Giant Bomb Review

34 Comments

Sine Mora Review

3
  • XBGS

Sine Mora is a marvelous-looking scrolling shooter with a ton of attention to detail, though some core gameplay foibles can grate on your nerves.

As shooters go, this one is gorgeous.

The sort of tough-as-nails retro gameplay you associate with the phrase "bullet hell" is usually the domain of obscure homebrewed PC projects spawning from lone developers in Japanese basements, but Xbox Live Arcade's new shooter Sine Mora goes the extra mile, marrying wonderful mainstream production values to its endless onslaught of side-scrolling enemies. Maybe it's no surprise that such an offbeat project sprang from the rogue developers at Suda 51's Grasshopper Manufacture, which contributed art and sound design to the production otherwise handled by Hungarian developer Digital Reality. The result is one of the most original arcade-style action games to come along in a while, but one that stumbles a bit when the rubber meets the road... er, the ship meets the air? You know, the part where you play it.

The length of Sine Mora certainly harkens back to the days of R-Type and Gradius, since the story mode will only last you around 90 minutes, and that's counting the surprisingly lengthy cutscenes. Even more surprising is the game's adult tone and subject matter, which primarily deals with total warfare and ethnic cleansing, and features such downtrodden figures as a father grimly focused on avenging his son's murder, and a female pilot who survives a rape only to be blackmailed into fighting for a cause she cares nothing about. Also, all the characters are animal people of various, unrelated types. Also, there's time travel? I'd sum all this up more succinctly if the game's storyline were easier to follow, but each chapter jumps so disjointedly between locations, time periods, events and characters (who merely exist as static portraits with voiceover) that the broad narrative doesn't really start to cohere until the very end of the game. Until then, it's hard to form a clear picture of exactly what's going on, and what seems like a promising storyline--a rarity in itself for this genre--ends up falling a little flat.

HELL. OF. BULLETS.

Sine Mora has some interesting high-level mechanics layered on top of all the flying to the right and shooting, most of which--in keeping with the storyline--focus on time. Second only to dodging and shooting everything around you, your most important concern is to keep an eye on a timer that's constantly ticking down at the top of the screen, because as soon as that timer runs out, you die. Every enemy you kill increments the timer, so killing as much stuff as possible is key to staying alive. You can't die just by being hit by something (with a few annoying exceptions), but every hit shaves precious seconds off that clock, so it's just as important to avoid trouble as it is to take out enemies. You also have a limited ability to slow down time at will, which naturally helps you do both of those things. Most of the game is designed in such a way that you can maneuver through the onslaught of enemies and bullets with quick reflexes and deft use of the time ability, but there are too many occasions, almost all in boss fights, that hit you with some unavoidable instant-death attack that you can't realistically dodge if you don't know it's coming. Those moments pretty much force you to memorize them if you want to get through unscathed.

The game offers an appropriate slew of other power-ups that give you a shield, let you use a pilot-specific super weapon, and--most importantly--dramatically increase the power of your main gun. That's where the gameplay broke down for me. At default gun power, even the weakest enemies take a few shots to kill, though with something like 10 upgrade levels for that gun, you can lay waste to everything in sight once you power it up sufficiently. Since your ability to kill a lot of enemies and add to your timer is absolutely crucial to keeping you alive, you want to get those upgrades up as fast as you can. Taking a single hit causes all of your upgrades to fly out of your ship and drift around aimlessly, though, and if that happens in the middle of a hectic hail of bullets, you can just about give up on getting all (or in some cases any) of them back without taking more hits, which will deplete your spare time real fast. That feels a little like a catch-22. If you have to hang back and let those power-ups float away, your firepower is often so diminished that you don't have much hope of killing enough enemies to keep your time up until the next checkpoint. More often than I would have liked, this creates a negative feedback loop where doing poorly diminishes your subsequent ability to improve your performance, almost guaranteeing you'll do even more poorly in the remaining few seconds before you die. Sine Mora has a sound framework and I was more than ready to submit to its retro brutality, but the downward-spiraling weapon system coupled with the memorization-heavy bosses and some occasional nonsensical bullet patterns often made the game feel frustrating in the wrong way.

