An example of their excellent concept art coming to life
Sine Mora is for XBLA only and it is a gorgeous dieselpunk shooter that actually has a story. It came out on March 21st and costs 1200 Microsoft Points, about $15. It has multiple difficulty levels, several different game modes, various different ships to unlock, well crafted levels and over sixty options for customizing your ships. It was created by Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture, while they had some extra talent on board who created the boss battles and many of the set pieces, a man some people know, Mahiro Maeda (Know for Final Fantasy: Unlimited, The Animatrix segment "The Second Renaissance Parts I and II", and the animation sequence in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1). The soundtrack on the other hand was created by Akira Yamaoka (Know for Shadows of the Damned and the Silent Hill series).
Gameplay is always a good place to start, especially since it is arguably the most important aspect of any game. Sine Mora handles very well and it has a few controls that you have to get used to, like the special ability and special weapon buttons, but also you must really get a feel for the joysticks sensitivity, without that you will find yourself having a hard time weaving in and out of streams of bullets. One of the most integral parts of the game is time. Unlike most shooters, you do not die if you get hit once or twice, it all determined by time. For every enemy you kill you get more time, but when you are hit you lose that time and if you don't have enough spare you will die. The whole game you have a timer running in the top middle of the screen and how much time you lose per hit is all dependent on what difficulty you are playing, but it is one of the many ways that this game is plausible for those that are not experienced with side scrolling shooters. There are three modes in the game, story, arcade and score attack, all three of these work really well and have their own draw, but the story mode is the only place to go for new players and the story is one of the most surprising features about the game.
The story is about a group of survivors from a race called Enkies. They fought against this great imperial empire, a hopeless battle of billions versus two million, but they fought it anyways and they lost. Enkies are unique and can warp through time, forwards or backwards, and the empire wanted to use them for that ability. You start the game at the last battle of that war, The Eternal War (a slightly ironic name), and watch as the empire drops nukes on the greatest city of the Enkies, killing over six hundred thousand of them.
Immediately they strike you with the strength of their story telling, the last battle isn't something you watch, you participate in it. You are a fighter for the empire battling your way through the defenses of these people and ultimately helping at least one of the bombers make its target. The rest of the game is spent in control of the survivors, enacting a fairly intricate plot of revenge on the empire. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the voice acting. The voice acting is in Hungarian, which was so unfamiliar to me that I actually thought they created a language for the game. At the beginning of each chapter you are told a narration from one of the characters, a narration that you must read, but you can still feel the weight of the words even if you don't understand the language, merely because of the impressive voice actors. They did a great job making each narration feel deep, at least to an extent, and meaningful. The story is one of the best I've ever seen in a game so focused on action, nor have I have ever seen a significant story in any side scrolling shooter. They complement the story by having characters who are not stereotypical and do not over stay their welcome as they co-pilot missions with you. Take a look at the narration in this playthrough video of Chapter 1 by Gamefanmagazine, the narration is only right in the beginning but the rest shows off a good bit of the game in general.
At the end of each chapter you get a score for how well you did and a corresponding rank, something that made me a little depressed every time since I nearly always scored the lowest possible rank. Even if you are an inept player like me you can still get through the game and enjoy it, that it was normal mode is for, but if you really want the score you can play score attack or arcade, both of which are all about scoring a lot of points and trying different combinations of ships. If you do really well in score attack or arcade you can unlock new skins for ships or other rewards, plus nearly all of the achievements are based on how well you do in the game. 90% of the achievements in the game are ranks, each of which has specific criteria that must be met before you can get to the next rank and they have some very difficult challenges to do if you want to get the highest rank. The whole point of all that is that they give you a good deal of options for all players, but they do give experienced players the most content to work with, while those who wish to play the game on normal will have a very tough beating arcade or score attack on any difficulty. I do wish they had added a normal difficulty to these modes, like story mode, but instead the only options are hard and insane.
Each level in the game is a sight to behold, if you can manage to do so without getting yourself killed. This is one of the most visually impressive games on XBLA, unquestionably, and each level has it's own unique look to it, whether you are fighting under the ocean, in a lava filled factory on a red hot planet, amidst an urban metropolis or through the flora filled canyons of a more Earth like type of planet. Every level has a fairly simple design, you fly, fight smaller enemies and eventually fight at least one boss. Many levels have mini-bosses, which help mix up the pacing a bit, but for the most part they all follow the same paradigm or pattern. If the bosses were not designed so well, so enticingly, then it would be easy to criticize this simple pattern, a pattern that is often repeated in this genre, but Digital Reality & Grasshopper Manufacture show that they are nearly masters at these types of designs and make each level unique, exciting, challenging and breathtaking. I submit to you all one more video, this one is short and quickly touches on many levels and bosses.
I already mentioned how well done the voice acting is, but they succeeded in making everything sound believable and compelling. The soundtrack is also quite good, it's not moving, like Journey for example, but it does complement each level with very appropriate background music. I do wish the soundtrack was a little better at times, but for the most part it does it's job well. The sound effects are spot on. Each special weapon sounds as it should and bullets/lasers have their own unique sounds, as they should, but also stick to familiar territory for the genre, meaning they could possibly be better, but they could be immensely worse. Sound isn't the strongest aspect of Sine Mora, even with the special talent they had working on it, but it is by no means bad in anyway.
You may be able to tell that this review has a fairly obvious positive tone when it comes to this game, but do still have a few recommendations and concerns. Sine Mora costs $15, which is absolutely not bad at all, but if you aren't particularly good at side scrolling shooters then it's not a perfectly easy decision on whether or not to purchase it. The normal difficulty in story mode is accommodating to anyone, sure it may still be a little tough at times, but for the most part it allows anyone to experience how wonderful this game can by allowing you to make plenty of mistakes. If you intend to purchase it though you would not want to stop at story mode, arcade mode and score attack wait around the corner, both of which have a lot unlock and try. To actually do well at those modes, if you are a novice, then you do have to work pretty hard, mainly just to acquire some level of skill. If you are willing to do that then fantastic, you can still dig your fingers into everything Sine Mora has to offer and if you don't want to invest that time then you have my condolences for missing out on one of the best games for XBLA this year and one of the best side scrolling shooters.
There are still a few things that some may find lacking in Sine Mora, like the non-existant co-op or multiplayer, but it is quite easy to see, if you have played it, that it would have to function a bit differently with either of those. I do find the levels a little lacking, content wise. Sure they are designed great, but there aren't all that many of them and while that isn't uncommon for the genre the game feels a tiny bit too short. It does have a ton of replayability thanks to the three different modes, but they all share the same levels and what at first seemed like many quickly becomes few as you play through these modes. Despite all that I heartily recommend it to anyone, it is of excellent value for the price, accommodates gamers of all levels of experience and should be experienced by anyone with an Xbox 360.
Violent Score: 4.5 (out of 5)
-Like all XBLA games Sine Mora has a demo/trial version available on the Marketplace.
Main Website: http://www.sinemoragame.com/
*Review copy provided by Digital Reality/Reverb Publishing
-Written by Sean Cargle