What I’m concerned with is the aristocracy of the mind. It is our obligation to select -- through our experiences, knowledge, and heart -- what is eternal and what is worthless. [...] But if I don’t represent this ideology, then others will. Others who would prefer to distinguish between people and concepts based on vanity, rather than thought and humility.
The above text is taken from Sine Mora, one of the most aesthetically-pleasing, fun, and thought-provoking games to come out in some time. That it also contains the most brilliant, concise summary of a critic’s ethos is just the cherry on top.
Sine Mora may be playing within an age-old genre (the shoot-em-up), but it manages to progress this entire medium as a whole. Also, Sine Mora is a game in which a legless bison blackmails a rape victim with leukemia to kill hundreds of people.
In the estimation of this critic, Sine Mora is eternal and most definitely essential.
Sine Mora (Xbox Live Arcade)
Developers: Digital Reality, Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: March 21, 2012
MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points
As Dtoid’s shmup guy, I often gloss over story details in this genre. After all, it seems no one cares -- least of all the developer, in some cases. Do we really need to know why doll-piloted airships must destroy mechs modeled after schoolgirls in skirts? Not really. That and deciphering these games' stories is often near impossible without a press release attempting to make sense of the madness.
Imagine my surprise then when I booted up Sine Mora and was floored by the story. It’s not just good; it’s not just great; it’s easily one of the strongest stories to ever grace this medium. The fantasy world built within this game is one of the richest I’ve ever encountered in any medium. It is filled with wonderful concepts that could be expanded into novels, but remain tiny details for the sake of story flow. It's smart sci-fi told with heart and soul.
For instance, Sine Mora's fiction tells of an Eternal War -- a war that never ends because one side with innate time travel abilities constantly time-jumps to avoid extinction. What an awesome concept! I want an entire game just about that one single idea!
Imagine Sin City meets Star Wars meets Time Bandits and you are close, even if a couple hundred area codes away. Sine Mora is, at its core, a revenge story. A revenge story about a time traveling, airship-piloting bison -- Yes, BISON! -- whose son dies in a war, so the father seeks revenge on the empire that ordered his son to be shot for disobeying a command. At the same time, there is another story about a rebellion against the great Layil Empire that rules the planet of Seol.
The Sin City likeness comes from the game's dark noir tone and non-linear storytelling. Frequently throughout the game you see an event play out unexplained only to reappear in a new context later. There are so many amazing "A-ha!" moments that left my mouth agape. Once you get to the final levels that present an intricate web of characters at the same place at different times, it's enough to make your head spin. I found the story alone made replays much more enjoyable, since I discovered new nuances to the plot and characters.
What I love about Sine Mora is that its characters aren’t heroes with paper-thin personalities. They have depth and flaws that make them interesting. For instance, the father bison character blackmails a rape victim with leukemia to fight with him because she is all he can get. Then there is another pilot, a woman incapable of giving birth, who dedicates her life to finding greatness in the deaths of others. The story is full of spectacular twists, non-linear jumps that don’t feel showy, and brilliantly written walls of text that separate the game’s chapters. The most amazing thing of all? You can ignore all of this and still have a fantastic time with Sine Mora!
When I previewed the game at Tokyo Game Show last year, I found myself occupying the role of the hopeful skeptic. On one hand, Hungarian developer Digital Reality cited all the right influences (Einhander, Battle Geraga, R-Type). On the other, they’ve made almost nothing but complex PC military strategy games since they were founded in 1994! I liked what I saw in the TGS demo, but I had to wonder if these were the right guys to pull off this awfully ambitious shmup.
Digital Reality weren’t alone in this project, however, and it shows (in a very good way!) Grasshopper Manufacture (No More Hereos, Shadows of the Damned) handled the art direction, music, and sound, while nine or so developers from Digital Reality handled the rest. The result is one of the most gorgeous, unique-looking games of this generation. Everything from the candy-coated bullets to the surreal, Mœbius-inspired character design is a feast for the eyes. The bosses, designed by Mahiro Maeda (Neon Genesis Evangelion) are especially elaborate. One train boss, as bizarre as it sounds, brings Final Fantasy 7’s Midgar to the HD-era with fantastic results! In a time where all shmup developers work for CAVE or wish they worked for CAVE, Sine Mora’s visuals are bold and refreshing. No other game looks like it and few look as good.
