Review: Sine Mora

SineMora

Enemy fighters, towering leviathan robots and incessant rainbow bursts of deadly projectiles aren’t your biggest enemies in Sine Mora, the high-class shmup from the head-trip kids at Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality. Not even close. No, public enemy one is the white digital timer at the top of the screen, and its power sprint toward quadruple-zeros.

When it gets there, your game is over, no matter how well you’ve been dodging bullets and dealing death in the skies. You can gain extra seconds by successfully blasting enemies, and you’ll lose time when you take hits from enemies or ding into walls and ledges, but you’ll never, ever escape the timer’s inexorable march. The continual sands-through-the-hourglass pressure adds an extra white-knuckle sheen to a game that was already fairly frenetic—when the timer’s below five seconds, you’ll find yourself taking wild chances, darting and speeding around the screen to buy yourself enough time/kills to somehow complete the stage.

Sine Mora is a Latin phrase that means “without delay”—which, given the game’s omnipresent time constraints, explains perfectly how you’ll be playing it—but it could just as easily have been named Sine Misericordia, which happens to be the Latin phrase for “without mercy.” This is a brutally difficult game, particularly in the arcade (leaderboards!) and advanced play modes, where you’ll be lucky to survive two minutes on your first several tries. For some games, this kind of killer difficulty would send your controller hurtling straight back to the shelf. This one begs you to come back for one more try, one more level, one more pilot rank.

After all, you’re not entirely defenseless. In addition to the standard array of collectible power-ups and secondary weapons, you’re given limited control over the game’s temporal forces. You can burn a time capsule to slow everything down (except, of course, the timer, which never stops) giving yourself a better chance to dodge enemy fire and stockpile precious extra seconds from a few easy kills. The Prince of Persia must be your invisible co-pilot, because you can also rewind time after your ship’s been obliterated. You know, so you can die a different way.

Sine Mora is a 2D side-scroller, but within those confines, the game’s designers have stretched the envelope like it was made of Silly Putty. Every level features several instances where the camera spins on its axis to follow your ship as it banks around a structure or boss, or points where the firefight drops into the background, revealing additional depths.

And additional detail. Sine Mora’s art direction is stellar: Bosses like an enormous robotic squid are brilliantly evoked. Even something as mundane as navigating an underwater minefield feels like you’ve sailed into a particularly deadly painting.

The game’s achievements have received the same careful consideration. Most are tied to pilot ranks earned by accomplishing a set of goals—burning a certain number of time capsules, accumulating kills, beating a boss within a set time limit, etc. You can dial the achievements up at any point and see how close you’re getting to meeting your rank goals. It’s a clever way to force you to direct your strategy, even if you don’t end up surviving the stage.

The story’s not quite so deftly painted. It’s an avalanche of inscrutable exposition, dealing in genocidal wars between obscure factions and a father doggedly trying to avenge his son’s dishonor. Mostly, it plays out as a string of talky dialogue pop-ups served up by bizarre animal pilots speaking in subtitles. No comical cartoon capers, here, though—these furry fighters drop more F-bombs than Andrew Dice Clay in an LA traffic jam.

With new, remade and updated crowding the market, it’s easy to start thinking there’s nothing new under the schmup sun. Sine Mora disproves that theory in the timeliest of fashions. Download it, um, sine mora.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Time mechanic is fresh, new and game-changing
+ Clever camera use spins what could have been bland 2D environments into something special
+ In-game achievements tied to pilot ranks that track your every action
+ Unbelievably detailed enemies and environment

Cons:
– Some modes almost too hard
– Inscrutable story adds little to the vibe

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture / Digital Reality
Release Date: 3/21/2012
Genre: Shoot ’em up
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.