The 2D side-scrolling shoot ‘em up (or ‘shmup’, if you prefer) is, by this stage of the medium’s development, something of a known quantity, its tropes played out to their natural extremes by genre heavyweights such as R-Type and Ikaruga. Whether scrolling from top to bottom, or left to right, the uniquely Japanese genre almost always prioritises gameplay over narrative, and mechanics over artistry, favouring mastery and attainment of high scores over meaningful context. What a surprise, then, to behold Sine Mora, a Hungarian-developed shoot ‘em up with a rich story, philosophical bent, and genuine artistry amidst the infernal streams of enemies and projectiles surging across the screen. In many ways, this Xbox Live Arcade breathes new life and relevance into an increasingly obscure genre.
Digital Reality, in conjunction with the irreverent iconoclasts over at Grasshopper Manufacture, have in Sine Mora (Latin for ‘Without Delay’) offered up one of the great shoot ‘em up stories, telling the labyrinthine tale of a bevy of anthropomorphic animals caught up in an eternal war for the planet Seol. The plot is a twisted affair, both in terms of its structure and the surprising maturity of its content. Essentially a revenge story, Sine Mora centers on airship pilot Ronotra Koss (who happens to be an amputee Bison in a wheelchair) who seeks vengeance against the Layil Empire state who executed his son for disobedience. An embittered alcoholic, Koss is one of the more repellent and intriguing anti-heroes in recent memory, resorting to no less than blackmailing a cancer-suffering rape victim to do his bidding and setting his sights on the revenge murder of every soldier he considers to be complicit in the death of his son. While the story might seem needlessly sensationalist on its surface, Sine Mora plays it straight and delivers a meditation on revenge, love and regret and cleverly juxtaposes it upon a gorgeous world akin to that of an animated family film, generating a frisson of tension which lends the game a unique, unforgettable flavour. Aesthetically, Sine Mora benefits from the helping hand of Grasshopper Manufacture, whose sumptuous artistic design complements the effects-heavy action and robust polygonal engine. Coupled with a memorable and evocative score from Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, evocative voice acting (in Hungarian, no less!) and a slick user interface, and Sine Mora is indisputably one of the best looking shoot ‘em ups in recent history.
Shoot ‘em ups are not traditionally known for the strengths of their (often anemic) narratives, and Sine Mora is no slouch in terms of playability and the soundness of its core mechanics. Rendered in a quasi-2D style, Sine Mora moves at a ferocious pace from left to right, casting players in a series of aircraft, each with their own unique weapons. As is standard for the genre, the game’s craft come equipped not only with upgradable primary weapons, but a range of unique, devastating secondary weapons of limited use to clear the screen of enemies. Each of the game’s half-dozen chapters are broken up into small sub-stages culminating in a boss encounter of varying length and difficulty – so far, so standard. The elegance of Sine Mora, however, and the clever method by which Digital Reality circumvents the often-brutal difficulty inherent to the genre, is by casting aside the notions of hits points or health bars for time limits which, if they expire, result in death. While taking damage chips away at the elapsing countdown, players can add time to the counter by destroying enemies and picking up certain power-ups while avoiding damage. While the system engenders its fair amount of frustration from time to time, by and large the ‘push and pull’ of the system works beautifully in emphasising both defensive and offensive tactics, meaning that the successful player will not simply focus on dodging and weaving.
When the mechanic clicks, Sine Mora is at once wonderfully tense and surprisingly forgiving, eschewing the frustration of the one-hit death and allowing players to regain lost time through careful play. The time-system also dovetails nicely with some of the central conceits of the narrative and a range of special abilities which allow players to slow down time for a certain period, or even rewind their progress to attempt a particularly difficult section. It is an elegant feat on the part of Digital Reality that it has managed to implement mechanics which not only increase the accessibility of Sine Mora, but also bring its narrative concerns to the fore.
Sine Mora is also a relatively generous offering for its genre, serving up a Story Mode which should take most players three or so hours to complete the first time around, and a slew of escalating difficulty levels to challenge veterans. Supporting the Story Mode are supplementary modes such as Arcade Mode, which excises the story elements and allows players only three continues, and Score Attack, which allows players to select any of the game’s stages with a single life and attain the highest possible score. Finally, rounding out the package is Boss Training, a mode which allows players to pit themselves and practice against any of the game’s terrific bosses. The pleasing selection of modes elevates Sine Mora from an often bare-boned pack, but there’s no denying that unless players count themselves as devotees of score-chasing and leader-boards, Sine Mora is a slender experience, albeit one which rewards repeated plays.
It may not be for everyone, but Sine Mora is an unmistakeably unique and fascinating work in a well-worn genre. The dissonance between its bleak story and colourful aesthetic makes it one of the boldest and most engaging shoot ‘em ups in memory, meaning that it may be worth a look even those who ordinarily shy away from games of this type. By focusing on story, visual beauty and accessibility, Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture have crafted one of the best Xbox Live Arcade titles of the year and a notable genre entry; it won’t last forever, but Sine Mora‘s brief candle glows very bright indeed.