Let me admit something upfront – I don’t enjoy side scrolling shoot ‘em ups. I could count on one hand the number of these games that I have played for more than ten minutes before losing interest. If I had to come up with an explanation as to why that is, the obvious answer would be that I’m quite terrible at them. So when I found out back in 2012 that Goichi Suda (or Suda51) and Grasshopper Manufacture’s new game was a so-called ‘shmup’, I was a little disappointed. “Hey Suda”, I exclaimed, ignorantly, “why are you wasting your time on a dead genre when you could be making No More Heroes 3? I need more Shadows of the Damned! Cater to me only!!”
As has become an increasingly common occurrence for me however, it turns out I was wrong. From the moment the game starts, with its wordy and nigh-impenetrable story of warring empires of anthropomorphic animals and striking diesel-punk visuals accompanied by a soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame), it’s obvious that this is a quintessential Grasshopper Manufacture creation. I’m not going to pretend that I truly understand the events of the Eternal War in Sine Mora, even after the multiple playthroughs required to see the plot in full, but I can tell you that despite the cast of chatty animal fighter pilots, Star Fox this is not. Adult themes abound and everything from fratricide to sexual assault is touched on in the game’s story mode.
The most comprehensible dialogue in the whole game, ironically
The biggest shift from genre convention though is the doing away of the typical health/life mechanics of this type of game in favour of a time-based system. In Sine Mora, your ship never takes damage. Instead, a timer constantly ticks down at the top of the screen, resulting in failure should the timer hit zero. Defeating enemies adds precious seconds back onto the countdown, while conversely, getting hit shaves them off. Being able to deftly dodge enemy ships and bullets is an important skill in this type of game, but balancing this with the need to shoot down foes as efficiently as possible adds an exciting element that somehow makes Sine Mora more accessible and more stressful. A handy bullet-time skill and weapon upgrades that reward skilful play add a lot to the core shooting experience, but frantically shooting at anything and everything with mere seconds left on the clock is exhilarating and successfully coming back from such dire circumstances is an unbeatable feeling. It also helps that the pacing in the standard campaign is pitch perfect. Levels vary nicely, and don’t overstay their welcome. New challenges and increasingly over-the-top bosses come thick and fast, while occasional moments of quietude offer a much needed chance to breath.
Sine Mora isn’t a particularly lengthy experience, but replay value is inherently high, especially when factoring in a narrative that becomes more fleshed out after repeated playthroughs. On top of the main story, there are the requisite extra options such as an arcade mode that presents the campaign without any of the story guff, and a boss training mode. Best of all, this version of the game for modern consoles (dubbed Sine Mora EX) fills out the package with a plethora of updates. There are a few new two-player versus modes and some new solo challenges, and most importantly the story can now be played entirely in co-op. The EX version of the game also adds some great visual upgrades, especially for those playing on PS4 Pro, who are treated to a stunning native 4K presentation at 60fps. Sine Mora already stood above a vast majority of its peers five years ago with excellent visual design coupled with well-rendered 3D visuals, and this new version shows that it hasn’t aged a bit.
Being able to slow down time is essential, turning the game from bullet hell to just bullet heck
So, at the end of all of this, I have learned a valuable lesson about keeping myself open to games that I expect not to impress me. I have learned that even the most niche and inaccessible genres can be opened up by way of a team of self-proclaimed ‘punk’ Japanese developers, and I have learned that I am still very, very bad at these games.
Sine Mora EX is a worthy re-release of a game that shattered my expectations of what an arcade shoot ‘em up could be. Great visuals and a killer gameplay twist make this a must-play not just for genre diehards, but newcomers as well. The addition of versus and co-op modes and the beautiful HD/4K presentation make this well worth picking up.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro