Some of today’s most popular titles seem to be amalgamations of two unique genres. Three parts shooter and one part RPG equals Modern Warfare, while mixing a massive open world and sharp, combo-based action results in Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma. Grasshopper and Digital Reality’s Sine Mora may not blend gameplay styles like the previous examples, but the developer duo manages to take a new type of risk by adding a deep story into the most unlikely of places – a side-scrolling shoot ‘em up. Maintaining all the smooth gameplay that comes with the genre while grabbing the player’s attention through a truly complex narrative, Sine Mora brings new life to a style of game that few have cared about for years. It worked wonderfully as an XBLA title, and now taking advantage of the Vita’s hardware, this compact adventure shines.
Even if it is both risky and attention grabbing, the story of Sine Mora isn’t easily followed. The focus is on a fighter pilot seeking revenge for the untimely death of his son. After his boy refused to follow explicit orders, he was murdered without remorse – leaving his dad hungry for the life of the killer. However, there’s more than one layer to this winding tale. Players also follow a rebel group seeking the destruction of an empire that imprisoned its race. They may be few in number, but the ragtag band of mercenaries use time manipulation to obtain an advantage over the more advanced enemies.
It’s all told through in-game dialogue and blocks of text before taking control of the ship, but what’s being said isn’t in English. Since Digital Reality is based in Hungry, every spoken word is in, as you’d guess, Hungarian. This isn’t a problem before the action begins, as there are English subtitles provided. But trying to maneuver through a sea of blue and red bullets while keeping up with a complicated narrative can become frustrating. Names of characters, races and organizations are tossed out early and often, and with transitions between plotlines coming with little notice, it’s a bit too easy to get lost.
This willingness to add a comprehensive narrative to a genre deprived of either written or spoken word is still one of the game’s greatest features, and for the most part, it delivers. The game is never afraid to tackle dark themes like rape and genocide, and while seeing those words scroll across the Vita’s screen can be uncomfortable, it’s difficult to deny the boldness of it all. It’s emotionally effective, but the long-winded, difficult-to-follow nature of the narrative takes a bit away from the impact.
Even if you find your attention slipping during snippets of dialogue, the gameplay should quickly zero you back in on what’s important. Shooting the bundles of enemies looking to ground your vessel feels fantastic, and though there’s still a great deal of challenge in each new stage, taking advantage of the silky-smooth movement makes dodging bullets a joy.
Item pickups drive much of the action. Guns can be upgraded multiple times, ammo for special weapons make boss encounters more manageable and blue orbs increase a special ability bar. The emphasis on time manipulation that’s introduced in the story bleeds through to the combat, as special abilities can slow down time, rewind a recent move or deflect bullets – adding some breathing room to the punishing nature of levels. This is still a pleasantly challenging adventure, and if you have a desire to see your name at the top of the leaderboards, you’ll be forced to practice a single level for hours on end.
What most players will gravitate toward is the Story mode, which is the most forgiving feature. Continues are plentiful, and time, which is the game’s substitute for health, rarely falls to zero in earlier stages. Bosses and the environment itself may be the only objects that force you to indulge in your stockpile of retries. Gargantuan robotic creatures consisting of various segments that must be attacked in different ways wait at the end of specific stages. You may start at a towering robot’s backside, swing toward the front to combat his laser-filled chest, and move up to his head to finish the job. A single boss may feel like an entire stage in itself, but happily, they’re just one piece of the puzzle.
If you’re looking for an even greater challenge than the Story mode can churn up, both Arcade and Score Attack do more than their part to make you shout profanity that would shock even your closest friends. The two modes, Hard and Insane, will test your fortitude. Hard gives you less time, fewer continues and more bullets to dodge. Insane ups the ante in every way, while giving enemies the added bonus of exploding after death. Different ships and characters can be mixed and matched, and the game even encourages you to try to test them all through a series of “Chronomes” that track progress. Since the Story feature doesn’t last much longer than 90 minutes (Since the Story mode can be completed in around 90 minutes), it’s great to have other reasons to continue playing Sine Mora.
For anyone who can’t stomach the trials and tribulations of a “bullet-hell” shooter, just watching someone else travel through the game can still be enjoyable. Why? Sine Mora is a beautiful downloadable experience, and on the Vita’s OLED screen, it’s even more entrancing. It’s difficult to break your gaze as the well-designed ships swing across the sharp and busy backgrounds, which adds a 3D element to an otherwise 2D experience. From the animalistic character models to the towering mechanic bosses, everything about the presentation is crisp and clean.
The implementation may not be perfect, but Sine Mora’s unique mixture of story and old-school action is just as fun to watch as it is to play. It’s fast, responsive and filled with enough challenges to keep you coming back. Vita owners looking for a quick, enjoyable play while on the go would be making a mistake not picking this version up – even if it’s mostly identical to what we’ve seen on other platforms. Not every game genre holds up in this newer, more technologically capable generation of consoles. But with intelligent developers like Digital Reality and Grasshopper around, brilliant ideas can make what once seemed obsolete absolutely relevant.
Sine Mora was developed by Digital Reality and published by Kalypso Media. A Playstation Vita copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.