the things I love about both these companies are certainly represented in this game but the overall experience is simply too niche. I’m confident the shmup community will most likely have positive things to say about this title but for everyone else the focus on difficulty and slight lack of the Suda51 craziness means this probably isn’t the game for us. So for a high quality experience that nonetheless confounded and frustrated me, Sine Mora gets a 2.5 out of 5 stars. Fans of genre please feel free to add a point or two to that but for the overall audience that number will fit just fine.