Publisher: Digital Reality
Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Back in March, the Xbox 360 became home to one of the year’s more surprising releases, the time-bending side-scrolling shooter Sine Mora. Co-developed by Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture, the colorful, ostensibly traditional shoot ‘em up had much more in store for those gamers adventurous enough to give it a shot: an opaque story, strange anthropomorphic characters, some great attack patterns and some equally harsh rules.
After months of waiting, it’s the PlayStation 3’s turn to play host to the bizarre world of Sine Mora. This isn’t quite the same game that I reviewed for the Live Arcade launch, though. This version not only includes the various tweaks that a handful of updates eventually brought to the 360 version, but also the brand new Challenge Mode and newcomer Wilhelmina Muller from G.Rev’s Under Defeat. While some of the game’s more irksome fundamental issues remain, this refined and expanded update makes for a fantastic addition to both the PS Network’s library and an underserved genre.
One of Sine Mora‘s most immediate and interesting aspects, and by far its most confusing, is its story. Shooters aren’t typically known for their storylines, though the occasional charming yarn of Spanish and Martian allies attacking British colonies do sneak in from time to time. However, it isn’t the inclusion of the story that makes it stand out, but its near impenetrability. It’s important to keep in mind that the malleability of time is as much a key element of a neat mechanic gimmick as it is a pervasive theme throughout the game. As a result, the story ignores a chronological narrative in favor of skipping around time and place. The Hungarian voice-over work adds to the mystery, with the head-scratching subtitles often serving more as vague narrative markers than illuminating reveals. In truth, the story isn’t terribly complicated once the game plays out, and while it has more than a little padding, trying to decipher it as you go along can add a great deal of world-building for those who don’t mind being patient and can appreciate—and frequently indulge—the developers’ eccentricities.
The short version is that the game is about a failed rebellion. Or a failed rebellion that is trying to un-fail through the use of time travel. Or about avenging your son. Actually, it’s all of these things—and more. After years of conflict, the Layil Empire has defeated and absorbed all of the nations of Seol. As the last free nation to succumb to the might of the empire, the Land of the Sons of Enky decided to risk it all in a desperate attempt to rewrite history in what has become known as the Eternal War. The remaining Enkies used their ability to teleport through time to seek safety or battle the Layil, but they were gradually captured by mercenaries and collaborators, leaving millions to be enslaved by the Empire for their temporal powers. You play at times an Imperialist collaborator, a turncoat, and as one of the handful of holdouts from the shattered resistance movement. In controlling the various pilots, you will in turn attempt to avenge the death of your son, liberate a people, and topple an empire.
The cast that plays out this Jacobean tale consists of some of the most downtrodden characters I’ve ever encountered, from a disillusioned former ace turned alcoholic, to a ravaged cancer survivor who is being coerced into the cockpit through blackmail. This motley crew of pilots mans a handful of WWII-era steampunk-styled propeller planes that are armed with an upgradeable primary weapon, a sub-weapon, and capsules that allow them to manipulate time. The standard primary weapon holds nine temporary upgrades as well as a tenth, permanent upgrade. In Story Mode, all characters have access to a standard capsule power called Speed Up, which slows down everything around the plane. Characters differ in their sub-weapons, which range from a massive beam of energy to a spread of cluster bombs and a volley of homing missiles. You will need all of these things in your bag of tricks—and more—to beat the game’s eight missions.
Most enemies require multiple shots to destroy, and several detonate in a flurry of explosive projectiles. Despite their best efforts, downed enemies actually help you in your efforts. Each destroyed enemy adds a few seconds onto a disconcertingly fast countdown timer that doubles as a life gauge, and some randomly drop power-up tokens. These tokens are your lifeblood as they not only serve as the means with which you upgrade your main weapon and replenish spent sub-weapon ammo stock, but they can also refill an automatic shield, add extra points, extend time (both during play and at death), and increase the capsule gauge. It’s an involved system that is in equal measure incredibly satisfying and dauntingly punishing, with a near-whimsical approach to difficulty that can cause controllers to find themselves in plastic-cracking vice grips.
