As someone who favors the atmosphere/story-driven side of gaming over the score-chasing one, my experience with Shoot-‘Em-Ups (Schmups among friends) is limited. The odd flash title or bonus minigame aside, I hadn’t penetrated the world of diabolical bullet patterns and gradually improving laser cannons and honestly, had little drive to do so. Sine Mora’s fascinating story concept and alluring art design overcame my biases, but even with the quality of these elements very high, the game is a slightly dubious value proposition to non-Schmup-enthusiasts.
The premise is creative to say the least. Set in a dieselpunk universe where one race has almost driven another extinct, it cycles perspective, place and time with every level and handles topics as high-concept as genocide and time-travel. Furthering the peculiarity, characters are depicted as hungarian-speaking anthropomorphized animals. I say “depicted” because the bison-man’s son is a cat-man and the characters’ animal species is never addressed, seemingly irrelevant to the aforementioned ethnical struggles.
The story can be hard to follow due to foggy narrative, but is strong nonetheless. Chapters are introduced by voiced text-vignettes containing a 40/60 split of relevant plot info and anecdotal nuggets of exposition. These are beautifully written and infallibly compelling, but as the sole form of story delivery besides ingame chatter, they leave much to the player’s guessing. This is arguably a merit, as it creates a strong sense of mystique and wonder about what is essentially a rather basic plotline – an effect somewhat offset by the literal encyclopedia unlocked at the campaign’s completion. Still, the story is certainly memorable, and easily one of the game’s strong suits.
Even distilled down to pure Schmup-gameplay, Sine Mora is decidedly solid and entertaining: The screen scrolls automatically while the player pilots a ship on a 2D plane of movement, ducking seas of projectiles and firing back at a gallery of airships, tanks, boats, insects, giant larvae, robo-spiders and laser-cannons disguised as observatories.
Besides an upgradeable standard gun, you have at your disposal a character-specific, limited-ammo special attack and the F.E.A.R-style ability to temporarily slow down time, governed by a bar refillable with pickups. The primary gameplay twist is the replacement of the health bar with an arcade-racing-style timer: Each hit from an enemy slices off precious seconds and each enemy killed regains them. While this health system won’t reinvent your Shoot-’em-up tactics, it secures a marked sense of urgency and tension that would otherwise disappear when your ship is a fully pimped-out death-machine. The game’s difficulty level is well above-average, too. Beating the campaign requires discipline, conscious strategy and many retries, and despite intermittently cheap trial-and-error design, this means a fulfilling sense of fair victory at every level’s end.
As worthy as the raw gameplay is, Sine Mora is more defined by its sharp art style and music: The colorful backgrounds show a beautiful world stuck between Sci-Fi and early 20th century while the electronic soundtrack pumps out tunes simultaneously gloomy and uplifting. The presentation’s high standard may not surprise with the famed Grasshopper Manufacture studio behind it, but the game’s art is a far cry from that of No More Heroes or Killer7. Combined with the aforementioned narrative, the visuals and music give Sine Mora a nuanced feel distinct from most videogames.
Besides the campaign, which – even with my iffy skill level – takes a mere three hours to complete, there’s a few score-focused bonus modes. If you want to wring out every ounce of depth from the gameplay, they’re perfect. An academic understanding of the mechanics is needed here, and luckily, they stand up to the scrutiny and stir up a sense of conquest far stronger than anything in the campaign at every improved highscore. To the less hardcore, they’re worth a spin to try out custom combinations of characters and ships, but little more.
Sine Mora is an interesting game by the merits of its story, music and visuals, but hardly interesting enough to warrant a $15 purchase for a measly two hours. Snooty Braid-loving types like myself should wait for a sale or price drop. In the meantime, Shoot-’Em-Up veterans can saturate the leaderboards with impossible-to-reach scores.
- Beautiful visuals
- Beautiful music
- Wonderfully original, surprisingly dark storyline and setting
- Tight gameplay
- Trial-and-error design
- Overpriced, especially as a single-use experience.
3 out of 5