Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Price: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15)
Disclaimer: I suck at shoot 'em ups (also called "shmups"). I still struggle to reach the end of the second stage in Ikaruga, and even then, I usually die. Bangai-O was a fruit-filled nightmare for me. Heck, even the original R-Type is still hellaciously challenging. But I love the genre for its sometimes unabashed weirdness, cluttered design tendencies, and straight-up hardcore difficulty.
So, I was hesitant to pick up Sine Mora. It does, after all, fit squarely into the shmup mold, doesn't it? Well, not exactly. There are a couple things that the game does to distance itself from its brethren, the first of which is to present an honest-to-goodness story. The plot is filled with heavy themes not typically found in arcade-style games, including (but not limited to) genocide, free will, betrayal, time travel, and even sexual assault...all involving characters that look like humanoid animals. There's even a legless buffalo-man in a wheelchair. It's pretty strange stuff, but if you can follow along with the on-screen text preceding each stage in Sine Mora's story mode, you'll may be quite surprised to find yourself actually caring about what's going on beyond simply blasting everything in sight. And hoo boy, is there a lot of stuff to shoot.
What really strikes me about the game is how fair it is, especially for a shmup. The controls feel responsive and precise. Not once did I feel like it was being cheap about killing me; I deserved to die every single time due to my own lack of reflexes and inability to conserve my time manipulation gauge. The game practically throws power-ups at you...but surely as it giveth, it taketh away. You may amass an impressive collection of red orbs that increase your main weapon's power and spread, but get hit just once and they're scattered to the wind, forcing you into a desperate grab-a-thon before they bounce away forever. The bosses all have their own unique attack patterns, but you're never forced to claw your way to them in every stage just to memorize those patterns. After you defeat a boss, it's unlocked in Boss Attack, which lets you practice for the real deal. Sine Mora is rife with challenges for the dedicated genre veterans, but also accessible enough for n00bs to dive in and enjoy. Eventually, they'll still get their asses handed to them on a platter, but just about everyone can find something to enjoy here. Just be aware that the amount of enjoyment you derive may be impacted by which mode you choose to play it in. While the story mode buffs your vehicle with a fair amount of shielding, arcade mode is an unforgiving return to the bullet-hell shooters of old. There is little room for error here, and death is usually only a hit or two away. This turns the story mode's relatively relaxed experience into a tension-filled, sweaty-palmed gauntlet.
Sine Mora is also a visual treat, with some truly unique art direction (think steampunk-meets-oil-painting) and graphical flourishes. The explosions look great, the backgrounds are intricate and full of movement, and the boss designs are marvelous. From an audio perspective, there's nothing too surprising here, but nothing that will get on your nerves or distract you from the action. Overall, the production values are truly impressive and the game oozes style. This is no surprise, since it was developed by Grasshopper Manufacture, home of weirdo design guru Suda 51.
Sine Mora is not available for PSN, so those of you with a PS3 are, unfortunately, out of luck. However, if you've got 1200 MS points ($15) to burn, it's a solid pick-up. It has some of the most wacked-out character designs I've ever seen, but also offers a genuine challenge for old-school shooter fans.