Things aren't exactly rosy in Sine Mora's world.

If you're the sort of casual player who might play through this game once and be done with it, the 90-minute story is a hard sell at the $15 price. But those who identify with terms like "1CC" and "superplay," or even slightly less committed shooter fans who just want to chase a few high scores, will find plenty of extra stuff to spend time on. Arcade mode offers the full sequence of levels in one long, unbroken run sans cutscenes, though it's a shame that this mode's lowest difficulty is hard, which is... really hard. On the upside, you can mix and match ships and pilots to get different basic and special attack combos, and optionally swap out the time dilation power for a brief rewind or a bullet-reflect shield. Boss training and score attack modes offer other ways to dig into the action piecemeal, and even higher difficulty levels present a truly ludicrous degree of challenge for the hardest of core. The game even embeds a long list of individual challenges into each achievement, so if you really wanted to do everything in this game, it would probably take you ages.

Seeing the amount of careful thought the developers lavished on every aspect of Sine Mora's design continually made me wish that the core action had clicked more solidly for me. The game looks marvelous, and it's an impressive effort in this little-seen genre, but the gameplay is wrapped too rigidly around mechanics that feel a bit at odds with one another for me to feel good recommending it wholeheartedly.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+
34 Comments
Posted by ESREVER

I did not know foibles was a word. Then I looked it up and I learned something new! I wish this game came to PSN. There aren't enough side-scrolling shooters out on it. At least we have PixelJunk Sidescroller, which was pretty great.

Posted by CaLe

The demo left me indifferent.

Edited by Jack_Lafayette

I still have to beat my head against the wall of Jamestown's Steam achievements, so I'm all set on bullet-hells for now.

Posted by Morningstar

Kinda low score, expected it to be a little better.

Posted by BeachThunder

=( Wow, a lot of 2 and 3 stars games recently.

Posted by Krixok

@CaLe said:

The demo left me indifferent.

The full game, Won't Leave You Indifferent.

Posted by yoshimitz707

I'm glad this review is out so Brad can move all his focus to Kid Icarus!

Posted by Napalm

Why are we still talking about dollar value propositions in downloadable games? Isn't this a thing we said we'd get rid of? I'm sick of, "it's a hard rec. at ninety minutes and fifteen dollars, but at ten, it's totally a steal!" How is the fucking game? It either works or it fucking doesn't.

For the record, I'm not lambasting Brad for this review, but this is a trend I see with him and the other Giant Bomb guys, specifically on the podcast, and it just irks me. We can start talking about the lunch money value when downloadable titles skyrocket to fifty dollars a title. Until then, stop it. Please. It's trivial political shit.

Posted by Boopie

all these kinds of games are difficult and annoying

Posted by SuperSambo

@Napalm said:

Why are we still talking about dollar value propositions in downloadable games? Isn't this a thing we said we'd get rid of? I'm sick of, "it's a hard rec. at ninety minutes and fifteen dollars, but at ten, it's totally a steal!" How is the fucking game? It either works or it fucking doesn't.

For the record, I'm not lambasting Brad for this review, but this is a trend I see with him and the other Giant Bomb guys, specifically on the podcast, and it just irks me. We can start talking about the lunch money value when downloadable titles skyrocket to fifty dollars a title. Until then, stop it. Please. It's trivial political shit.

Head over to Major Nelson and see the shit storm when any game is 50 points over what they deemed it to be worth...

Posted by DefAde

@BeachThunder said:

=( Wow, a lot of 2 and 3 stars games recently.

It's that time of year... where publishers just push all their junk out the door before the end of the financial year

Posted by mabber36

there goes Bradley "3 stars out of 5" Shoemaker again

Posted by Napalm

@SuperSambo said:

Head over to Major Nelson and see the shit storm when any game is 50 points over what they deemed it to be worth...

Damn, really?

Posted by tourgen

I'm going to have to check this out. It looks pretty and I haven't played a decent side-scroller in a while.

