If there is one genre in the world of video games that can get away with producing titles devoid of any and all story, aside from sports games, it would have to be the shooter/shmup genre. I am not talking first-person shooter akin to Call of Duty or Halo, but the traditional arcade shooters such as Gradius or Ikaruga. Even in the modern era of bullet-hell shooters, it is all about the action and blowing things up, not about telling a memorable and engaging story. Someone forgot to tell that to the developers at Digital Reality as they have crafted not only a great shooter in the form of Sine Mora, but have also told one hell of a great story along the way. Previously released on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, the game is now available for both Sony’s Vita and PS3 via the PlayStation Network.
On the surface this is a typical, modern shooter: you control a ship on a horizontal, moving stage and take out practically endless waves of enemies. There are a wide variety of enemies to face off against as well as a plethora of hulking bosses at the end of each and every level. In typical, modern-shooter fashion, the screen is often filled with seemingly impossible barrages of enemy bullets and obstacles which you need to navigate around as well. That much of the game makes it sound like any other similar title in the genre; however, you will soon discover, thanks to both an ingenious use of a time distortion and a thought-provoking and deep story, this isn’t your run of the mill shooter!
Let’s talk story first. Sine Mora tells a deep and engrossing tale with two distinct plot lines within that theater of war. On one hand, you have a father determined to strike revenge upon an Empire that executed his son, while on the other side of things you have a race of beings known as the Enkies who want to bring that same Empire to its knees in response to the atrocities they feel it has committed against them. This is all wrapped inside what amounts to an endless war because both sides have the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum; therefore when things don’t go their way, regardless of side, they simply go back and rewrite history over and over and over again.
There is deceit and revenge scattered everywhere; it seemingly never ends. This pilot hates that one, that general hates this one -- seriously, it never
ends. The story is so strong and deep that it almost does a disservice to itself being implemented in such a brief game. It is refreshing to see a shooter game make an attempt to create such an intriguing atmosphere, but at the same time, players who get into that aspect of the game will only be left wanting more. They try to cram too much into such a small space that some players will find themselves lost. There is the hint of a much bigger, more epic tale here than this game (as it stands) is capable of portraying. This could easily be fleshed out into a deep and fulfilling series of games, possibly on a tactical RPG front. Thankfully, in terms of this experience, however, the story is something that you can ignore and still find plenty to love, thanks to engaging gameplay.
The mechanic of time manipulation plays into a lot more than just the story; Sine Mora utilizes a very unique time-distortion mechanic during the gameplay that blurs the lines between the traditional arcade/campaign and time attack modes prevalent in the genre. Every game is a form of time attack. Instead of relying on an energy bar or life bar, your ship’s fate is decided strictly by the sands remaining in the hourglass. There is an ever-present timer on the screen that is counting down; as your ship takes hits from enemy fire, rather than experiencing physical damage, time is lost from that counter. In the same manner, time is added as you inflict damage and defeat your enemies. You are always racing the clock, not only to beat the different stages, but just to stay alive.
You can also manipulate the time during gameplay as well. Thanks to a time-manipulating capsule gathered by defeating enemies, you can trigger effects on space and time around the battlefield. In the story mode, all that you can do is slow things down, which is beneficial for navigating the crazy barrages of bullets coming from the enemies. However, once you dive into the arcade mode, there are additional capsule types which will do things such as manipulating just the area immediately around your ship, or perhaps reflect/absorb enemy fire. Thanks to these mechanics, the game plays out a little differently than most shooters.
There are a variety of different ships and pilots, each with unique weapons and strategies that go with their various ships. You will collect the traditional powerups along the way, which increase your firepower, and give shield bonuses to your ship and whatnot. However, everything always falls back to the manipulation of time. Whether it be in terms of navigating particularly dangerous stretches of a level, or simply trying to complete a level with as much time as possible remaining on the clock for the highest possible score, your focus will always be on the clock.
The game itself isn’t long, but it challenges players to come back again and again in the various modes. At the heart of everything is a traditional scoring/ranking system that grades you on your performance in each level. The better you do both in terms of the number of enemies you defeated, amount of time remaining on the clock, and the amount of hits you took in the battle, the higher grade you are given in the end. This is tried and true, traditional replay value that fans of the genre come back for again and again. As you face off against the various bosses in the game, you will unlock them in a practice mode as well, which will allow you to brush up your skills and strategies prior to making your next run at the top score.
One of the other unique features of the game is its gorgeous presentation style. The game is fully rendered in 3D but plays out in a 2.5D perspective. It looks phenomenal and sometimes too good for its own good. The backgrounds are so well rendered and comparable to the actual playing field that it is often hard to discriminate between the two. I found myself chasing down ships in corners of the screen hoping to score an upgrade or bonus only to find out that they were simply eye candy in the background; this doesn’t happen all of the time but it is something players will run into on more than one occasion. The graphical prowess of the game is also enhanced by a great use of perspective. you aren’t always looking at the traditional side-on view of things, as the camera will fly in and out of the environments to give a great cinematic feel during stage and boss transitions, which looks great.
I have to admit, I never saw Sine Mora coming. Being a big fan of the shooter genre, my first thoughts were “cool, a new shooter,” but what I ended up with was much more. The game transcends the genre by providing not only a great shmup experience with some very original gameplay but also an engrossing and interesting universe. In the end, although I am still going back to improve my scores on the various stages, I find myself left with a desire to learn more about this universe and to dive further into its lore. This is a great game, don’t get me wrong, but this could also be the foundation of something much, much bigger. Sine Mora could be just the beginning of something special, so do the smart thing and get in on the experience now.