Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Set against the backdrop of a failed rebellion, Sine Mora is a traditional shooter that features an array of anthropomorphic characters battling an empire to the bitter end. By manipulating time, the pilots are able to not only alter history but also their immediate surroundings. Those slow-motion respites will be crucial in what is best described as a beginner’s bullet-hell shooter. As an Imperialist collaborator of the Layil Empire or one of the few remaining Enkie resistance fighters, players will step into the cockpit a steampunk WWII-style plane looking to save a son, free a people, or bring down an empire.
A convoluted storyline sees a nontraditional narrative unfold that bounces the player around time and between characters. Each pilot has their own unique secondary weapon, from the AiBot Garai’s mass cluster bombs to the cancer-stricken, ravaged repairwoman Myryan’s dual attack drones. Along the way, they will gain a number of power-ups from destroyed enemies that augment them and their plane. The Time Capsule power-ups increase the time-manipulation meter, allowing the pilots to slow down time but remain agile, while the others increase the strength of the primary weapon, increase secondary ammo stock, increase plane speed, power a limited shield, and add a few seconds onto the timer either immediately or at death. Each plane’s primary weapon can be upgraded nine times, with the tenth power-up permanently upgrading the gun. However, until firepower has been max out, any contact with the ship will send some of the power-ups flying about; or, if the plane is near the edge of the screen, off the screen altogether. It’s a harsh rule that leads to the player quickly settling into a never-ending love-hate cycle with the game. In a unique twist, the countdown timer is the pilot’s health, with each hit also resulting in the additional penalty of a few seconds being knocked off the clock. Once the timer reaches zero, the pilot dies; however, there are checkpoints in each level that stabilize mass, resetting the counter for a new run, though they can be sparse. As with the double penalty, there is also a double reward of destroyed enemies adding a few seconds onto the time, as well as dropping the occasional power-up. The system is all about momentum as the player is constantly on the search for the next power-up, the next enemy, and the next few seconds.
The design also disproportionately relies on luck. The graphics, as nice as they are, often do a devilishly good job of masking projectiles, some of which are incredibly small, to the point where it seems as though piloting skill has nothing to do with a clean run; it’s hard to dodge what isn’t seen. It doesn’t help that some of the backgrounds flare up with colorful spectacles that seem to intentionally obscure the projectiles, with firework displays and other activities creating similar neon-colored beams and explosions. The random nature of the power-ups also makes planning impossible because there is simply no way to know what will be dropped next. These chance elements bang head-on against the fact that much of the game is centered on the player not messing up, ever.
Sine Mora brutally punishes for any mistake, whether it’s from being hit by a bullet to bumping into an object that looks suspiciously like part of the background. The ejection of most of the accumulated power-ups has some severe immediate and lasting consequences. The initial frantic chase in pursuit of them makes it all too easy to run into an unnoticed miniscule light blue bullet that could very well be the one to knock off the few remaining seconds. And more the pity if there is a boss fight immediately after a rough spot because they seem designed around there being a few power-ups in tow. Considering that even the lowliest of enemies takes several shots to kill, a multi-component boss can take a very long time to tackle whenever firepower has been reduced to below half strength, which can turn a struggle against a massive Cyclops siege automaton or giant killer construction crane into a tedious slog.
Skillful manipulation of time will be key to surviving some of the trickier encounters. It’s important to know when and where to slow things down, not only to make it past the level but to also maximize the score and gain a higher ranking for the leaderboards, as using the secondary weapon and manipulating time both decrease the skill grade. But, of course, as Time Capsule abilities are based on power-ups, odd though that may be given that the Enkies can warp time through sheer will power, it becomes difficult to not hold back until it’s too late. Still, tapping out a few moments of slowmotion to weave between some trance-inducing bullet pattern for a mortal strike on an enemy’s vulnerable spot does provide a thrill all its own.
Of course, long-term frustration can be allayed by lots (and lots) of practice. The good news is that there are plenty of modes to do just that; the bad news is that Story Mode serves as an introduction to the game and must be played through to unlock items in the other modes. Designed as a gateway mode for newcomers, Story Mode has two difficulty levels to pick from at the start, Normal and Challenging, and then a choice to take a Novice path or an Advance path at an early point in the prologue. After defeating a boss, they and their associated level become playable at any time from the main menu in Arcade Mode (no story, limited continues), Boss Training, and Score Attack. The problem I see with this system is that many people could very well become too frustrated with Story Mode’s arbitrary handicaps and give up before unlocking all of what the game has to offer.
The story itself might turn some people off due to its cryptic nature. It’s a little confusing at first, but it all clicks once the reveals are rolled out. Well, most of it clicks. A grave narrator speaks in Hungarian as English text translates several monologues about culture, sacrifice, and pain—it’s all very foreboding. But quite a bit of it is filler. While some of the insight into the history of the Empire and the Enkies is interesting, much of it is used to weave an overly complex yarn from a familiar tale. Although the plot and characters do stand out, as I don’t think I’ve played an arcade-style game with as pessimistic and doomed a cast as in Sine Mora. Despite the presentation being more compelling than the content, the attempt at providing a shooter with an involved storyline, and eschewing of temporal norms, is admirable.
Story Mode is worth sticking out, though. Not least because of the unlockable pilots, planes, paint jobs, and Capsule skills, which include two new abilities (reverse time and a reflective shield). The time element makes for just too good of a hook; not so much in being able to manipulate it, though that certainly helps, as having it act as an impetus for aggressive progression in search of a few precious seconds. However, that incentive to constantly drive forward doesn’t always jive well with the game’s random platform-style elements or the very cheap scripted ‘gotcha’ moments; whether it’s a train screaming head-on out of nowhere or a slow crawl amidst a garbage heap through a winding waste chute, lined with insta-kill defenses of course, there are some (cheap) deaths waiting to check the overly eager. But that drive is also crucial in creating a tremendous sense of tension as it acts against the naturally cautious nature engendered by the fear of losing everything; there’s a constant struggle for more time and power while not becoming too reckless.
I found that my enjoyment of the game increased considerably after finishing the story. That isn’t entirely surprising, given how much the game opens up in terms of modes and options. Being able to mix and match all of the elements allows for plenty of experimentation for both style and for finding the optimal combination for a perfect run. Arcade Mode adds even more challenge with two additional difficulty levels, Hard and Insane, for those who want to ignore the story and go for all-out action. Score Attack is even more focused, with the goal being to rack up as many points as possible in a level with customized loadout, as is Boss Attack. All of the practice is worth it, too, as it’s immensely satisfying to go back through Story on a harder difficulty after being tempered by the other modes and obliterate levels that had once seemed nearly impossible.
“Five more seconds, five more seconds—c’mon, just five mor—ARGH!” A rigidly strict shooter set amidst a fluctuating cloud of random power-ups and chameleon-like bullets, Sine Mora is at once infuriating and addictive. A jumbled story with more heart than coherency forms the foundation for a Story Mode ostensibly for genre newcomers but ends up exasperating in its ‘gotcha!’ tricks and dependency on luck. Fortunately, the rest of the game, and subsequent replays of the story, benefit greatly from a web of interlinking modifiers that punish as much as they reward in a system whose hooks are hard to shake.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)