Carpe Diem, Sine Mora
Sometimes, games take us by surprise. Even when your job is to play videogames for a living, there will inevitably be a game every now and then that comes along without us ever having it on our radar. Through this line of work, I’ve played my fair share of shovelware and failed attempts—but I’ve come to discover games that I now hold dear that I’d never have played otherwise.
Sine Mora is one of those games. To be fair, I knew of its existence, and I believe I even saw it in action at one of a variety of trade shows I’ve been to over the past year. Up until a few days ago, however, it’d simply never crossed my mind to play it. Even my initial reason for wanting to do this review wasn’t because I was hugely excited for the game—it was because I’ve been obsessed with my Vita ever since getting it a few weeks ago, and I’d heard a few people saying that Since Mora looked very impressive in its new handheld incarnation.
Sine Mora exists in a sub-genre known as the “bullet hell” shoot-em-up. As much of a fan as I am of niche game types and franchises, I have to say that shoot-em-ups have almost crafted their commercial downfall for themselves. It used to be that side- and horizontal-scrolling shooters were something everyone could enjoy; from the early days of Galaga and Defender to Twin Cobra and Gradius, the games provided fast action and challenging obstacles, but they were understandable and completable by anybody. Hardcore players demander a higher level of gameplay, however, and as a result, many of today’s offerings end up feeling like an impossible task to anybody but those willing to sink uncountable hours into mastering them.
In some ways, Sine Mora feels like a shooter that’s come to our world from the year 19XX—and, upon arriving here in 2012, it set out to assimilate our customs and traditions. At many times in your adventures through Sine Mora’s world, you’ll be presented with enemies that will fill the screen with orange and blue bullets, requiring you to either carefully maneuver a path through them or face certain doom. (Thus the “bullet hell” moniker.) What caught me off guard was how much the game had been built up and developed outside of those elements, however.
Some in the fan community might take offense to my saying this, but typically, I don’t expect much in the way of worthwhile story or character development in your typical shoot-em-up. Give me a quick reason to want to blow stuff up, present a cast of adversaries that provide adequate motivation, and the scenario writer tends to call it a day. Sine Mora, however, comes across as a complex take on war, greed, revenge, genocide, and regret. The folks at Hungarian developer Digital Reality—working in conjunction with Japan’s Grasshopper Manufacture—channel the living spirit of Quentin Tarantino here; story segments, character arcs, and major plot points are told not in linear order but instead along a time-hopping path that helps create drama while never truly letting you get a full understanding of what’s going on your first time through.
The effort that Sine Mora shows in its narrative is pretty darn fantastic. Sure, its elements and twists may not be groundbreaking—but what sells the story being told here is the insane polish to every element of presenting and telling that story. The voice acting in Sine Mora is full of emotion and personality, and for those of us who don’t speak Hungarian—the native tongue employed here—it adds a real exotic flair that you won’t find from other games that build upon more commonly used languages. Though Sine Mora’s voice acting and soundtrack—produced by one of my musical idols, Silent Hill veteran Akira Yamaoka—are both absolutely worth praise, they exist in the shadow of the game’s visuals and art direction. Neither screenshots nor my words can truly express how stunningly gorgeous Sine Mora looks—if Sony’s still looking for that perfect piece of content to show off the Vita’s OLED screen, they’ve now got it. (All running, by the way, at an almost-always-stable 60 fps.)
I’ve yet to get to Sine Mora’s most notable quality: its time-focused gameplay. Here, players aren’t given a set amount of lives with which to complete a stage—they’re given a set amount of time in which to do so. Kill enemies, and you’ll add time to that counter; get hit, and time will be subtracted depending on the damage percentage of the attack. I’m not completely sure if this concept has ever been used, so I’ll be careful to not proclaim it a new idea only existing in Sine Mora; either way, it’s a refreshing change of pace, and one that always forces you to balance playing it safe with making sure you don’t waste too much time.
Sine More is such a well-crafted and polished project that it then makes it even more heartbreaking that I found one chink in its diesel-punk armor. In story mode, we’re presented with characters talking back and forth and new storyline revelations that take place during cinematic breaks in the action. For Arcade and Score Attack modes, all of that storytelling is gone—but those uncontrollable segments aren’t.
In one example, a pilot circles around a structure, radioing a teammate to let them know that he’s going to take a closer look at something he caught a quick glimpse of. Outside of story mode, all of the in-game actions still unfold, sans any of the explanation as to why or what’s going on. While you can fast-forward through these segments, it’s still painfully obvious that you’re playing a narrative experience refitted into additional purposes. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small complaint to have—but when I’m playing the game for score instead of storyline, I wish some extra effort had been put in to shorten or eliminate those breaks in the action as much as possible.
Put into perspective, my complaint about that facet of Sine Mora is like spending all day having hours of enjoyment at Disneyland, but during that day finding out that Space Mountain is down for repairs. You can’t help but walk away disappointed at the fact that your experience could have been better, but it doesn’t take away from all of the fun that you did have. In so many ways, Sine Mora shines brightly as a dazzling example of what can be accomplished when a team knows what they want, knows how to accomplish it, and does so with love. I’m hard-pressed to think of another game recently that oozed quality in every regard like this game does; even down to its slickly designed user interface and stylish-yet-simple title screen, Sine Mora is a masterpiece.
For better appreciation of its audio and visual delights, and to help navigate its at-times small onscreen elements, some out there may prefer to experience Sine Mora on their fancy HDTVs via the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, or computer monitors via Steam. For me, however, I wouldn’t trade the Vita version for any of those—to me, this is where Sine Mora calls home.
SUMMARY: While Sine Mora‘s challenge may ask more than some players will be able to provide, for those who can take what it’s got to give and get back up, this is a brilliant addition to the Vita’s library that absolutely should not be missed.
- THE GOOD: A fantastically produced shoot-em-up that is a treat to behold.
- THE BAD: The game’s non-storyline modes suffer somewhat for the sake of its intertwined narrative.
- THE UGLY: Every other Vita game in comparison.
Sine Mora is available on XBLA, PSN, PS Vita, and PC. Primary version reviewed was the newly released PS Vita version.