Review: Sine Mora

Those of a certain vintage will fondly remember one of the earliest genres in gaming, the humble shoot ’em up (ineloquently dubbed in the modern era as ‘shmup’). Back then, all that was required to please gamers was a horizontally scrolling starfield, a ship with an endless supply of fire power and a whole lot of enemies to blast away at. The genre may have seen big visual changes over the decades thanks to the incremental boost in graphical power in gaming over the years, yet for all the bells and whistles, the gameplay has remained mostly conventional… which in some respects, Sine Mora could hardly be accused of.

The usual bullet points of the genre (sorry) make an appearance: various ship selection/unlocks, a handful of gameplay modes (story, arcade, score attack). Story modes in shmups are often a confused mess, mostly as a result of short burts of non-sensical plot coupled with the odd peppering of lost in translation Japlish. Sine Mora doesn’t stray from this, as the plot covers an empire, rebellion, revenge, all the usual standards. Much like the Bydo Empire’s raison d’être in 1987’s R-Type, it seems you still only need a half-baked reason in order to legitimately lay waste to whatever strays into your horizontal path.

Accepting that shmups will forever barely reach the literary heights of a ‘Where’s Wally?’ book, it’s better to focus on Sine Mora‘s strength – namely, its graphical prowess. Sitting in a pleasing middle ground between a Hayao Miyazaki animation and the vehicular chunkiness of the Metal Slug series of games, the graphics pop out of the screen beautifully.

Although gameplay is resigned to the horizontal plane, you’ll be taken on many a non-interactive rollercoaster, as the camera twists and turns around cavernous levels, or bosses which are simply too large to intimidate you in a single screen alone. It gives the game a dynamic feel, and you’ll be left marvelling at the view, almost forgetting the task in hand. Elemental details such as magma reflecting off the base of your ship, bullet casings pouring out of your guns or steam billowing from the many vents you’ll breeze through are among many sublime graphical touches.

Aside from the usual grunt waves, interestingly designed bosses constantly make an appearance, often book-ending chapters or cropping up randomly throughout. However, one of the biggest foes you’ll come across is not an insect-like mechanoid, or skyscraper-dwarfing robot – but time itself. You will find yourself permanently against it when in battle, but by taking out anything that moves, it is possible to add time to the constantly ticking clock. It isn’t intrusive in the sense that you’ll need to keep one eye permanently on the clock; so long as you keep the firepower up and the enemies down, it will be enough to carry you on to the next wave.

As well as keeping time, you’ll also get the chance to slow it down – a charged up gauge will let you reduce the pace to a crawl, yet allow your ship to move at regular speed. Used in moderation and reserved for the right time (pro tip: bosses) it’s a god-send for threading your ship through bullet hell. Pickups are plentiful, offering additional time, a boost to the slowdown gauge or increased firepower. Take a hit though, and any firepower gained will burst from your ship, with limited time available to grab the pickups again.

The game isn’t without issues. In certain sections, it’s particularly unclear how/where to proceed – which can be particularly gutting after a solid run through several chapters, only to start hemorrhaging continues like they’re going out of fashion. The game doesn’t offer a helping hand if failure becomes constant either. It wasn’t as if the sections were particularly challenging as such, they just require dexterity with such slight margin for error that you require a shmup sixth sense to instinctively know what to do.

The game is quite short (experienced players will see off story mode in a couple of hours), but that’s often par for the course with games of this type. For those so inclined, replay value can be found in score attack mode, trying to eke out points for leaderboard superiority – but don’t expect to see much in the way of multiple routes throughout levels to keep your interest levels high.

Sine Mora is a curiosity in the genre, developed jointly by Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality – East and West respectively – yet still retains much of the standards laid down by the pioneering developers from the early years of shoot ’em up development. Visual splendour is its major selling point, behind which lies a game brimming with character. Its charms may be short, but they are most certainly sweet.

Jim Smale

Gaming since the Atari 2600, I enjoy the weirdness in games counting Densha De Go and RC De Go as my favourite titles of all time. I prefer gaming of old where buying games from a shop was a thing, Being social in person was a thing. Join me as I attempt to adapt to this new digital age!