Shmups are, for the most part, now known for their stories. Most of them feature straight forward plots to drive the action. Some of them do have some Dark Souls level of lore and world building. What I mean is that the lore isn’t easy to notice, but it certainly is there. Quick wikipedia trips are like getting into the rabbit hole, as plot elements emerge and you begin to notice stuff and its reason for being.
And then comes Sine Mora EX, a game that is all about storytelling and a plot so dark and mature that breaks the mold of what could be expected from a shmup (or STG as they call themselves).
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Developer: Digital Reality / Grasshopper Manufacture
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: Sep 25, 2017
Tate: Always on
Sine Mora EX is a 2.5D horizontal shmup. The main feature of this game is the concept of time. Rather than having a standard number of hit points or stocks, you have a timer that continuously ticks down. Your objective is to make it to the next checkpoint before your time runs out.
Time plays such a fundamental role in this game that it would be a crime not to make it the first point of discussion. I briefly mentioned that time is by all means your vitality indicator, but it also powers your time capsules. The story of the game is heavily centered around time and its intricacies.
Time as a life indicator is pretty simple to understand. You start with a set amount of time, let’s say 45 seconds, and it ticks down until either it reaches 0 or you reach the next checkpoint. You can increase the amount of time you have by destroying enemies or collecting specific power-ups. Unfortunately for you, it can also be decreased by getting hit. Think of it as a life bar that continuously diminishes.
Your ship is also armed with one of 3 different time capsules. Time capsules “manipulate” time to give you an advantage during combat. The first time capsule slows down time, which allows you to move faster, but also to see everything around you in slow motion. Perfect to squeeze into tight bullet patterns. The second is rewind, which as you might guess rewinds everything on screen for as you hold time capsule ammo. I actually found this to be very clever, but not very practical for reason I’ll mention later. Lastly, you have reflect which allows you to bounce back bullets.
Losing grip of the situation
Whether you like or not the nuances of time in this game will determine your enjoyment of it. I’ve tried to separate the shmup elements from time as much as I could, but frankly you have to marry both or marry none.
The reason I wanted to split my vision of the game is because I don’t like the implementation of time at all. On the surface level, I did have a lot of fun with the mechanic. Having a ticking time that I can enlarge by being proficient in combat is fun. This balance between shooting down enemies and not getting shot yourself is quite enjoyable at the beginning and brings moments of excitement.
But as you tackle the harder difficulties, the inevitabilities of time start screaming in your face. The critical element that conflict with the implementation of time is that all shmup (or at least most) are auto-scrollers. You can’t control how fast you can advance, they always take a set amount of time. This means you will run into “checkmate” situations where your time is not enough to make it to the next checkpoint and the game won’t provide the means to replenish it. You are sentenced to death and you can’t escape.
Actually, now that I think of it, it does correctly portray the inevitability of time in real life and how helpless we are. Sine Mora EX is certainly really good at being deep.
Time mass stabilized
Unfortunately, I’m a gamer and not a philosopher, and I do find the mechanic to get in the way a lot. You may have guessed this by reading some of my previous reviews, but I don’t appreciate when a game puts me in unwinnable situations. I wish Sine Mora EX had been a little more attentive to how it handles some transitions, and to either stop time when nothing is happening on screen or give a way to stay alive. In the end of the day, doesn’t feel like something clever or interesting, it feels frustrating.
To give a little bit of perspective, Danmaku Unlimited 3 has a combo bar that shows you the amount of time you have until you lose your combo. If you go through pre-boss transitions or stage intros, the bar stops until the action is resumed.
By shmups standards, the combat in Sine Mora EX is actually quite simple. It serves as a middle ground between old school shmups and the more modern bullet hells.
For the old school side of things, your ship controls in the very familiar shot and sub-weapon configuration, with the addition of the time capsules as an additional resource to manage. Sub-weapons and time capsules have their own stock which can be replenished by collecting items. Your main cannon runs on unlimited ammo, but can be powered by collecting red power-ups.
New school is brought to you courtesy of the enemies! Most of the combat patterns by the enemies are your very typical bullet hells. To aid you in staying alive, you also follow the golden standard of having a very tiny hitbox at the center of your ship. To make matters even better, you can slow your own speed by pressing X for the more meticulous patterns.
There were 2 aspects which I thoroughly enjoyed from the combat in Sine Mora EX: The ranking system and the enemy phases.
Rather than being a convoluted system, this game puts the focus on survivability and collecting power-ups. Your score is multiplied by a “rank” factor. To increase your rank all you have to do is keep firing, avoid getting hit and also avoid using your sub-weapons and time capsules. The longer you stay at the highest rank, the better your score will be. The score screen will even show you “Time spent at X rank”. The power-up aspect is more simple, defeating enemies drops coins which increase your score. Each coin gives more points than the previous one, provided you haven’t missed any.
