|System: Xbox 360|
|Dev: Grasshopper Manufacture, Digital Reality|
|Pub: Microsoft Game Studios|
|Release: March 21, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Strong Language, Sexual Themes|
by Josh Wirtanen
The side-scrolling shoot 'em up (or shmup) is something of a relic of an earlier time in gaming, when arcades were all the rage and developers knew that the best way to get fans to keep popping quarters into their machines was to make sure their games were incredibly difficult. Now, I wouldn't say the genre has since died, but it's certainly fallen out of the mainstream. Grasshopper Manufacture, never being a company to shy away from the incredibly bizarre or obscure, tries its hand at the shmup (with the help of Digital Reality, of course) with Sine Mora, a diesel-punk shooter with some time-altering mechanics. Wait, did I just say "Grasshopper Manufacture," "diesel-punk," and "time-altering mechanics" in a single sentence? Why, yes I did. Of course, this means Sine Mora is launching to some pretty high expectations. So does it deliver?
Well, it looks pretty, at least. In fact, Sine Mora is absolutely gorgeous. And I'm not merely talking about the crisp visuals here, though these graphics are incredible for a downloadable title. Everything about this game screams pure digital beauty. In fact, simply watching the enemy projectiles move across your screen in interesting patterns and shapes is hypnotizing. For example, there is a mechanical spider boss early on in the game. It shoots a series of the traditional glowy schmup-style projectiles, but they spread out in such a manner to make a spiderweb pattern across your screen. Other projectiles are heat-seeking, and when two or three dozen bullets change direction midflight to follow your plane, it's a bit like watching a school of minnows dart about in unison. There is this almost organic quality to the way the bullets and missiles move in this game that is unlike anything I've seen before.
Every backdrop in the game is excruciatingly detailed, with a deep sense of scope and a staggering amount of creative architecture. The scenes where you are flying over massive cityscapes are particularly breathtaking. Sure, the one complaint I could make is that the amount of stuff you'll see in the background can sometimes obscure your field of vision, making it somewhat difficult at times to determine what you are supposed to be shooting at. But who cares? This game is gorgeous.
Each of the seven stages has its own unique look to it, with very little of the environments ever repeating. One stage even has you piloting your craft underwater. Tying off the aesthetic in a neat little bow are the menus and title screen, which are sleek and incredibly well designed. Sine Mora is simply a visual treat in every aspect imaginable.
Now, side-scrolling shooters don't usually have much of a story besides whatever narrative players absolutely need to get hyped up for shooting a bunch of fast-moving objects, but Sine Mora makes an exception. The story here is incredibly well-written, telling the cynical tale of a time-travelling father who attempts to seek vengeance for the unjust death of his son, culminating in a brilliant Shakespearean twist that is sure to satisfy fans of ironic time-travelling tales.
All this takes place in a bizarre diesel-punk world, populated by anthropomorphic animal characters and robots. I feel like the following clause can describe most of what Grasshopper Manufacture does, but it's appropriate here as well: it's weird as hell, but it somehow works.
Now, there are a couple things that I feel I must make note of here. First of all, much of the story is told in massive blocks of text. This text is very well-written and definitely worth reading, but I'm sure most players will just want to skip it. You can opt to just listen to it being read, but none of the voice work is in English. That gets me to point number two: None of the voice work is in English. Everything is subtitled, so you should have no problem following along, but admit it, gamers generally aren't readers.
I'm going to defend the voiceovers, though. The voice work is done in Hungarian (Digital Reality is a Hungarian studio, so that's not necessarily a weird choice), and for English-speaking players, this actually serves to make the atmosphere of the game feel less welcoming. Since the whole premise of the game has this sort of dystopian vibe to it, and the protagonists are time travelers who are in a sense going places they don't belong and altering history in ways they probably shouldn't, a disconnect in spoken language gives a sense of alienation that keeps the player in the right mindset for dealing with the game's dominant themes. I guess that's just a longwinded way to say that this all actually works here.
If listening to voices in Hungarian sounds absolutely unappealing to you, though, perhaps you'll just have to try to ignore it and bask instead in Akira Yamaoka's eerie electronic soundtrack. I promise you, it's pretty amazing.
But what of the gameplay? Well, for the most part, it's pretty good. The controls are appropriately responsive, and there are some interesting quirks here to keep this from feeling like "just another old-fashioned side-scrolling arcade game." Particularly your ability to manipulate time. Each plane in the game can be equipped with a various type of time capsule. One of these time capsules allows you to slow down time, for example, while another reverses time (and can even be used after a death). A third type of capsule has nothing to do with time, but allows you to erect a shield around your plane that will reflect most types of projectiles. This is, of course, in addition to your primary weapon (a machine gun) and secondary weapon (there are several different pilots in the game, and each has his or her own secondary weapon).
The time motif doesn't end there either. Instead of a health bar, there is a timer on the top of the screen. Taking damage deletes precious seconds from the clock while dealing damage increases it, and if you run out of time you die. Yes, Sine Mora constantly feels like a race against the clock, and this keeps the adrenaline flowing.