Sine Mora Review: Bullet Time, Meet Bullet Hell

Sine Mora is the product of a very unlikely union: Hungarian developer Digital Reality and the Suda 51-led Grasshopper Manufacture. Digital Reality is best known as the developers of several obscure strategy games for the PC while Grasshopper has made a name for itself by fitting more crazy into a game than any developer working today. With all that working against them, their partnership has resulted in an absolutely excellent game.

Platforms: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Digital Reality, Grasshopper Manufacture
Genre: Talking Animal Shoot ‘Em Up
Release Date: March 21, 2012
ESRB Rating: Mature

For a development team that’s most comfortable with the rather relaxed pace of the strategy genre, Digital Reality has managed to craft an impressive shoot ’em up in Sine Mora. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Digital Reality based the game on the standard set of shoot ’em up conventions, going so far as to position the game as an “introduction to the shoot ’em up genre” for the younger generation. You’ll shoot enemy plans, weave in and out of a bullet storm, and sometimes collect one of five powerups (more powerful guns, more time, a special weapon, shields, and score tokens) from fallen enemies.

Thankfully, Suda 51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture brought the crazy with an absolutely insane Story Mode. The plot is a bit of a blur, but at first glance it’s pretty basic Star Wars stuff as the Buffalo Man (who sports an eye patch!), the Cat Woman, the Fox Princess, the Robot, and a few others are rebelling against some kind of Empire. But then you realize that all of the dialogue is relayed in a chirping alien language (at least, a language that’s alien to me) to cover up the Buffalo Man’s potty mouth, and the rebels all have the power of time travel. Also, the Buffalo Man rescued the Cat Woman from a rapist but then forced her to help the rebellion because he wants revenge on them because they shot his son, who was a Bear Man. Got all that?

While the rest of the story isn’t that insane, it is told through a series of densely-packed text crawls that would give George Lucas a heart attack. Musings on the value of displaced royalty and the way time travel messes with your sense of self all filtered through a philosophy lecture will leave you scratching your head most of the time. But it also allows Digital Reality to include multiple playable characters, which gives Sine Mora a nice dose of variety.

Each playable character pilots a different plane with its own unique set of special weapons (called a Sub-Weapon here). But every member of the menagerie has access to the Time Capsule, which Digital Reality and Grasshopper consider a revolutionary step for the shoot ’em up. Holding down the Right Trigger slows down time and allows the player to more deftly dodge bullets and return fire in denser bursts. So… yeah…. not exactly revolutionary, so much as it’s just the latest rebranding of Bullet Time. But it also works tremendously well and is a welcome addition to this shoot ’em up.

Sine Mora ingeniously makes your lifebar an actual timer, tying your entire existence to the clock. Each level is broken up into smaller chunks that players have to complete before the time runs out. Collecting time tokens and shooting down enemy planes are the only ways to replenish the clock. But once you hit zero, that’s it, game over, man. The ticking clock is a powerful motivator.

Aside from interesting mechanics, Sine Mora also pushes players forward with a healthy helping of action-filled setpieces, including a trip through an incinerator that requires hiding behind a big ball of garbage, and bosses like a steam-powered Transformer and a multi-level town-in-a-train. In fact, all of the bosses are pretty great and their look really shows off the astounding steampunk world created by Grasshopper Manufacture. The world of Sine Mora is actually one I wanted to live in a lot longer than I got. Maybe it’s the novelty of the steampunk setting, but the towering structures, creepy statues, and expansive city really stuck with me.

With such an interesting world to play in, the whole thing is over much too quickly. From start to finish, Sine Mora can be completed by an average player in under three hours. That includes every lost life, continue, and restart. THREE HOURS. Designed for beginners or not, I shouldn’t be saying “that’s it?” before my controller loses its charge. And there’s definitely not enough game here to justify a price of 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) even though the developers also included more difficulty levels, an Arcade Mode that strips out the story bits, and a Boss Practice Mode.

The game that Digital Reality and Grasshopper gave us is impressive, but Sine Mora feels like less than the sum of its parts. I loved the ticking clock and the steampunk aesthetic, but the story ends up being more of a convoluted mess than anything, and the minimal amount of content is a dealbreaker for an Xbox Live Arcade game in 2012. However, that shouldn’t stop diehard shoot ’em up fans from giving Sine Mora a look.

Review Disclosure: A review copy of Sine Mora was provided by Microsoft Studios for the purposes of this review.

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John Scalzo is Warp Zoned's Editor-In-Chief and resident retro gaming expert. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at john AT warpzoned DOT com.

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