There was a time, long ago, when shoot ‘em ups were the most dominant genre in games. Players of a certain age cut their teeth on ultra-tough classics like Gradius and 1942 at the local arcade, feeding cabinets quarters at a frenzied pace back when beating a game was secondary to claiming high score among your friends. Over the years, as arcades fell out of favor and technological advances gave way to more complex action games, the genre mostly stagnated, relegated to niche games with little mass appeal. Exceptions pop up here and there, such as Ikaruga, but the model always seemed to work best as a part of the arcade scene. In 2012, developers Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture released Sine Mora, a side-scrolling, steampunk bullet hell shooter to mostly positive critical reception, with just enough commercial appeal to warrant a surprise remaster five years later.
Sine Mora takes place on the planet Seol, which looks remarkably similar to Earth, and features odd-looking animal-like races waging a seemingly never-ending war between the Enkies and the Empire. The narrative unfolds from two different perspectives, one from each side of the conflict at different points in time, but both focused on revenge against the Empire. Shoot ‘em ups rarely come packaged with a story that makes sense or even warrants close attention, and Sine Mora is no different. It’s not difficult to lose interest and patience in the story as you find yourself skipping the long, drawn out info dumps delivered via on-screen text and voice overs. There are also several story related interruptions in each level that do little other than hinder the flow of the gameplay. For those who want to skip the fluff altogether, the Arcade Mode is a stripped down version of Story Mode that’s all about high difficulty and high scores.
The real meat of the Sine Mora experience is, of course, the action. You’ll command various aircraft throughout the campaigns, each with their own stats, as you take to the skies and, oddly enough, the seas to exact your revenge. Along the way you’ll collect the usual assortment of upgrades that augment your primary and secondary attacks as well as the game’s key mechanic of time manipulation. Primary weapon upgrades are quasi-permanent in that they do not expire after a certain time, or even between stages, but can be lost when taking damage, giving you a few seconds to reacquire them without taking additional hits.
Sine Mora, Latin for “without delay”, structures the gameplay around your ability to control time in limited bursts. Unlike most shooters, you’re given a strict time limit at the outset of each segment of a level, rather than a health bar; if the timer reaches zero, it’s game over. Any damage you take speeds up the timer and hastens your demise, but enemy kills and certain pickups can replenish it, giving you the extra time you need to complete each section. Whenever you find yourself in a pinch, you can activate a sort of shield that slows time to a crawl, allowing you to escape otherwise lethal situations or give you a few precious extra seconds to deal damage and replenish your remaining time. This unique premise is a welcome addition to an otherwise stale genre, as you have to more carefully balance your offensive and evasive maneuvers than you would in a typical bullet hell shooter. There’s no time to sit back and study patterns until you’ve figured out a best approach; time is a bigger threat than any enemy, including bosses.
The bosses aren’t exactly pushovers, though. Each stage has its own unique boss, which sometimes appear at several points throughout the level before culminating in a final assault. These enemies are vastly different from one to the next, with the only common characteristics being their sheer size. They’re incredibly tough to take down in the allotted time, especially if you find yourself low on upgrades. Thankfully, you don’t have to slog through entire levels over and over to take a whack at a boss that has already wiped the floor with you; simply reaching it once will unlock that boss in the new Boss Training mode, allowing you endless continues so that you can prepare yourself for the next run. Alternatively, you don’t have to tackle them alone at all anymore, as Sine Mora EX now features local co-op play. Plug in a second controller and put a friend on gunner duty while you command the primary vessel. Co-op isn’t the only new multiplayer mode, either. Three different Versus modes are now included, and basically boil down to Tank, Dodgeball and Race. Tank pits you against another local player, where you each control a rotational gun and nothing else. Dodgeball is much the same, only projectiles now ricochet and you’re required to defend generators on your side of the battlefield. Race is just a challenge to see who lasts longer. These versus modes don’t have a lot of depth, but thankfully the co-op and challenge modes bring a lot to the table.
Sine Mora was a great looking game back in 2012, and now offers native 4K support and beefed up graphics that really pop on new systems. The backgrounds are all rendered beautifully in 3D and bring a feeling of true depth to the battlefield, especially the underwater sections. The game constantly uses these three-dimensional backgrounds to temporarily adjust your perspective, often pulling off the illusion that you’re playing in three dimensions, as well.
Enemies look similarly impressive, full of detail and ready to launch endless barrages that fill the screen with lasers, missiles, and explosions before turning into fiery wrecks as you pick them off. The casual mayhem that fills most stages reaches another level when you face off against enemy bosses, who quite literally fill the screen with spectacular-looking, over the top attacks.
Ultimately, you’ll only get as much out of Sine Mora EX as you’re willing to put in. If you love bullet hell shoot ‘em ups and have the patience to master your moves, there’s a lot of bang for your buck here, especially if you owned the original Sine Mora; anyone who bought the original version can upgrade to EX for free. The campaign is short, but there’s plenty of replay value in the various alternate modes for people looking to push themselves in pursuit of the leaderboard glory or just waste some time with a buddy. There aren’t nearly as many games like Sine Mora as there used to be, and if the genre appeals to you at all, this is one of the few you should be paying attention to.