Most boss fights are gargantuan machines with several phases. Each phase is marked at their HP to let you know when the fight will transition. Within the fights, the enemies will fire from several places, each of which can be individually destroyed. One of my greatest pleasures in shmups is to slowly take down an enemy by disabling their arsenal. I can’t possibly put into words how delightful it is to me to fight a huge airship and slowly destroy each of their wings and cannons. It gives me a sense of progress during a boss fight and I love it.
That being said, there were particular aspects that I disliked as much from the game. They can be summarized as cheap combat and maneuvering.
While many things can be considered as subjective by the player, I think we can all agree that the maneuvering segments of this game are awful. There are several instances of the game where you will be tasked with maneuvering through tight sections. This include going through waste disposal at the factory and navigating through the fires prior to the libelle.
During these segments, you will sadly find out that your hitbox might not be the same as your collision box for terrain. On this tight sections you will get hit at times where you probably shouldn’t. That’s not to say it is unfair, you might find yourself to be able to maneuver despite this, but that wouldn’t make it any less of a poor experience.
The other great hurdle is your horizontal speed during this segments. I can only theorize that this is a side effect of a side scrolling engine being put in an unfamiliar situation. Simply said, during the navigation sequences, it becomes at times impossible to correctly move to the sides. It feels as if there is a constant winding blowing in either direction and far outpaces the speed at which you can’t move. Sometimes, collision is inevitable.
And speaking of wind, I hate the wind tunnel effects in this game. Let’s just say horizontal movement is not Sine Mora’s strength.
There is one design constraint that I wish it never existed as a remnant of the arcade games: losing power-ups on hit. As much as I wish this wasn’t the case, Sine Mora EX features power-up chasing in all of its glory.
Unfortunately, I think the design of Sine Mora exacerbates the inconveniences of losing your power. For one, chasing your power-ups is always the beginning of a snowball of misery. More often than not, going after them will get you hit again and waste your precious time.
What’s worse is that due to this game’s design, your firepower IS your survivability. You can’t allow yourself to lose firepower, becase it means you can’t defeat your enemies as quickly as you used to. If you can’t destroy them, you can’t gain time and if you can’t gain time, you will perish.
The boss patterns can also be very hit or miss. Some are genuinely fun to dodge, while others seem to be created to outright kill you. I’m talking about some of the trickier ones where a bullet spawns mini-bullets in surprising directions. Also, every single missile attack in the game is just plain wrong. I’ve never been a fan of direct hitting attacks and much less if they are homing attacks and even worse if they are very hard to see. While they might serve as obvious tells that you should be using your time capsules, it works against an otherwise rewarding combat.
As a culmination of the previous 2 sections, there is a boss that summarizes everything that is wrong in this game: Domus. That fight is, I kid you not, in the top 3 of the absolute worst fights I’ve played in my entire life, across all genres.
There is a pervasive feeling I’ve had while playing this game, and that is that Sine Mora EX was made by very talented people who know how to create quality games, but completely oblivious to good shmup design. With that being said, I do think the world building in Sine Mora easily showcases their talent.
While I always jokingly mention that I never pay attention to the story of shmups, Sine Mora EX made sure that I paid attention this time.
History and world building is all over the place. Before every mission, you are treated with a monologue from a character detailing the situation, as well as throwing some world building and important fact for you to understand the enkies and the rebellion. This is complemented by the banter that occurs between the protagonists during the missions. Everything is voice acted and I think the voice acting was fantastic.
Perhaps what I loved the most was when missions are broken down into separate segments that are piloted by different characters. For a mission one pilot might be diverting the attention from the enemy defenses, while another one is sneaking into the base. Familiar voice comms that allow you to correlate the events into one big picture.
Sine Mora goes even further by offering an “alternate narrative” once you beat the game. This new narrative presents the points of view of different protagonists while keeping the missions in tact. The result is another side of the story that you might not have considered. For as much gripes I had with the gameplay, the story kept me hooked from beginning to end.
Out of time
After all, the fact remains that Sine Mora was a bittersweet experience for me. I enjoyed playing the story and the arcade modes. I also looked forward to collecting all the achievements and playing all the different configurations of the arcade mode. Sadly, the gameplay, arguably the most important part, always got in the way.
I will say that my most hated elements only constitute less than 20% of my playtime, and the rest is very enjoyable. Despite ranking Sine Mora very low, for what I perceive is the quality of the full experience, I do think that this game deserves to be played. It is a game that evokes strong feelings, so don’t miss out as you might find yourself to be amongst the lucky lovers.
The ranking so far:
- Psyvariar Delta
- Devil Engine
- Rolling Gunner
- Steredenn: Binary Stars
- Stardust Galaxy Warriors: Stellar Climax
- Sky Force: Reloaded
- Strikers 1945
- Black Paradox
- R-Type Dimensions EX
- Sine Mora EX
- Shikhondo – Soul Eater
- Ghost Blade HD
- AngerForce: Reloaded
- Aero Fighters 2 (ACA Neogeo)
- Lightening Force: Quest for the darkstar (Sega Ages)
- Switch ‘N’ Shoot
- Last Resort (ACA Neogeo)