Developer: Digital Reality, Grasshopper Manufacture, Gyroscope Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Played on: PC
Release Date: August 8, 2017
Played with: Xbox 360 Controller
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
Sine Mora EX is a veritable melting pot of ideas. It’s a bullet-hell shmup that replaces lives and health bars with a timer. It weaves a grim narrative of war, rebellion, and genocide, all seen through the eyes of anthropomorphic animals. To top it all off, its creators include the Hungarian studio Digital Reality, Grasshopper Manufacture (known to many as Goichi “Suda51” Suda’s development house), and Akira Yamaoka (known for his Silent Hill soundtracks). Somehow, though, all these disparate elements combine to create a shooter that is challenging, beautiful, and consistently entertaining.
As the title suggests, Sine Mora EX is actually a revamped version of the 2012 title Sine Mora, leaving the core game relatively unchanged and instead updating the overall package for the current generation. However, the original game (albeit with slightly updated visuals) is what you’re really paying for here. The good news: it’s amazing.
The story is told in a non-linear fashion across two different timelines. If you’re anything like me, the first run through will be a whirlwind of terminology (what’s an “Enkie”?) before a handful of plot points suddenly come into focus right near the end. Even then, it may elicit little more than a raised eyebrow. Trust me, though: get invested, and there’s a great payoff. Beating the story mode for the first time unlocks an encyclopaedia, which gives in-depth information about the world, its inhabitants, and the events leading up to the game. That new information fills in some story details on the second run, helping things to slowly come into focus.
The “alternate ending” runs really bring everything together, though. From the new dialogue that fleshes out the characters and their motivations to the new perspectives on events that happen in-game, it manages to take the tangled web that is the initial story and turn it into something that doesn’t need a diagram and lots of liquor to make sense.
Thankfully, the brevity of the campaign (each run took around two hours) means that investing the time in another run in the hopes of gaining some new insight isn’t all that daunting. Besides, the game is surprisingly accessible for a bullet-hell; I don’t consider myself a veteran of the genre by any stretch, yet I could clear it on both the “Normal” and “Challenging” difficulties.
A major help for shmup neophytes is the time system that’s used in place of a traditional health bar. At the top of the screen is a clock that’s constantly ticking down; taking damage knocks time off, and if it hits zero, you blow up. However, it can be refilled by collecting (relatively rare) power-ups, as well as by killing enemies. It’s a clever system that allows players who are close to death to get by with some fancy flying and lots of shooting. It does result in the occasional unwinnable scenario, but these are infrequent and easily remedied by playing a bit more carefully the next time around.
The ship is equipped with the ability to temporarily slow down time, as well as a special attack, each of which runs on its own ammo system. Their limited usability encourages strategic timing, helping new players to get out of tough spots and letting pros power through the more time-consuming sections. Additionally, there are power-ups available that can refill ammo, give a shield, and so on. Some even level up your basic weapon, though these fly out if you get hit and have to be re-collected. There are few things more stressful than trying to dodge a flurry of attacks from a boss while simultaneously collecting weapon power-ups so you can do some halfway-decent damage. However, this does make certain sections that require precise navigation into frustrating chores; it’s often far too easy to collide with a wall and lose all your power-ups.
Aside from time management, pattern recognition is also key to success, with bosses telegraphing certain attacks, switching between different phases, and more. Even if you get a game over, it’s possible to dive back to the start of a stage and have another try in short order, learning from your mistakes each time. It can be a bit frustrating to get to a stage’s final boss and then hit a game over, but the short levels mitigate this somewhat.
A gripe with the combat is that hitboxes can occasionally feel a bit wonky; attacks don’t always hit enemies when they seem like they should, or they hit the player when it seems like they shouldn’t. Additionally, some attacks seem straight-up impossible to dodge. Now, I don’t consider myself great at this game or anything, so maybe I just missed something. Regardless, instances of such troubles were fairly rare, and the game allows you to view each ship’s hitbox in the menus to get a better sense of where they can be hit.
The biggest problem is the controls, though. I tried pretty well every option I could before settling on a controller for this one. It was weird, because a mouse and keyboard setup seemed ideal for a game like this. In theory, it would be, but there was some odd resistance at play. I’m not sure if it was the game’s attempts at simulating wind, but mouse movement seemed erratic and sluggish, while the eight axis afforded by the keyboard were far too limiting. I highly recommend having a controller on hand in case you run into the same problems.
There’s a ranking system in place for those who want to push for high scores, as well as an arcade mode, score attack, and boss training. Each of these modes allows for custom “loadouts”, allowing the selection of the aircraft, its pilot, and its special ability. The first affects the basic firing pattern of the ship, the second changes the special attack that’s available, and the latter gives options other than the standard time slowdown ability. There’s even a hex grid that outlines every possible combination, giving dedicated players a checklist to track their progress.
New to the EX version are a co-op mode in which your partner can alternate between shielding and shooting, a challenge mode that’s full of infuriatingly difficult trials, and a versus mode that feels tacked on. Specifically, at least one of the levels in the latter simply had no music. The whole thing was just an awkwardly silent race between two planes. Overall, the new modes are nice diversions, but don’t expect them to add a lot to the core package.
Sine Mora EX is a stunner when it comes to presentation. Every detail of this dieselpunk-inspired universe is gorgeously realized, from the sparking cables that appear as you shoot off a boss’ armour plating to the thousands of bullet shells that rain down from your aircraft whenever you fire. One moment that never failed to make me smile was when, upon disarming a massive cannon, a small panel opened on its side, with a little white flag emerging to be waved frantically as I flew by. It’s a subtle thing, but it brings the world to life, giving character even to the mechanical monstrosities that you fight. The EX version also adds the option to select 16:9 aspect ratios (as opposed to the original’s inexplicable 16:10 lock), 4K support, and generally all the features that are necessary to let this gem shine.
The sound design is also great, with the original Hungarian voice acting and the new English voices both adding to each character. Notably, Ronotra Koss’ English voice actor does a fantastic job of portraying a grizzled, vengeful father, with a gravelly tone that’s dripping with gravitas. Plus, while Yamaoka’s score isn’t necessarily the type of thing I would listen to on a regular basis, it still complements the tone of the game, sounding like something that could have been written within the mysterious world of Sine Mora itself.
Sine Mora EX was a real surprise for me. I had known about it since the original came out, but never really cared to consider it beyond the surface. I figured I’d maybe play it one day, but it wasn’t that important to me. Well, I’m glad I did. Much like some of my favourite movies, it’s a game that had something new to offer every time I replayed it. The gameplay is tight and rewarding, the story is interesting and thought-provoking, and it has an extraordinarily well-realized aesthetic. If you have any sort of interest in bullet-hell games, but are afraid of the more daunting titles in the genre, you owe it to yourself to check out Sine Mora without delay.