Posted by Curufinwe

I played the demo and it was too hard for my limited shmup skills.

Posted by Curufinwe

@ESREVER said:

I did not know foibles was a word. Then I looked it up and I learned something new! I wish this game came to PSN. There aren't enough side-scrolling shooters out on it. At least we have PixelJunk Sidescroller, which was pretty great.

Have you tried Soldner X-2?

Posted by ESREVER

@Curufinwe: Yea, awhile back. It was alright. Nothing to write home about.

Posted by SaturdayNightSpecials

Sample comment: "It was too hard for Brad."

Posted by bybeach

I do not have the skill for this kind of game. I wish I had, like to know more about it. As for the review score, it is the nature of the 5 whole star review. You can either rate it too high or too low, or sometimes seem close to the mark. I've given up on numerical scores from GB, but I do like their written.

Posted by BisonHero

Does it slightly bother anyone else that whenever GB does any sort of coverage of a shoot 'em up/shmup, someone invariably brings up the term bullet hell, as if that describes any game where you fly a ship around on a 2D plane? I'm not saying that disqualifies GB from reviewing shmups, but I get the sense that people think the term "bullet hell" is an amusing term, and just want to use it as often as possible, regardless of whether it applies.

I'm not an aficionado of the genre at all, but I thought bullet hell meant that the screen is pretty much filled with bullets at nearly all times. The shmups that GB has covered in the past couple years get a little hectic during boss battles, but they mostly seem like run of the mill shmups to me. The number of on-screen bullets certainly never seems to get as off the rails as some of those videos of DoDonPachi games I've seen.

Sine Mora looks like, I dunno, R-Type amounts of difficulty, and R-Type is not bullet hell.

Edited by murisan

@Napalm: I think of a lot of my purchases in dollar propositions. Either how much fun I'll have for the duration of the game, or how long the game is and how likely it is that I'll finish based on reviews. I appreciate GB not hiding from the fact that that's the easiest way to manage your collection these days. Brad has said multiple times that he finds this game to be a somewhat unreasonable value proposition at $15 IF you are the type to complete a game and be done. If you're a shooter fan and/or replay games, there's THAT side of the proposition.

What's wrong with that? To a lot of people, $15 for a game isn't peanuts. I tend to go along the position that the game must provide $5-7/hr of REAL entertainment. A $60 title needs to provide at least 10 hours of total, quality entertainment for me. Brad stating that this game is 90 minutes long for one completion (which I would do) and is priced at $15 allows me to say, okay, this is not something I should buy! Aside from the fact that I don't like the genre.

Posted by Sunjammer

100% agree with this review,and I really like Sine Mora a lot. It's funny how someone will look at 3 stars and think that's not a buy. I think of 3-star games as purchases with caveats.

The game suffers from Gradiitis, where you'll lose all your weapon upgrades in a hit and then be stuck with a peashooter against a boss. Super boring. The problem is exacerbated when you add in the timer; Often losing your weapons against a boss means you simply won't have the firepower to take him or any part of him out until your timer ticks out. There's this sinking feeling when a boss drops a super crazy flowery pattern against you, you get hit, watch your guns fly away, and then realize you might as well just kill yourself rather than wait for your remaining 9 seconds. It's just not a fun experience.

Worse, for a game that holds its roots in traditional STG so highly, it lends itself very poorly to score attack due to the way powerups are dropped algorithmically with a random seed. You just can't properly memorize a level and execute it flawlessly, which is a big part of STG. The result is a game that is more about experiencing the unique vision and art of a team trying to influence a traditionally super rigid genre. I love the story, the writing, the music and the art, and I'm hoping for a tighter and better balanced sequel.

Posted by NoelVeiga

@Dark_Lord_Spam said:

I still have to beat my head against the wall of Jamestown's Steam achievements, so I'm all set on bullet-hells for now.

Jamestown is one of my favourite games of last years, head and shoulders better than Sine Mora and way more scalable in difficulty while sharing pretty much every other feature seen here (and I also like their pixel art more than this 3D nonsense).

