Last year murmurs began circulating in the shoot ‘em up game community – a bullet hell “dieselpunk” shooter was being developed by a Hungarian team of shmup connoisseurs under the supervision of chic videogame developers Grasshopper Manufacture. A game made by shmup fans for shmup fans, overseen by the creative minds behind Killer7 and No More Heroes? Needless to say, it has had some expectations to live up to.
Before anyone is too put off by the idea of Sine Mora being too “hardcore,” let me assure you that this game is hands-down the best starting point for anyone intrigued by or hoping to ever have any interest in shooting games. Story Mode’s Normal difficulty curve is a perfect challenge for beginners who want to learn the ropes. You will not be storming through the game on your first play – you are guaranteed to see plenty of straight “E” rankings and Game Over screens. Unlike the recent full retail releases of Japanese shooters that have made it to European shores with their sissy Practice modes and infinite continues, Sine Mora actually makes you work for your glory, meaning it’s infinitely more satisfying when you eventually storm a level dodging every attack a boss throws at you.
The mechanics of the game are simple enough. As a horizontal shooter it’ll have you firing down all manner of planes, ships and creatures whilst avoiding hailing bullets and picking up power-ups. The twist comes down to there being no lives system to speak of. Instead, a strict time system is employed where each hit you receive translates to a time penalty, while each enemy you take down adds precious time to the ever-decreasing counter. The primary weapon is upgradeable to fire stronger and wider streams of bullets, secondary weapons (bombs, in general) are both devastating and replenishable and “capsule” powers are mostly time-altering powers that use a bar. The capsule powers are Speed Up, which slows down time; Roll Back, which is essentially an undo button; and Reflection – a shield.
The Story Mode features quite a heavy story in every sense. Each chapter is prefaced by a wall of text while gameplay is interspersed with cutscenes. For players with short attention spans (and furryphobes), these can be skipped and fast-forwarded accordingly. You’ll be introduced to characters one by one, each with a different ship and secondary weapon, which will in turn unlock them in other modes. Speed Up is the only available capsule power-up in this mode. Also, if you’re after the “true” ending you’ll need to play through on Challenging difficulty, which has an alternative narrative.
At the same time there is plenty of (in fact, by all accounts, more) content catering to veterans of the genre. The Arcade mode is only playable on the Hard and Insane and excises all the cutscenes from the game for a clean-cut traditional shooting game experience while the Score Attack mode does pretty much what it says on the tin. Boss Training mode is available across all four difficulties, and has unlimited continues so you can get your strategy down to a T.
One of the first things you’ll notice when firing up Sine Mora is that the game’s visuals are sandwiched by a black border. This is because of the game’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio, also known as anamorphic widescreen to cinema buffs. However, while movies are limited to 24p, Sine Mora runs smooth as butter at a steady 60fps. Visually, the game is stunning. Each of the seven stages is distinctly different from the last, with each featuring spectacular set pieces and memorable boss battles (designed by Mahiro Maeda, who also designed the Angels in Evangelion). The backgrounds are alive and vibrant, so much so that at a couple of points in the game, the busy backgrounds combined with the flurry of multicoloured bullets you’re weaving through can get a little disconcerting.
Characters are made more enigmatic by their Hungarian voice-overs while the sound design in general is captivating, with underwater creaks and groans as haunting as the stages and bosses themselves. Akira Yamaoka’s score is quite different to his more famous work, but all the better for it. In fact, the default sound setting for the game should really have the music set to max – be sure to remedy this yourself in the Options.