Sine Mora was a brilliant little shoot-em-up game that came out of an unprecedented partnership between Hungarian developer Digital Reality and Suda 51’s studio Grasshopper Manufacture. At the time, it received universal acclaim for its gorgeous visuals and white-knuckle bullet hell gameplay while also being unanimously derided for having a muddled, confusing, poorly written time-travelling story. Five years after the fact, publisher THQ Nordic hopes to bring the game out on a second run for current gen consoles with updated visuals so that anyone who may have missed out on this weird, excellent game can experience it with fresh eyes.
Sine Mora tells the story of two stories that routine intersect and intertwine against a backdrop of gut-wrenching war, featuring a cast of anthropomorphic animals who pilot awesome steampunk planes on their quests for glory, duty, and vengeance. The main plot follows the key plays of The Resistance as they mount a last-ditch suicide run against the genocidal Layil Empire. Some of these pilots are driven by pride, some by love for their nation, and some by pure unbridled rage.
The two storylines run parallel to each other and, as part of the EX update, are narrated in fully voiced cutscenes with some fairly uneven voice-acting.
The story is a big hard to follow what with all the time-travel and the paradoxical outcomes thereof. This confusion is further exacerbated by the fact that the story is conveyed to you through just a handful of pages of dialogue. This isn’t really that much of a problem since you’re probably only here for the shmup action, but the tale is incredibly dark and heavy and the themes of war, parental loss, suicide, blackmail, and sexual abuse don’t feel earned by the sheer brevity of the narrative. Meatier writing could have done justice to the material but here they seem to only be present for shock value, and sit kind of awkwardly within the swashbuckling side-scrolling score-attack gameplay. It is a good story, however, should you choose to spend the time and try to understand its nuances, and has an absolute doozy of an ending.
I’ve been droning about the story for some time, now, but this is a shoot-em-up game at the end of the day. Thankfully, Sine Mora EX is excellent in the gameplay department. The game has a propensity to get extremely frantic, especially if you play the score-attack or challenge modes, but the story mode pulls its punches in an attempt to ease new players into the genre. The arcade mode, on the other hand, flings you into the deep end with an eye-gouging density of projectiles that you can either dodge in real time or use your Max Payne-esque bullet time ability to maneuver around. The slow-mo power runs on a meter that runs out fairly quickly so you’re advised to be expedient in its use.
The game adds some weird kinks to the classic bullet-hell formula, the first of which is a timer that’s constantly trickling down, resulting in a game over if you let it deplete. You can keep adding seconds to the timer by killing enemies, which is as good an incentive as any to make sure not a single enemy slips past you. You’re given a primary weapon that can be upgraded by collecting power-ups on the battlefield. These upgrades, as the game informs you, are permanent as long as you don’t get hit. Once you get hit, you lose all of your upgrades the way Sonic loses his rings, and have a short window to pick them back up (this is mostly where I dumped by slow-mo meter). Aside from power-ups, you also pick up score boosts, speed boosts, and refills for your bullet time. Your secondary weapons range from heat-seeking missiles to lasers that do massive damage, but ammo is very limited and only replenished by pickups you sometimes get on your way through the levels.
Sine Mora EX‘s gorgeous steampunk aestheic is easily one of its strongest assets outside of its gameplay.
Each stage is a mindbogglingly lavish production with several layers of movement in both the foreground as well as the background. Levels take you across picturesque tropical islands, military bunkers, underwater tunnels, etc. and do an excellent job of conveying a sense of depth, making Sine Mora EX one of the few games in its genre that really do justice to the term “2.5D”. The art direction is helped along with great lighting and special effects that come with every shot, hit, and explosion. Gusts of wind fling debris in your direction while trees and grass provide a stark reminder of what used to be before war ravaged the land. Sine Mora EX features a whole bunch of modes, including a rather strange and hilarious co-op mode in which one player controls the plane while another controls the guns. There is also a two-player versus mode, a boss training mode, and a score-attack mode, all with multiple difficulties to round up what was already a rather excellent package.
Sine Mora EX also has some brilliantly designed bosses designed by anime veteran Mahiro Maeda (you may have seen his work on the Evangelion series). These superbly animated bosses range from fifty feet mechs to robot spiders to even a multi-stage battle against what can only be described as a cross between Rapture and the train from Snowpiercer. All of the bosses look amazing and the battles against them are incredibly memorable. Equally memorable is the somber music composed by Silent Hill‘s Akira Yamaoka. The soundtrack, while unconventional for a bullet hell shooter, suits the dark and depressing mood of the story perfectly, while also leaving the soundscape empty enough for the sounds of battle to be the dominating element.
Sine Mora EX is definitely a perfect example of the bullet-hell genre, packing more than enough challenge to satisfy genre veterans while also going out of its way to make it a suitable entry point for newcomers who might not be used to its demands of twitchy reflexes and pixel-perfect movement. I don’t think this is a game that’s going to light the world on fire (it already did that five years ago) but it’s a great looking, incredibly fun game that provides a much needed throwback to an age-old sensibility that can be enjoyed by newbies just as well as battle-hardened veterans.
Sine Mora EX was reviewed using a code provided by THQ Nordic and is out now on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.