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.
In the estimation of this critic, Sine Mora is eternal and most definitely essential.
Sine Mora (Xbox Live Arcade)
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!
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.
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.
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.
THE VERDICT - Sine Mora
Reviewed by Allistair Pinsof