Sine Mora Review
A 2D Shooter strays off the beaten path, trading accessibility for depth and ambiance with surprising grace
Sine Mora is the type of game that was made for the downloadable market. Carrying along with it the pick up and play simplicity of the Xbox Live Arcade’s early outings with the artistic sensibilities of the medium’s foray into independent release.
On paper, Sine Mora is a perfect premise. High concept, story with glittering graphics and a simplistic control scheme, but Sine Mora raises the stakes by adding controversial overtones of rape, brutal revenge and blackmail into its story and by alienating its difficulty settings into different segments of gameplay. Combined with a relatively obscure and arguably dying genre, does Sine Mora trip to over-ambition?
To start at the beginning with Sine Mora’s story is an absolutely ludicrous endeavor. There is no beginning. With time travel being a main theme of the overarching plot, the linearity of the game’s story is crushed underfoot and after multiple playthroughs, you may find yourself just as confused as the first.
However, the story is irreplaceable, because for as convoluted as the plot is, it lends the story a narrative dignity, grace and somberness that many games with comprehensible stories can’t manage. Underneath the seams is a story of hatred and revolution, and the beauty of the Hungarian language that the game is narrated in balances out the ridiculous nature of having anthropomorphized characters in futuristic transforming planes.
In simpler terms, without the game’s story looming over the experience, the atmosphere wouldn’t be nearly as thick and immersive as it is. Make no mistake, the tone of Sine Mora is easily half of its experience. Stylish, solemn and pervasive, the ambiance is impossible to escape. Even those interested purely in challenge and shooting may find themselves inadvertently drawn into Sine Mora’s beautifully artistic vision.
But for those only interested in shooting, the game rounds itself out perfectly, playing around with the priorities that an eastern developed top-down shooter usually works with. Where many games of the sort have been labeled ‘bullet hells’ for the sheer number of damaging projectiles the player must dodge, the priority of said games have largely been about dodging and, surprisingly, shooting has become secondary, allowing the player massive spread shots without the need to advance their weaponry. The shooting in most bullet hells has lost its value and half of the experience has been left behind to rot.
Sine Mora dodges this bullet, pun totally intended, with an innovative system revolving around its time bending mechanics. Being a game based almost entirely around time, the timer at the top of the screen also functions as a health bar of sorts, constantly draining, but increasing with every downed enemy, sharply decreasing with every hit taken. More than allowing the game a tangible sense of urgency, it also creates a constant game of tug-of-war between putting the ship in danger’s way to snatch a few extra kills, or keeping the ship out of harm’s reach, wasting a few precious seconds.
If any aspect of the game could be considered perfect, it would be the implementation of this system into the game’s design as a whole. The levels seem catered around the idea that you’ll always need something to shoot to stay alive. The player can always count on a few extra seconds if one of the rare sections void of baddies occurs and the system is forgiving when the player is caught in a situation where they’d be physically incapable of progressing. With this in-depth implementation of its time mechanics and the pressure it affords the experience, the act of shooting and dodging become equally important. The genre has now been jettisoned back into relevancy.
The presentation is immaculate. Instead of appearing to be compensating for any system limitations, the game manages both shiny, well-polished polygons and effects with a consistent and incredibly slick art design. While not gaudy or too busy in any sense, some of the landscapes and boss enemies are towering, beautiful, and pull off oppressive size and subtle, dictatorial evil. Every single conflicting emotion and whim of the creators comes through clear as day, creating a visible miasma of beauty and dread.
One of the few very oppressive and easily notable flaws of the game is its strange and alienating segregation of difficulty. Story mode consists of the ‘Easy’ and ‘Challenging’, while the customizable Arcade mode has the difficulties ‘Hard’ and ‘Insane’ relegated to it. This seems harmless enough in theory and also a sort of reward to those advanced enough to get through a single level of the back-snapping gauntlets of the two more difficult modes.
This isn’t the case in practice, however. In truth, while the story is at least entertaining, though miasmic and unclear, it will bore the pants off of any pro-bullet hell players out there, even on challenging mode. Those who’ve played through the story and want to replay without the limitations and character switching of Arcade Mode (and play with various extra power ups) will have to grit their teeth and see their way through Hard or Insane mode.
And it’s also difficult not to ignore the fact the entire genre of top-down shooters has been a niche one for as long as the arcades have died out. While the game is handled as well and better than most every shooter of its kind, Sine Mora doesn’t break convention enough to feel as though it’s something totally new by the time the luster of the story and universally cool presentation wears off.
While the timer’s excellence to service Sine Mora’s strategic shooting is remarkably well executed, it’s hard to not at least feel the genre’s dying breaths on the slight occasion of a boss gauntlet or unremarkable cave sequence. Sine Mora may mark one of the most well directed experiences rooted in the long-tread grounds of Galaga and 1942, it does not break the mold enough to make the genre feel new again.
In the end, Sine Mora straddles comfortably in between the lines of reviving an old genre and putting it to rest, by being beautiful, atmospheric, but flawed and ultimately erring on the side of traditional. However, despite its old-fashioned core gameplay, the game excels for its impeccably balanced gameplay, pristine production and peerless atmosphere. Sine Mora is maybe one of the greatest 2-D shooters yet made and through ambition and splendor, it achieves its own right to exist. Sine Mora writes the textbook on how the old can still serve meaning to the new.