I can’t think of another game in which you play as a double amputee bison, a rabbit-cat with a metallic-sounding voicebox, and a bear (because bears) who fly planes and murder thousands of people for the sake of some ill-defined vengeance while trying to rescue an entire race from the clutches of an evil empire. Oh yeah, and time travel. Sine Mora is a fresh take on the now mostly neglected shoot ‘em up (shmup) genre from developers Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture, and while it does have a few missteps, it largely accomplishes what it set out to do: revitalize the lost art of shooting things while dodging ungodly numbers of bullets.
Being somewhat intrigued by the unusual name, I took the liberty of researching (read: Googling) it. Sine mora actually means “without delay” in Latin, a concept that is at the heart of the game. Instead genre standards of having a lifebar or only being able to take one bullet before exploding, the game gives you a timer that constantly ticks down. When it reaches zero, your plane explodes. Getting hit by enemy fire decreases the amount of time you have, while destroying enemies increases it.
Basically, the timer forces you to always be shooting something, which generally isn’t too much of a problem given that this is a shmup. It doesn’t matter how good you are at dodging things; if you’re not killing something, you will die. It’s as simple as that. It’s kind of a sad thing, waiting, straining your eyes at the edge of the screen, waiting for an enemy to show up so you can end his miserable existence and add precious seconds to yours. Moments of frustration, when the timer ticks out right as you’re about to hit a checkpoint, but at the same time, there’s a certain elation when you just squeak by with a few seconds left.
The in-game justification for the timer mechanic is that you play as a race of time-travelers, which means anthropomorphic bison/bears/lizards. I don’t even want to think about how procreation works. Anyways. These characters don’t inhabit a happy forest, far from it. The world of Sine Mora is a nasty, brutal place; the first thing you learn about Darth Vader-cat is that she’s a rape victim who’s being blackmailed by the bison to obtain revenge against the empire for his son, who was executed for not following orders and refusing to nuke millions of people (creatures?) like a good soldier. The execution of the story isn’t done very well, though. The entire thing is presented through walls of text, unskippable cutscenes (though you can fast forward through them), and dialogue, which lend themselves too often to pretentious twists of prose. The in-game encyclopedia does help flesh out the world a bit more. Note that I said “a bit”. It doesn’t help that the game often jumps between different characters in different time periods, further confusing things. This is a shmup though, and it really doesn’t matter if you understand the story, not when there are things to shoot.
You play as a single aircraft, with the screen scrolling from right-to-left as enemy waves approach you. Your job, naturally, is to kill as many of them as you can while avoiding the gratuitous amount of fire coming at you. Enemies sometimes drop powerups that do things from improve your gun to give you extra time. There’s a small element of luck to the powerups, as being able to pick one up from a fortunate enemy drop might mean the difference being scraping through the level by the skin of your teeth and having to start over from square one. Mostly though, they’re just there to give you a little bit of an edge over that damn clock.
One of the most frustrating things in Sine Mora though, is that when you get hit just once, all the weapon powerups you previously collected fly out of you, meaning that if you want to retain your firepower you’ll have to fly out and recollect each one. This is especially irritating when you get caught in a huge bullet pattern in a bossfight, because it’s basically impossible to dodge the bullets and grab the powerups simultaneously. It does add quite a bit of challenge, but more often than not it feels like a cheap way to up the difficulty. Of course, you can continue using just a low-leveled gun, but you’ll be at such a huge disadvantage that it’s often better just to die and use up a continue so you can respawn with all your firepower intact.
In addition the standard rapid-fire attack, each character has a unique sub-weapon/bomb which could be a laser, a cluster bomb, or a laser-firing cluster bomb (just kidding on that last one…ish). In keeping with the general theme, there’s also a limited supply of super time-juice, which allows you to slow time down, absorb shots for a limited time, or even rewind time to before you were shot, though only the slow time power is available during the campaign. While these powers do come in handy, you won’t be able to get really high scores if you use them too much, so it’s wise to learn how to rely first and foremost on your basic weapon.
This wouldn’t be a shmup without some absurdly oversized bosses to destroy, and there’s absolutely no shortage of them in Sine Mora. They start off small, just a mechanical tentacled monstrosity, but you’ll quickly go from that to a circular saw-wielding living tower to an a circular rotating maze with death lasers. As with many shmups, the key to success is less twitch reflexes than rote memorization of enemy locations and behavior patterns, making it quite difficult for anyone who’s not going to put in the necessary hours of repetition. Though Sine Mora touts its “normal mode” as suitable for beginners, it can actually be quite difficult, with more bullets coming at you than most beginners could reasonably be expected to deal with. There are a few moments in the game where the environment is more your enemy than bullets are. Case in point: the aforementioned laser maze and an uncomfortably memorable jaunt through a pipe involving (no prizes for guessing) even more death lasers.
In addition to the brief story mode, which lasts only a few hours, there are arcade and score attack modes, which are primarily geared towards hardcore players gunning for the top spots online leaderboards. Both modes limit the number of continues you have, and can only be played on either hard or insane difficulties. In a way, they’re more the meat of Sine Mora than the campaign is; there’s no multiplayer, so all the replayability comes from going through and trying to get the coveted S+ rating on all the missions. The game lets you choose which planes, pilots, and time powers you use. If you really want to go hardcore and try out every combo, the Chronome screen keeps track of all seventy possible combinations, so you can figure out which ones you like and use. There’s also a useful boss mode, which allows you to practice against any of the bosses using whatever configuration you’d like, so you can either stomp a boss on normal mode with maxed out firepower and full bombs, or you can cut your teeth on an insane boss with level 1 guns and no bombs at all.
Sine Mora is the most beautiful shmup ever created, bar none. The art design that Grasshopper Manufacture put into the world is simply superb; each plane is very detailed and well modeled, and the dieselpunk world absolutely bursts with life, whether it be in a bug-infested forest or a bustling metropolis. In many places, you can see enemy planes in the background arcing towards you, before they actually make their appearance in their foreground. One point I could criticize is how certain enemy projectiles blend in with the landscape behind you, making it incredibly difficult to avoid them if you’re already engrossed with the thousand and one blue glowing bullets already flying at you. These games aren’t called “bullet hell” for nothing, but it can feel kind of cheap. It’s a fairly minor quibble though, as the game visuals are nothing short of fantastic.
Sound is just as effective as the graphics are, if a little more understated. While you won’t understand the voice actors (unless you speak what I’m assuming is developer Digital Reality’s native Hungarian), you don’t need to; the bleak hopelessness of the rebels comes across in their voices very well, though again, the way that the story is presented makes it somewhat difficult to really care about any of the characters. Don’t get me wrong though, the furries aren’t just 2D caricatures, and they all have motivations for what they do. The background music, composed by Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill fame, is quite understated; never intrusive, and not unpleasant at all, but never really developing a real presence of its own.
Overall Sine Mora is a much-needed shot in the arm for the shmup genre. While it falls victim to many of the same repetitive tropes of other bullet hell games, its time-based health mechanism is an interesting and at times manic change of pace, though it comes with a few problems of its own. Really die-hard shmup fans will find plenty to enjoy in this game (sadly, I am not one of them after burning myself out on one too many Touhou games), and even casual players might want to give this one a go. Now if only someone would write a plot where time travelers actually, you know, time travel without screwing themselves over. Sheesh.