In a lot of ways, all of them for the better, Sine Mora (1200 MSP) is a shooter that I’ve been waiting to play for awhile. Also, it’s a game I’ve been envisioning to someday make, or at least be part of the process in making. Yes. Much as some actors and actresses long to one day become producers and directors (and occasionally musicians, unfortunately), calling the shots themselves, so do some game reviewers one day hope to become game developers, to build their dream IP, a can’t-miss idea that’s sure to be a multiple millions-seller and land them on the fast track to CliffyB and Notch-like status in the industry. And the women, of course. The women!… No, I’m not that deluded, or so I tell myself in the mirror every day, but the short of it is, a game like Sine Mora is eerily similar to what I’d have done in Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture’s shoes.
While it’s never a guarantee it’ll pay off in the end, I can always appreciate the effort that developers put into world-building. Games like BioShock, Mass Effect, and Dead Space have distinctive, iconic looks, yes, but they also have their very own definitions for things, dialogue that’s alien to us, commonplace to its inhabitants, and a personality, be it gritty, utopian, etc. You wouldn’t expect that kind of extensive creativity and crafting in a shooter, but Sine Mora goes a long way to establish itself as a unique entity, taking place in its own Planet of the Apes (albeit with more participation from all corners of the animal kingdom) style steampunk universe with its own rule set. The way the world is presented, chiefly through text before and after missions, but visually during, is almost poetic. For a shmup, that’s a hell of a literary commitment. There’s even an encyclopedia that unlocks upon completion that gives you a brief war-laden history of the planet, its people, their beliefs, even how they measure time.
The story of Sine Mora is, well, two stories, but at its core, a time-traveling revenge trip. One, Aykta Dryad, the leader of a small rebel band, the last Enkies, fighting a desperate hit-and-run battle against the insurmountable Layil Empire, which has reduced their people to mindless slaves, and Ronotra Koss, avenging his son, who refused to take part in bombing a civilization (the above-mentioned Enkies) to dust, and received a bullet in the back of his head for doing so. Koss goes on the offensive, hunting down the members of his son’s crew and taking the fight to the Empire’s door, using his gift of time to attack various facilities at different periods to accomplish his goal. And while you can empathize with Dryad and the rebels, the elder Koss is hardly noble in his quest, enlisting others, some against their will, to shoulder a heavy load in his revenge plot.
The concept of time is more than a premise, however. The entire game is based upon it. Rather than a health bar or one-hit-kills-all system, time is both your ally and your adversary. When you have enough to spare, things are going smooth, and your score is ramping up nicely. Take too many bullets though, or brush up against the wrong ship, your multiplier resets, and you’re given a penalty measured in seconds. Those penalties are tallied at the end of a mission, further buoying (or subtracting from) your score, but, more pressingly, subtracts from your life. Reaching checkpoints and maintaining a steady diet of killing enemies extends that life, but it’s a constant watch to stay a few ticks ahead.
If it helps, think of your time in Sine Mora as a constant IV drip that’s keeping you alive; you want that bag filled.
Stages (a total of seven, with multiple parts, and a prologue) alternate with the cast of characters, shifting stories and viewpoints. It can be jarring, but it’s structured with multiple playthroughs in mind; you’ll catch on as you go. The craft you’ll fly varies in size and shape, but each features an upgradeable primary fire, earned from powerups, and a secondary heavy weapon, handy for the well-designed bosses. Those bosses are frequent and multi-tiered amalgamations of metal and over-the-top weaponry, changing their attacks and bullet patterns with each transformation. Finding a weak spot or temporary safe haven is just as important as knowing which part to attack and when, in order to keep the clock on your side.
You’ll likely blast your way through the story stages in an hour and a half, and even though you’d probably feel the need to make another run or two to try and improve on your score, the total package would still be left a little lacking. Three additional modes, including Arcade and Score Attack, offer up some new ideas and routes, and advertise themselves as for the truly hardcore. Eschewing the narrative, this is where the competition is at, forcing you into a harder difficulty (the adage holds true, mo’ bullets mo’ problems) that requires quick hands and nearly-precise time management. The increased tension and tighter clock actually work for these modes rather than against, improving your skill by challenging it. And it’s all about accumulating points. Those leaderboards aren’t going to climb themselves, you know. You’ve always got the energy for one more go at it.
It also gives you a choice in planes and pilots unlocked during the campaign, allowing you to fly favorites and also strategize, as each pilot’s secondary weapon will work better in certain boss situations. And while you’re limited to the ‘slow time’ mechanic in the storyline, here you can try out two different tricks; ‘roll back’ which actively reverses your play, allowing you to erase costly mistakes, and ‘reflection’ which shields your ship and bounces enemy fire back to its source. Choosing between these three powers, as well as the pilots and crafts, allows for some potent pairings and ensures you won’t easily master everything. With that idea in mind, the game’s achievements get in on the balancing act, as each rank promotion (esteem level) comprises a list of in-game accomplishments that will require you to log some serious hours with different combinations and modes, and pull off some amazing (I’d say impossible) feats. Completionists will be kept busy.
Sine Mora is impressive, a practiced shooter with considerable talents, capable of satisfying all difficulty crowds, gorgeous to play through, and happening in an engaging and sumptuous game world ripe for further expansions. It sets out to update 2D shooters for modern times, adding a story while still retaining the old-school feel and challenge that fans expect, and does exactly that, with no downside to speak of. It’s easily worth beyond its asking price, and is an absolute must-play for the curious and adherents of the genre alike.