Sine Mora PS Vita
Of all the classic video game genres that still linger today, 2D shoot ‘em ups have arguably been one of the few that developers have turned into a science. While the visuals have improved, the enemy ships grown larger and the screens teeming with more bullets, the general premise of automatically flying from left to right and shooting down the weak points of enemy bosses remains unchanged. These days, the only way to make a shoot ‘em up stand out is to introduce a unique new power and a widely different aesthetic.
It is for those two reasons that Sine Mora deserves our attention. Utilizing a time travel-based premise and a bizarre dystopian future world governed by anthropomorphic animals (let’s not use the “F” word), Hungarian developer Digital Reality has teamed up with Grasshopper Manufacture to create a shoot ‘em up that’s as stylistic as it is bizarre, a statement that continues to define the latter company’s projects.
The story behind Sine Mora is…difficult to explain, to say the least. Following the perspective of several animal pilots, the narrative follows a disjointed path. There’s the one-eyed buffalo seeking revenge for the death of his son (which, even stranger, happens to be a tiger), the illegal immigrant rabbit blackmailed to assist him in his revenge, a robotic gorilla, a pipe-smoking lizard who swears like a sailor, and so on. The story moves at such a breakneck pace that it’s hard to tell who the good guys are, if any at all, but one thing that is clear is the dark undertones taking place: themes of rape, racism, betrayal and hatred fill the dialog with impetus, carried further by the solemnly performed Hungarian voice acting and moody soundtrack. Needless to say, there has never been a shoot ‘em up with as bleak a narrative as Sine Mora, even if it happens to be a confusing one.
The game itself follows the typical shoot ‘em up formula: players control their ships on a 2.5D plane, moving from left to right, shooting down anything that has a life bar, and collecting power-ups and points from destroyed enemies. Each level also features a boss encounter with conveniently-blinking cores that serve as weak points, as well as the occasional bursts of bullet hell that tend to fill up the screen with a maddening amount of deadly, multicolored lasers. Fortunately, the game is much more forgiving with its onslaught of enemy fire, thanks in part to the time-based ability mentioned before. Utilizing the power of time travel (don’t ask), players can slow down time around them, which allows them to smoothly pass through hazardous obstacles or deadly lasers. The amount of time you can slow things down is represented as a time gauge that is separate from the main timer.
Speaking of which, Sine Mora also features a countdown clock for each area that also serves as your main life bar – for every hit your ship takes, a small bit of time is subtracted from the timer. Sustain too many hits and/or allow the timer to go zero, and it’s Game Over. Time can be replenished by picking up the appropriately-labeled items from enemies, though it will also reset upon defeating a boss. Other items include firepower upgrades, which are especially handy given that your starting weapon can prove rather weak against sturdier foes, and items that increase your sub-weapon stock. Sub-weapons are unique for each character, but all offer devastating damage that makes them best reserved for bosses. Other items include shields, speed-up boosts and points, all familiar to shoot ‘em up fans.
On the Vita, the game runs as smoothly as it does on consoles, minus one or two moments of slowdown when things get real laser-happy (but since this type of slowdown is free, it’s not likely many will complain). The dystopian future setting comes to life with its impressive art design, from the steampunk-esque buildings to the multi-structured boss designs. Even the animal pilots themselves are presented with class thanks to some finely-crafted portraits. The game also likes to change perspectives during area transitions in order to provide an authentic 3D effect, despite the majority of the game following a traditional 2D view. The downside is that there are occasional moments where you can’t discern what is part of the background and thus safe to pass through, and what is an environmental hazard that can cause instant death upon crashing. It is also hard to discern which parts of the player’s ship is safe to have enemy fire pass through, and which would count as the ship’s hit-box. Lastly, getting hit in battle not only subtracts your time, but also causes you to lose all of your firepower upgrades, to which players will undoubtedly cause further damage to themselves as they frantically try to collect their lost power-ups as they bounce along the screen.
As confusing as the story may be, as well as some frustrating gameplay mechanics that could have been more finely-tuned, Sine Mora is still a solid shoot ‘em up that is perfectly captured on the Vita. The art design and moody ensemble cast also make this one of the most aesthetically unique games in the genre since Einhander on the PS1. Like with all Grasshopper games, this is an experience that feels traditional in its gameplay, but carries a visual style unlike anything else.