If you said ten years ago that the Xbox 360 would be the premiere choice for shoot ‘em ups (shmups), I would have laughed in your face. But with a number of rare gems being ported to XBLA like Radiant Silvergun, and a handful of Cave ports transposed onto the retail 360 market, Microsoft has no doubt taken the shooter market by storm.
Sine Mora (latin for “without delay”) is a horizontal shoot ‘em up co-developed by both Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture, that’s basically a mix between Einhander and the bullet hell genre. It carries a lot of expectations, given all of the hype and the fact that Suda is not involved with the project itself.
So, sine mora, it’s time to get to the review.
Our story takes place on the beautiful planet Seol, and involves a whole host of anthropomorphic creatures that would make Thunder Cats jealous. It’s a tale of deception, emotional distress, and philosophy of war/revenge. While I wasn’t blown away by the theme of the game (most of it is pretty elementary), the fact that it has some semblance of story is quite amazing for a shmup. You can even enter the options menu and explore some extra codices for a bit more story — like the rest of the game, the amount of effort put into it by the development team shows.
I don’t say this often about games, but Sine Mora is absolutely gorgeous. I can hardly believe Sine Mora is an XBLA game — quite frankly, without exaggeration, it looks like it could have been a retail title. You’ll sail over beautiful seas, crummy looking slums, and giant capital cities. All of them are incredibly detailed, to the point where you’ll easily want to go back to certain levels just to look at everything. Akira Yamaoka’s (Silent Hill, among others) soundtrack is also quite good, and helps compliment all of the pretty pictures.
So what’s gameplay like? Is it equally as beautiful? Like most shoot ‘em ups, the action will entirely take place in a ship, but the concept of life and death is fairly different from most shooters you’ve played before. Sine Mora deals with the concept of time, and it takes that concept to an extreme level when it applies it to your life bar.
Instead of dealing damage when getting hit by enemies, bullets, and terrain, you’ll take time damage. Once your counter goes to zero, you’re dead and gone. This helps create a sense of urgency that’s fairly easy to read for players of all skill levels, and thankfully, you have a few tools at your disposal to avoid losing some time.
Each ship has a standard bullet that can be upgraded by grabbing power-ups, in addition to a sub-weapon (which ranges from aoe explosions to beam attacks), and a capsule. Most of the time your capsule is going to be an ability to move quickly in time, and make everything else around you seem slower. You’re going to need this ability on a handful of bosses, which exhibit patterns of bullet hell.
If you’re looking for a bevvy of replay options, this game has it too. Sine Mora has a story mode, an arcade mode, a time attack option, and a boss battle mode. If you aren’t a fan of shoot ‘em ups in general, this probably won’t do much to sway your opinion. But, if you’re fairly new to the genre, this is a great jump-off point, as the game goes through great lengths to teach you the fundamentals and the normal difficulty setting is fairly simple to boot.
You can also choose your own ship and pilot, as well as unlockable color schemes. As far as shmups go, this is one of the longest ones I’ve ever played. Without skipping cutscenes, Sine Mora will last you well over an hour — even if you barely have any deaths.
The ranking system is extremely complicated, much to the delight of hardcore shmup fans. In order to rank up, you must earn the previous rank in addition to meeting 5-10 goals, ranging from things as easy as “deploy power-ups 10 times” to tasks as time consuming as “play the game for 24 hours total”, or as difficult as “beat the entire game without continuing”.
But it’s not all easy-going: shmup vets will be glad to know there are a number of hardcore options available. In addition to the Insanity difficult level, you have the option to turn off enemy healthbars (old school style) and you can view the precise hitbox of each ship.
The only significant issue with Sine Mora is that the game may not have everything you’re looking for if you’re not the biggest shmup fan. After you “one and done” the story, you’ll be greeted with the above modes, but they’re not really providing anything outside of a broad or concise score attack mode. There’s still going to be a ship; there’s still going to be bullets flying at you; and you’re still going to be shooting some yourself.
For future reference, the game’s director commented that if it sells well enough, there will be free DLC, which may even include a two player coop mode. I don’t consider promises of content to be a factor in any review determination, but it is something to keep an eye out for.
Sine Mora is one of the best shoot ‘em ups I’ve played in a long time. It not only sets the bar for XBLA shooters in general, but visually, it sets the bar for the whole marketplace. If Grasshopper is capable of this level of caliber without Suda, I think they’re in for a solid future.
This review was based on a digital copy of Sine Mora for the Xbox 360.