That said whoever balanced the challenge mode needs to be punched in the face. By me.

Posted by Brackynews

@BisonHero: I have only dabbled so far as a couple titles in the Touhou project, so I am also not a true bullet hell aficionado. However I think Sine Mora qualifies, even if the "western" normal difficulty lacks a frenetic pace. My understanding of the BH subgenre is a direct tie with A) reduced hitbox size and B) bullet patterns. If we can both agree that Ikaruga is BH and R-type is not BH, then it should be clear that Sine Mora comes from the Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun schools.

Actually, I'm going to invoke Einhander. Ein was a left turn for the shmup genre and diversified it some. Mora may be seen in retrospect as evolving in a similar way. Who cares about the plot right? But holy shit what the hell is going on with the plot and characters in this game? The environments don't need to be all 3D, but weaving through them looks excellent. This isn't trying to be a Touhou or a Cave game. Euro-Japanese fusion goddammit. Delicious.

At California Extreme last year there was a university professor doing a panel on the history of the Shmup. I could certainly write to him if you'd like an academic's opinion on it. :) Me, I still need to bash out achievements for Infinity Gene.

Posted by Fram

Brad is the best damned review writer on this site.

Posted by sameoldstuff

I had the same issues with this game. I really liked the whole presentation of Sine Mora, but it felt more of a chore to play through than anything. I don't see myself attempting to go for a 1CC anytime soon.

Good review, Brad.

Posted by Gordo789

Does anyone know if this is a timed exclusive for XBLA or just exclusive? I would love it if this came to PS3 or even PC.

Posted by Enigma777

Was I really tired this morning or did the score go up from 2 stars to 3 stars?

Posted by el_tajij

Absolutely love this game and I'm useless at these games.

It's crazy to play a shoot'em'up game with such dark elements to the story. That experience is the worth the price alone.

Posted by Brad

@Gordo789 said:

Does anyone know if this is a timed exclusive for XBLA or just exclusive? I would love it if this came to PS3 or even PC.

Pretty sure Microsoft locked it down as a permanent exclusive, as it was originally slated for both 360 and PS3 and then the PS3 version was said to be shelved close to launch.

Posted by NellyK

Maybe I'll get this if the price drops. I enjoyed the demo.

Posted by Anatana

I mean, no offense intended but I've seen Brad play games and it's pretty obvious that he really isn't that good at many of them, so obviously that's going to influence his review when it comes to a game like this. The bottom, this game is absolutely gorgeous and the story is intriguing and adds a great bit of flair to a game of this style. The difficulty (on normal) is actually fairly forgiving for this style of game too, since one or two hits doesn't mean that you immediately die. I've played ikrauga and einhander and this game is easier by far than both of those are (well, maybe its on a par with einhander but they're fairly different). Speaking as someone who is only tangentially into rail shooters, I'm not at all upset with the $15 purchase, though it definitely wouldn't be worth much more than that. At least 4/5.

Posted by honkyjesus

After playing the trial the main problem with it seemed to be the price. I mean a huge problem with the price, seemed just a step above a three dollar Indie Game.

Posted by arglactable

@BisonHero: First of all, yes, the term bullet hell is overused in a lot of modern game reviews by people that aren't really familiar with the genre. And even bullet hell games have difficulty curves, Second, most footage of the game looks to be on normal mode, which is far from the highest difficulty (Generally, the highest difficulty is about arcade level). In the case of this game, it's quite a bit more hellish on higher difficulties.

As for the review, I have mostly disagree. This is one of the best non-Cave modern shumps to come out in a LONG while and the only minor annoyance (less minor when you first encounter it, I'll admit), is the few seemingly random instadeath attacks that it likes to throw at you. Honestly, though, I don't see how it would affect anyone. The hardcore players are going for high scores and 1CC's anyway and will therefore replay the game MANY times and be intimately familiar with those attack, which are easy to dodge if you're expecting them. And the casual players will just play through, enjoy the great soundtrack, excellent visuals, and surprisingly engaging plot, and fun surface mechanics, use a bunch of continues, and get to the end anyway.