Sine Mora has a couple different modes (Boss Training, Score Attack, Arcade), but the main draw is the Story Mode. This rather lengthy campaign (about three hours) is comparable to the recent Mortal Kombat in its lofty ambitions in creating storytelling and variety that aren’t usually associated to a niche genre. In Story Mode, you play across 16 or so levels with different pilots and planes. Each pilot has their own ability, ships have their own feel, and you also have a “Capsule” that lets you slow down time. The game's story is told through text screens and brief cutscenes, which can be fast-forwarded.
Arcade mode lets you combine the three ships, seven pilots, and Arcade Mode-only Capsules. This opens the door to a lot of different options. Sine Mora’s slow-mo ability (Speed Up) is so much fun that it’s hard to imagine playing without it, but if you are curious there is a Reflect ability and a Rewind Time ability that drastically change combat. Each game stage in Arcade Mode has a Chronome map that shows you ever possible combination and which ones you have tried -- it’s hard to miss the Battle Garraga influence when you take a look at this daunting graphic that presents numerous options to the player.
Sine Mora embraces many genre conventions, such as upgradable weapons and score tokens you can pick-up, but it does these things on its own terms. Since the Enkie race that you play as has an innate ability to time travel, time is your health in this game. If you run out of time, you lose. This means two things: 1) You are always under the pressure of a ticking clock. 2) Time is a valuable resource that you must always pay attention to.
Each level is broken up into individual sections that give you a certain amount of time. You gain time by killing enemies and picking up time tokens. Time is always running out, but only receiving damage will make it drastically decrease. You can easily lose ten seconds on a powerful boss attack, but you can gain it back by killing enemies and picking-up time tokens.
This unique health system has its strengths and weaknesses. It keeps players from feeling the frustration of one-hit deaths, but it creates new ones by blurring the line between time attack and surviving. For example, you can find yourself at a damning boss fight with very little time left. It’s one thing to die from a perplexing bullet pattern -- which this game has in spades -- but it’s another thing to die before you even have a chance to properly approach.
In the end, it’s more about player expectation than the game’s actual rules. I found that once I accepted this strange set-up, I was able to beat a boss. Like most shmups, you just need to focus on memorizing its patterns and weaknesses; pay the clock no mind and you'll do just fine. It’s still an odd feeling to have time literally working against you. In the very least, it ties wonderfully into the game’s story and ideas.
Sine Mora is an exceptional shmup but it's not without flaws. As with many first time shmup developers, Digital Reality get some basics wrong. The backgrounds and bullets are a bit too colorful for their own good, as they occasionally blend together. Then there are the missiles and tiny bullets that can easily be missed without possessing stellar vision and familiarity with the stage.
The most damaging part of the game’s design is its constant in-game cutscenes that will turn away hi-score chasers, despite the game having a great scoring system. You can fast-forward these scenes by holding down the left bumper, but it'd be much better if you could just skip them altogether in arcade replays.
In trying to appeal to both casuals and hardcore shmup players, Sine Mora trips on some compromises made. Along with the above aspects, there are conventions that maybe shouldn’t have been adapted. Why do we need to start a stage with no power-ups when we would have had at least three if we played the game from the start? Why am I prompted to exit the game to the menu after beating a chapter? Why does restarting a chapter bring me to a previous chapter? These strange design choices and (maybe) glitches sour the player experience and may keep casuals from exploring further into the game, which would be a damn shame.
Who knew a contemporary shmup would have so many worthy talking points? Did I mention this game is in Hungarian? Or that the soundtrack is by the composer of Silent Hill? How about the game’s unlockable alternative story that contains lengthy philosophical musings, informed by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, on reality, purpose, and love? It's an odd thing but I found Sine Mora to be substantially more cerebral and moving than Journey, Dear Esther, and other celebrated "Art Games."
Sine Mora isn’t only of the best shmups in years, it’s one of the boldest and most fascinating games of this generation, period. What it lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in its original art direction and deep lore. It’s a shmup that not only offers replayability and strategic choice, but also a story that can be discussed, worshiped, and analyzed for months to come.
Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture have created an absolute revolution in contemporary game design that proves beautiful, original things can still be done beyond the realm of first- and third-person shooters. It’s just as brave and elegant as Journey, while being as accessible and fun as a cherished Irem classic. Even if you think this game isn’t for you based on genre, Sine Mora may unexpectedly surprise and delight you.
I worry that there will never be another game like Sine Mora, when I should be happy there is at least one. This is that one. And, thankfully, it’s eternal.
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