Frustration arises when the game’s web of mechanics seems to work against you. This feeling is largely the result of two harsh contact penalties that feed off each other. Until you secure your main weapon’s permanent upgrade, any collision will send some of your stored orbs flying into the midst of laser fire and environmental hazards. This is especially troublesome because projectiles and hazards can be difficult to spot; this is especially true for enemy fire, as lasers and neon-colored rounds blend in with background graphics to the point where you can only cross your fingers and hope that what you’re seeing is a firework burst and not your impending doom. Couple this with the fact that power-up tokens are dropped at random and that orbs frequently fly right off the screen, and you have a design that is uncomfortably reliant on luck and seemingly determined to turn your ship into a pinball. Contact with any object also removes time from the countdown timer, effectively lowering your health. To make matters worse, some of the levels appeared to be designed to take advantage of this. This means that you will hit an object, losing time and most likely tokens as well, and if you do indeed lose tokens, your desperate dash forward to grab them will drastically increase your chance of hitting something else and losing even more time—and on and on it goes. A session can turn pretty nasty if you end up in one of these hit-chase-hit cycles.
One segment in particular encapsulates the very worst of the game’s design, and as something that I consider a serious misstep, I was hoping it would have been altered for this release. Towards the end of a level, you must make your way through a series of narrow chutes while hidden amongst a ball of debris. Any time you wander outside this ball, which is surprisingly easy given the tight corridors, branching paths, and of course, flame jets, you die. Even after having gone through the section dozens of times, I still find myself draining credits trying to get past it. The constant fight against the instinct to rush ahead to grab loose orbs is never as hard as it is during this section, where any attempt to snatch up wandering tokens leads to instant death. The fight against that same drive is also what makes the game stand out. As absolutely infuriating as the game can be, Sine Mora is both mesmerizing and addictive with the right level design and enemy attack patterns.
Surviving Story Mode might test your patience, but it’s also worth sticking with because it’s only afterwards that the rest of the game really opens up. By the time the game is finished, all of the planes, characters, and abilities are available for play in Arcade Mode, Boss Battle, Challenge Mode, and Training. Arcade Mode follows the same progression path as Story, but it guts all narrative elements and limits the amount of continues. Boss Battle allows you to practice against the handful of massive robots you encountered in Story, and some are real bastards. Challenge Mode, a PS3 exclusive, is a set of 15 hard-as-hell sequential challenges that will take you a very long time to complete. As an example, the first one involves increasing a countdown timer by shooting yellow mines while avoiding hitting fatal red ones long enough to outlast a depleting gauge—I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time on this one alone. Challenge is definitely for diehard fans, but it’s also a great addition.
Score Attack remains the biggest draw for me because, as the name would indicate, it’s all about chasing the top score. You are able to pick a difficulty level, story level, pilot, plane, and one of two additional capsule abilities (a reflective shield and massive beam) and attempt to get as high a score as possible to upload to a global leaderboard shared by PS3 and PS Vita players. The scoring system is considerably different from the other modes, with the chain-kill score modifier being augmented by a rank that builds during combat but drains when hit or whenever capsules are used. The game calculates how long you spent within each rank and adds that bonus to your overall score, meaning that maintaining a high rank is crucial to cracking the top of the leaderboards. The one-upmanship in trying to climb the ladder in just one of the levels is the biggest draw for me, akin to the days when I made sure my initials were entered before stepping away from the arcade cabinet. It’s also a great feeling to replay Story after putting in time with Score Attack and using your newly refined skills to bring what were once seemingly insurmountable levels to heel.
Even after several updates, this line from my review of the Xbox 360 version still holds true: “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.” The new additions—Challenge Mode and pilot Wilhelmina Muller—definitely make this the version to get, but the rigid rules, cheap kills, and sections so insidiously designed it seems as if the designers have something personal against you still mean this is a shooter best suited for the patient gamer who wants something a little different.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)