Sine Mora is a divided product of strong component parts and ideas that don’t always live up to their full potential. It plays like an entry-level shmup with the desire to capture whatever segment of the audience ignores the typified “bullet hell” entries and traditional shmups. It presents an alluring art style by way of Grasshopper Manufacture and an uncharacteristically muted soundtrack from one of the industry’s finest – if not the finest – composer in Akira Yamaoka. And then there’s the actual shmup design, developed by genre first-timers Digital Reality. The mechanics serve only as a placemat on which to feast on the vibrant, multi-layered esthetics, rather than functioning as an intriguing device to further the beauty of that experience.
The feeling is that of a product at odds with itself. Sine Mora’s a bit of an anomaly, skewing far enough from purist design to prevent being lumped in with the derisive label of “Euroshmups”, yet denying much of its potential appeal to the core shmup player in favor of accessibility. The result is a title unlikely to find an audience. That’s not to say it’s an entirely poor design, though it’s surely a counter-intuitive one.
Play focuses on time as the controlling motif. The only life-bar exists as a countdown, with time extends earned for enemy kills, and randomized pick-ups occasionally rewarding the player. The randomized item-drops leave much of the action up to chance and prevent Sine Mora from having much of a lifespan on leaderboards. The horizontal crawl of the level design also preempts much of the difficulty. There are some satisfying “bullet hell” patterns, however, few are truly complex. Bullets come in sweeping flourishes, attractive in design but frustrating in their miniscule size. Take a hit and you’ll lose all collected firepower as it spreads away from the ship, often into dense fields of bullets, or worse-yet, off-screen. This leads to many unnecessary deaths, or otherwise falling back on diminutive firepower just when you need the high-powered spread most. The challenge, then, inevitably comes across as being spurious rather than purposeful. As Sine Mora’s mechanics don’t follow a common ideology, the title’s prevented from being grouped into the schools of Cave or Treasure design, but in going in another direction, it also reinforces the merit behind those design philosophies.
What Sine Mora lacks in finely executed bullet hell is slightly nullified by the portrayal of the overwrought emotional hell experienced by its characters. The narration treads darkly, threading together the backstory of the anthromorphized pilots and their war. It’s all bleak and nihilistic, with all the futility and lack of faith in humanity of a Nietzsche essay. The plot follows in non-linear fashion, negotiating freely between past and present. It touches on dehumanizing themes of genocide, rape, loss, and grieving, among other weighty subjects. The narration itself is well handled, delivered through grimly-spoken Hungarian. Each line is handled with chilling dictation that transcends language barriers, accentuating the darkness of the story beats.
The visual design follows on the narrative strength. Environments are finely detailed, providing a Steampunk esthetic that stresses perspective and environmental scope. Character and ship designs match the qualities and feel fit for the rotten world they inhabit. Between bouts of shooting, the perspective often shifts and shows off the artful surroundings. The odd thing with Sine Mora, however, is the muted soundtrack. It’s one of the few titles industry legends Akira Yamaoka’s involved in where the music isn’t the standout feature, but instead holds a curiously reduced, almost ambient role. Still, none of it’s ever actively bad and there are a few enjoyable pieces mixed in.
It’s often too easy to pigeonhole the design influences from many of the genre greats. As the shmup is a genre that lends itself well to focusing solely on the mechanics, that’s generally the central basis of comparisons. Sine Mora doesn’t follow any tried-and-true blueprint, however, and as such, it’s given room to experiment and form something new. And so it excels in some unlikely areas, with lovely presentation values and intricately detailed backdrops. It’s a fun diversion and while it’s not entirely up to par in terms of mechanics, it also doesn’t make itself redundant by centralizing all the focus to the one area that’s already been perfected. That willingness to do something different, whether by accident or design, is ultimately what sets Sine Mora apart and provides the best argument for why it needs to be played.
Seven out of ten