Every 2D shoot-em-up needs a gimmick. R-Type had its detachable orb, Ikaruga allowed players to change colors and the Darius series had giant space fish. Grasshopper Manufacture's newest Xbox Live Arcade shooter, Sine Mora, also has a gimmick, though you might not guess what it is from the Latin title. The conceit here involves time. That's perfect; because it's about time we got another must-own 2D shooter for Microsoft's Xbox 360.
Much like Killer 7
and No More Heroes
, Sine Mora is dripping with style. Unlike those games, this action title fits perfectly into an easy to describe genre. You take control of a series of fighter jets as they fly through multiple stages trying to take down a genocidal madman and his army. Along the way you pick up power-ups, point bonuses and upgrades to your weapons. The basic concept is no different from a mountain of other 2D shooters, with one exception -- time.
The good news is that you don't immediately die when your plane smacks into an enemy's bullet. Instead taking damage, you lose a few seconds off of the clock at the top of the screen. Every bad guy you take down adds to that clock, so it's up to you to keep the time filled. Once the clock strikes zero, it's game over for our heroes. This mad scramble over time gives the game a sense of urgency you don't always get with 2D shooters, even when they're faster and harder than this.
But don't think that you can just take hits without any repercussions. Even if you can afford the slight hit to the timer, you will still lose all of the power-ups you've earned along the way. A single hit will drop your ship's ammo down to the starting weapon, which is often the only thing keeping you alive in this bullet hell shooter. Thankfully you can grab the escaping power-ups before they leave the screen, giving you full power again. This is easier said than done, as you'll need to dodge even more bullets just to snag all of those items.
Beyond the normal attack, players have the opportunity to use a bunch of larger weapons to take down enemy bosses. These limited attacks include homing missiles, a laser beam, helper planes and more. You are also able to affect time by holding the right trigger. Early on you can use that to speed your ship up (effectively slowing everything down), but when you revisit stages you can use it as a shield and even turn back time.
Speaking of time, the game's various stages are presented in a strangely non-linear fashion. Because the story involves multiple characters in a number of locations, you'll jump from one jet fighter to the next. This means that the levels you play will be out of order, which can be a little jarring at first. Thankfully everything comes together in the end and players get the satisfying ending they are after.
While most 2D shooters go out of their way to avoid a storyline, Sine Mora has an incredibly deep (albeit dark) storyline. Each chapter opens and closes with a full page of text, narrated in a language I did not recognize. It talks about the murder of a son, the complete genocide of an alien race, rape and other weighty topics. The tragedy-driven storyline is more akin to a Lars von Trier film than a 2D shooter. Despite the colorful graphics and simple gameplay, this is not happy and cheery like StarFox.
The revenge story manages to take this exciting shooter and turns it into something you absolutely must play. The writing is so good that you can't help but want to see how it concludes. This is one of the few games that isn't afraid to delve into such harsh territory, something I never thought I would respect from a side-scrolling shoot-em-up. The story doesn't play out as cleanly as you might expect, a nice tough from a company known for their strong (and often weird) storytelling.
The game's half dozen stages run the gamut from cityscapes to a robot factory, from the high up mountainsides to the deep ocean floor. These stages aren't exceptionally long, instead acting like an opening act to the headliner. We've all come to see the brilliant bosses created by Mahiro Maeda, anime artist who has worked on Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill Bill and The Animatrix. These bosses do not disappoint. You'll fight off a huge Godzilla-sized monster terrorizing a city, an out of control train, a giant wrecking crew robot and more. And if that's not enough, late in the game you'll run into a spinning maze that is unlike anything I've ever seen before in a horizontal shooter.
All this comes to life with the game's amazing graphics and theatrical soundtrack. Despite it being a 2D action game, Sine Mora employs polygons to accentuate the game's stunning art style. There is so much happening in the background that it's hard to keep track of what you're supposed to be dodging. But at the same time it's never so busy that you feel cheated. The incredible graphics are made even better with the use of the Akira Yamaoka (the Silent Hill series) soundtrack. From a technical, artistic and aural standpoint, Sine Mora delights.
Sadly, some things will never change. Just like most other 2D shooters, Sine Mora is over far too soon. The game only lasts an hour, though most players will have to go through it multiple times in order to complete the storyline. The developers have added a few incentives for replay, including the ability to mix and match your characters and weapons before playing these stages again. You can also check out the higher difficulties, which takes the game from being merely challenging to hair-pulling frustrating. The game also rewards players for trying out every combination on every level, just in case you wanted to spend a long time earning achievement points.
Although this style of shooter used to be a dime a dozen, Sine Mora benefits from being one of the few brand new shoot-em-ups on the Xbox Live Arcade. Even with its fresh ideas and compelling storyline, this is a fairly straightforward action game that isn't all that different from countless other shooters from the 1990s. Thankfully we don't live in the 1990s and Sine Mora can get the recognition it deserves.