I wouldn’t normally consider it par for the course to discuss the tribulations of time manipulation within the context of a normal bullet hell shooter, but it’s been a while since the genre has been the usual affair. There was a day when the arcades and the consoles featured plenty of opportunities to scroll from left to right, dodging the billions of bullets spiraling radiant death towards your precious little gunship. These days the genre has only a niche with Japanese and indie titles making the brunt of it.
Sine Mora is one of the latest bullet hell entries, created in a partnership between Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality, now shrunk down to the small screen of the Vita. No new features have been added to make use of Vita’s technologies. No touch screen rubbing, gyroscope tilting or awkward blowing into the mic have been roughly inserted into the shooter. Thank goodness for small favors.
The game is difficult enough as is, let alone if it required you to huff and puff and draw a squiggly line along the rear touch screen to activate anything. Only it doesn’t make its difficulty readily known at first. This is the kind of game that let’s you think you have a chance, and only after you’ve gotten comfortable, a couple levels on your belt, does it move in to break you.
It’s not just the mass quantity of bullets flickering across the screen that will aim to kill you. There’s also the twisty passages and, infrequently, places you can die in a single hit. While common sense does say that jerking your plane into lava is bad, given little space to maneuver a simple tap on the thumbstick for too long and it’s back to the last checkpoint, another life lost.
The ability to slow down time aids when it comes to dodging bullets and navigating tight spaces, but this is not a feature that can be relied upon. It’s not like Max Payne, where the ability is readily available and easily refilled. In Sine Mora you can only replenish your capacity to slow time if an enemy gunship randomly drops the appropriate power-up. It’s an ability that’s best to be conserved for emergency situations, but with everything flying on the screen it’s easy to consider any situation an emergency.
In this game getting hit by one of the many bullets does not end your day. Instead, it knocks a few seconds off of a timer. You die when the timer hits zero. Seconds can be won back by destroying enemy gunships, cannons and the like, giving an extra reward to participating in the fight, beyond the fact that shooting down opponents will also decrease the number of bullets seeking your death. Dodging bullets to stay alive is well enough, but eventually, unless you’re a seasoned expert, you’ll get hit. Fight, dodge, live. That is the creed of Sine Mora.
Live long enough and you’ll encounter one of the many gigantic boss fights. These battles steal the show, especially in comparison to the slower moments that force you to navigate windy, winding passages that offer little space to move. Every boss battle is a unique event more than a boss, consisting of several stages, or parts of the boss, that need to be destroyed in order to progress. While speeding along a narrow canyon you may find yourself head to head with a war train, equipped from tail to engine with enough cannons to raze the populace of every city it passes. Every section of the train exists to test you, to knock you out of the sky one second at a time.
There’s a story here, spliced in between the stages, telling the tale of a time traveler as he plots his revenge. Or it tells the tale of a group of time travelers. Or only one of them is a time traveler, and the rest are his companions. It’s hard to tell as the game never really explains how time travel works, let alone when it’s actually happening or who’s actually doing it. There’s more confusion in that it’s a tale told out of sequence, switching from character to character until you’re finally able to piece together how different points of view tie together to create a marginally cohesive whole.
The difficulty curve in the game is somewhat odd. Part of it is due to stages that force you to maneuver about tight spaces, but a lot of it is because when you get hit you weapons downgrade and the power-ups you’ve collected scatter to the ends of the screen and disappear. Sometimes you can snatch them back, but a lot of the time you just can’t. The reasons vary from too many bullets to simply being too close to the edge of the screen and they float off, leaving you with a pathetic rate of fire against the latest boss.
Sure, you’ll live. You’ve got time to spare. But take one hit, lose your weapon upgrades and suddenly you’re back to lining up your gunship with the enemy’s weak point, your narrow attack barely grazing it before you have to dodge again. The chance at an impressive upgrade system seems to have been passed up, in favor of one that harkens back to the punishing olden days of bullet hell. But then again, that’s what this game is: a throwback to the classic games that created the genre. It comes bundled with a strange, obscure narrative and a flawless paint job, but the homage to the old lies there, in plain sight, beneath the sparkle.