Friends in Time
HIGH You can't beat the feeling of imminent death suddenly giving way to absolute victory.
LOW Your friends don't like it when you curse the television so.
WTF Who's the wife when a bison fathers a wolverine?
Some Hungarian friends of mine once suggested that their bizarre mother tongue might have roots in the languages of the Far East. "Really?" I mused aloud, while secretly scoffing at such a ridiculous notion. I might have continued to find that completely unreasonable if I had never got my hands on the devilishly entertaining new shooter Sine Mora.
From the famous(ly) Japanese dev Grasshopper Manufacture and the now famous Hungarian outfit Digital Reality, I was sure that these two countries would have nothing to offer each other, but what do you know? The delicious combination of excellent shooter mechanics and a bizarro, beautiful fantasy world of gruff animal pilots is as tasty as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich smoothie. Yes, Sine Mora is some serious gaming magic.
What we have here is a wonderful re-invention of one of gaming's oldest and most trustworthy styles—the shmup. Sine Mora is of the "bullet hell" variety, and there's where its particular gameplay distinctions are made. Instead of a number of "lives" to use or even a traditional health bar, the anthropomorphic pilots of the game are tethered to a time mechanic. Each stage must be completed in a certain amount of seconds. With each enemy destroyed, more time is added to the clock. With each mistake, seconds are taken away, until their ship is ultimately destroyed.
The real draw of this mechanic is the player's special ability to speed up their movement—effectively slowing down time and letting them nimbly maneuver through a sea of cannon fire. This Matrix-like trick is pleasing to say the least, as certain death gives way to a panicked ballet of survival that is equal parts terrifying and beautiful.
That's not to say that this ability makes the game easy; far from it. The difficulty in even the very first level of the "easy" story mode can wallop one quite well if they don't concentrate. The difficulty subtly ramps up from there, continually testing both the player's skill at avoiding death and also their knowledge of just how big their vehicle's hitbox is.
The game's most exciting and frustrating moments come in the form of its amazing bosses, something any shmup needs to ace to be considered on-point, and truly, Sine Mora's bosses deliver.
Inspired by anime legend Mahiro Maeda, the bosses of the game are beautifully conceived, multi-appendaged creatures that demand precise movement and copious patience thanks to the many different styles of bullet waves they have to toss at the player. Frustration with the complex patterns is ever-present, yet any curse-laden tantrums are balanced by the exhilaration of destroying their myriad explodey segments.
As I mentioned before, Sine Mora takes place in a vibrant and colorful "dieselpunk" world populated by anthropomorphic heroes. The care in constructing the rich backstory and characters comes through immediately—not only in the game's narration, but also in the detailed visuals of the world.
The performances of the voice actors are emotive and nuanced, and they're also all in Hungarian, which becomes a real treat for anyone interested in language. While its inclusion was perhaps a matter of pride or simply a happy accident, the linguistic uniqueness gives the game a truly unfamiliar twinge that goes a ways in enhancing its bizarre world of animal pilots assaulting an empire.
The only knocks I have against the game are ones that are common to the genre. Particular "sudden-death" dexterity situations can aggravate, and there are times when avoiding collision with certain environmental elements proves difficult to judge. Aside from that, the game's ranking system is extremely picky.
The hardiest of the hardcore can rejoice in their ability to be rewarded for inhuman agility and skills, yet the rest of us will curse, scream and break controllers only to walk away with "C" ratings from level to level. Personally, these ratings serve only to pull me out of so many games, yet Japanese devs keep putting them in to shame me. Let's just chalk it up to cultural differences, y'all.
Finally, to what exactly does the austere Latin title of the game translate? Sine mora: without delay. That is a fine indication of the sort of sophistication that Grasshopper and Digital Reality have aimed for in this pleasing new take on an age-old genre. Across oceans of time, these long-lost linguistic brothers have met again to concoct something excellently fresh. To adventurous gamers of all stripes, and certainly those that count themselves among the genre's enthusiasts: pick up this one, sine mora.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately six hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed three times).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains strong language and sexual themes. There are indeed a few strong curse words in the speech of the pilots of the game. Sexual themes are only hinted at in dialog and not overt in any way.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game contains full subtitles for every speech. No amount of the game's action relies on audio cues to inform the player.