Friday, April 13, 2012

Sine Mora review

Sine Mora is a gorgeous and accessible 2D shoot 'em up.

Format: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Developer: Digital Reality/Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: MIcrosoft
Released: Out now (1200 MSP)
When describing 2D shoot ‘em ups it’s easy to fall back on common descriptors like ‘retro’, ‘niche’ or ‘hardcore’ -- back-handed compliments that send uninitiated players running. They have long been portrayed as terrifying gauntlets, the so-called ‘bullet hell’ open to only the most dedicated; those ready to memorise attack patterns and hone their twitch-skills in order to master this most precise of game genres. The fascinating thing about Sine Mora is that it’s all of these things, but leaves the door ajar to let new members in to the fabled shmup club.
Sine Mora is a collaborative effort between two unlikely partners. The design and story were crafted by Hungarian outfit Digital Reality, while the art and sound direction was handled by Japanese studio Grasshopper Manufacture, the crackpots responsible for killer7 and No More Heroes. It broadly follows the story of a group of rebel fighter pilots who travel across time in order to prevent their civilisation being wiped out by Imperial forces. The finer details of the narrative focus on individuals, in particular a father looking to avenge the death of his son by any means neccessary. It’s a deliberately obtuse tale, far darker than the vibrant art style and anthropomorphic characters suggests. It’s garbled and tricky to follow at times, but interesting enough to provide framing for the action, the ruffling of the temporal fabric in the story providing the overarching theme for the gameplay.
Sine Mora is all about time. As you fly left to right, shooting anything that moves and avoiding the flood of enemy fire, a clock ticks away at the top of the screen. This is both your time limit and your health. Shoot an enemy and you gain a few seconds, get hit and the clock drops, run out of time and you’ll explode. It’s a simple idea that, when married to Sine Mora’s tight design, gives you a particular sense of focus and tactics. Each level is broken up into chunks and when you reach a checkpoint, your clock will reset. This means that each section is never a lost cause, even when the timer drops to below ten seconds, you know that avoiding enemy fire and picking off a few bad guys may be enough to see you through. Your ship is also furnished with powerful secondary attacks that vary with each character, and a time capsule that can slow time, allowing you to sneak through gaps in the waves of bullets hurtling towards you. Your primary weapon can be upgraded through nine levels by collecting power-ups. If you get hit, you will drop the power-ups, which flutter away from your ship. You are then left with the tricky decision whether or not to fly out into enemy fire to reacquire them.
The feeling that you are always in the fight can drag even the most cack-handed shmup player (me) through the game’s story mode but, as always, the real sense of achievement comes with high scores. As you destroy enemies, a multiplier extends your score. However, the multiplier is reset if you are hit, use your secondary weapon or activate the time capsule. It makes the decision to use your powerful equipment one of pride rather than survival, a tactical question only asked of high-score chasers, leaving those more interested in getting through the story free to use them as they wish.
This deft handling of different player’s needs is what really makes Sine Mora. The core of the game is less frantic than DoDonPachi or Ikaruga, favouring a slightly more studious style of play focussed on split-second decisions and brilliant multi-part boss fights against giant foes designed by Animatrix artist Mahiro Maeda. The levels are blessed with varied enemy design and gorgeous backdrops, marred slightly by the odd clumsy task which require you to navigate tight areas.
Sine Mora’s style of shmup is no less challenging for hardcore players wishing to top the online leaderboards, but is a more welcoming start point for newbies. And that former group are catered for brilliantly. The story mode is the easiest mode of the game, encompassing two difficulty levels: Normal for beginners and Challenging for the slightly more experienced. Where the hardcore will get their kicks is in the Arcade and Score Attack modes, which ramp up the difficulty considerably. While the story mode gives you prescribed loadouts to match the narrative, Arcade and Score Attack allow you to select your aircraft, secondary weapon and offer up new capsule powers, such as being able to rewind time or create a shield that reflects enemy fire. The scope here is impressive and, along with a neat Boss Training mode that allows you to practice against the game’s biggest baddies, provides excellent tools for those wishing to perfect their game. The shame here is that these two modes can only be played on Hard on Insane difficulty, which will gobble up and spit out most players by the first stage. The difficulty curve is judged so newbies start with the two Story mode difficulties, before graduating to Arcade mode. It’s a neat trajectory when taken at face value, but it seems misjudged to place such a high barrier to entry for the game’s most interesting modes.
Despite this Sine Mora remains one of the most accessible entries in this most cultivated of genres. It’s gorgeous and welcoming, built on time-honoured design but given a contemporary sheen, making it arguably the first truly modern 2D shoot ‘em up in many a year.

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