Sine Mora – XBLA Review

Shoot ‘em ups—in my mind—have always been games about sex.

It’s not the phallic imagery. Nor is it the screenfuls of bullet-semen. And while the pacing is often frantic, frenzied, down and dirty even, I can’t say that it’s more than an afterthought really—a kind of post-coital reflection. No, for me the relationship is far simpler: Shoot ‘em ups, more so than any other genre, are games about the quiet accuracy of fingertips and tongues; that task us with intimate proximity, not only to the onscreen hordes, but to the landscape itself, undulating and unpredictable. There’s an honest simplicity in the proportions, the solitary you and the myriad it.

And as far as lovers go, Sine Mora‘s top-notch. Debuting today on XBLA, the long-awaited first collaboration between Suda51’s Grasshopper Manufacture (Killer 7, No More Heroes) and Hungarian developer Digital Reality proves that shoot ‘em ups can and always will be the second sexiest way to spend an afternoon. While the genre often struggles with striking a balance between newcomer approachability and hardcore longevity, Sine Mora is equally considerate to both. You want a game to roll around with for a few hours? It’ll handle that. But crank up the difficulty, and I promise you, you’ll have quite a night on your hands.

This balance is what I find most striking about Sine Mora. The graphics—luminescent. The soundtrack—an electric fucking phantom. But the twofold grasp of its audience? Reeeel tight. For starters, we have the obvious: that the game is split into two distinct modes…the first, a Story Mode which functions primarily as a tutorial, and which only offers the two lowest difficulty levels. The story—a two hour campaign which sees players taking on the role of several time-traveling pilots out to stop a genocidal madman—well, it’s pretty throwaway. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its moments…The primary themes of Time, guilt, and sacrifice are surprisingly potent, even if they don’t amount to all that much. Nevertheless, the story is good enough and nicely complements the task at hand: to familiarize players with the games various mechanics.

Do you know what’s better than one good idea? A dozen of ‘em. And that’s how I feel about Sine Mora’s gameplay mechanics, and honestly about the game as a whole—everything, or quite nearly so, is in the right place. Straight out of the gate, the “time” mechanic just makes good sense: In lieu of a traditional health meter, players instead have what’s called “time mass”…and no, that isn’t just a fancy name for “health meter.” It’s a timer that ticks away each moment you aren’t awesome—which is to say, not killing things. Now this is an idea that could have easily gotten out of hand had Digital Reality simply made the timer level-wide. But instead the timer is based around individual skirmishes, so that each conclusion to a battle results in that orgasm-sigh of relief: Ah…made it through another one. Add to that the fact that killing enemies replenishes the timer and suddenly minor battles bristle with intensity. No longer can you simply hug the corners waiting out a barrage of rocket fire. You got to move move move.

Ah but let’s not forget that we can slow down time, too (well, technically, “speed up” time, but let’s save it for the rodeo, cowboy)—that’ll help when we’re scrambling after all our hard-earned upgrades. Except you don’t know about that yet, do you? Alright: Sine Mora’s upgrades—like just about any other shmup—are stackable, up to nine slots. Get hit once, and there it all goes…scattered across the screen like Sonic the Hedgehog’s rings. I have to say, there are few more rewarding maneuvers than those which see you diving desperately into the hellish onslaught of a cyborg squid to reacquire your wayward powerups. The ones that get you laid maybe; otherwise, the cyborg-plunge.

But once you’ve gotten down these basics, what else is there to do? Sine Mora’s answer: Arcade Mode. While players were previously forced to choose from the two lowest difficulty levels, Arcade Mode demands that they play on one of the two hardest. Among the standbys of difficulty increase, such as decreasing the number of lives, and increasing the density of bullet-semen, those brave enough to venture into Arcade Mode will find that the allotted timer for each skirmish has been diminished substantially. On Normal I hardly noticed the timer at all; but on Insane…well, let’s just say that out of my twenty attempts at the first level, the culmination of which was a personal record-setting minute and a half…I ranked #7 in the world.

So yeah, it’s pretty rough.

But it’s not impossible. After all, Sine Mora has tricks yet up her (or his) sleeve. While Story Mode required players to stick with whichever ship the developers picked for each level, Arcade Mode allows the choice of one of three, as well as one of seven pilots, all of which have their own special attack. What’s more, players now have the chance to swap out their choice of “time move” with one of three choices: “Speed Up,” previously mandatory; “Reverse Time,” which does exactly what it sounds like, to great effect; and “Reflect,” a move that allows players to steamroll through wave after wave of projectiles unharmed. Though I do wonder one thing: Who would choose anything other than “Reflect”? A quick glance at the leaderboards confirms my suspicion…No one.

And though that might not seem to matter now, this is a game whose future depends on leaderboards. Why? Because it’s, like, two hours long. Not to be that guy, but if you’re spending 1,200 MSP on something, you need to know that. Sine Mora is not for the one-night standers among us; it’s a game for those who like the challenge of being not quite good enough…yet. For those people, the leaderboards are an integral part of the game, and to that end, you’ll find that Digital Reality’s attention to detail has remained just as unwavering as before. For one, you’ll find that the game’s sixty-three ship combinations have been streamlined into a slick-looking Chronome map, allowing players to not only quickly pick their favorite combination, but—in the years that will come to follow this game—refer to their combination in quick conversation. As well, Sine Mora employs an active ranking system that adjusts the game’s difficulty from moment to moment depending on how the player plays, affecting their end-game bonuses. Add to that Boss Mode and Score Attack and you’ve got yourself a game that favors those who just like to get better at something—anything.

Shoot ’em ups may be inherently about sex, but we must ask ourselves, what kind of sex? In your average shmup—hell, your average game period—the sex is about instant gratification. I prefer my romps a little more honest; that aren’t afraid to let me know, “you’re doing well but you ain’t there yet.” Cuz that keeps me honest.