Xbox Live Arcade has become somewhat of a refuge for shoot ’em ups – a genre which was once a staple of gaming, but has since fallen on hard times and seen few releases in recent years. Some have said that the genre is a relic of a bygone era in gaming. It’s fitting, then, that Sine Mora is a side-scrolling shmup, steeped in the traditions of the genre, with a focus on the theme of time. But is it a timeless classic or proof that the genre is ready to be put to rest?
This should be the part of the review where I talk about the game’s aesthetic, or its controls, or its design as a shmup, and I will eventually, but much to my chagrin, none of those things stand out as much as the game’s story. Beat for beat, the story of Sine Mora shifts perspectives between several characters, each inter-connected but with their own unique motives, to tell the tale of a war which never ends due to the ability for some characters to travel into the past and perpetuate a cycle of destruction.
Thematically, the game is shockingly dark and the characters are some of the most interesting three-dimensional beings that the medium has ever seen. The subject matter broaches slavery, racism, and imperialism. One of the story beats revolves around a protagonist who is out for vengeance after his son is killed, but neither he nor his revenge trip are ever glorified. His motives are understandable, but his methods are not heroic; he is callous and manipulative. At one point, he ropes another main character, a rape victim, into his hunt by threatening to blackmail her. He compares himself with her rapist, stating that he “wormed his way into her heart” just as the attacker wormed his way into her body. In spite of its contents, Sine Mora never steps over the precipice of gratuity just to make a vain attempt at being edgy.
At first I thought that, in spite of the genius behind the story itself, the genre could not be an adequate conduit for narrative. The story is primarily told through text blurbs in-between missions. The gameplay could not be more disconnected from the storytelling.
And that would be true if not for the fact that the broad theme of time travel is so central to the plot. The gameplay is thematically linked with the story. For starters, you begin the game with a time capsule ability which allows you to slow down time in order to better navigate the salvo of intricately patterned incandescent bullets that will be thrown your way. In non-story modes you gain access to other capsules which allow you to reflect projectiles and rewind time.
Where this thematic link is strongest is the game’s unique and rather ingenious health system which doesn’t actually rely on a health bar or 1-hit kills. Instead, a timer at the top of the screen is constantly ticking down. Destroying enemies rewards the player with more time, while taking a hit results in a penalty of several seconds removed from the timer.
Beyond that, though, plot advancement and exposition are still occur primarily in the form of white text on a black background.
Gimmicks aside, Sine Mora sticks its side-scrolling STG roots. It does nothing to drastically evolve the gameplay, and it doesn’t need to either. Instead, it polishes familiar mechanics to a mirror sheen. Score, side-weapon, and weapon upgrade pick-ups are constantly dropping from downed enemies. All available ships are swift and perfectly responsive. Bosses come along often and are intricately designed with multiple phases. The screen is constantly being filled with complex patterns of fire which require feverish dodging.
Since time is such a crucial motif, it only makes sense to mention the brevity of the story mode. Played on the default difficulty, the game’s story mode is roughly 90 minutes long, but those 90 minutes are blissful. It presents a short but sweet affair. That shouldn’t be a strike against it. Passing fans of the genre can enjoy the brilliant story and a modicum of satisfaction that comes standard to more hardcore shmup fans without a huge investment of time or skill.
Hardcore fans of the genre will be able to sink far more time and effort into the game. Even if that person isn’t you, you can and should complete Sine Mora on normal. It’s just that partners-in-crime, Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality, have written a love-letter, coated it with bitter sweet kisses and addressed it to the crowd already head over heels in love with the likes of Ikaruga, R-Type, Radiant Silvergun, and Mushihimesama, and they are the audience most likely to get significant mileage out of the gameplay.
Arcade mode, boss training, and score attack, all of which allow you to combine all of the game’s planes, characters, and time capsules in dozens of permutations, are built to be savagely difficult. There is no normal in that domain; only hard and harder. Every iota of progression on insane feels like a major victory fit for the grandest of celebrations, even if it is ultimately coupled with crushing failure. The challenging nature of the game is fiendishly rewarding and relies on the satisfaction that comes with seeing through a nigh-impossible task rather than classical condition compulsion mechanisms.
One of my only gripes with the game was the lack of contrast between foreground and background. The game sports a diesel-punk aesthetic beautifully rendered in 3D, and it is mind-meltingly gorgeous, but it creates a visual problem that actively interferes with the gameplay. It’s hardly a crippling issue, and it is one which is only problematic until you know where to look for it, but it is a problem nonetheless.
Sine Mora surprises by offering a radiant narrative full of complex and under-explored themes, and multifaceted characters while also offering another purely joyful take on a classic genre. It can be both accommodating to newcomers and passing fans of the genre, and utterly punishing to hardcore challenge-seekers and leaderboard junkies. The game walks this line while never compromising anyone’s experience. It is as complete an experience as they come; a marvel of joy and engagement.
9.5 / 10