Developer: Digital Reality, Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: THQ NORDIC
Release Date: August 8, 2017
Platforms: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Bullet H-E-Double Hockey Sticks
The game is simple: Fly a plane from left to right. Kill the bad guys and bosses. Dodge a billion bullets. You win.
On the surface, Sine Mora EX looks like a fun-time arcade shooter; the type of game to jump into when you have 15-20 minutes to kick back and turn off most cognitive functions. As I encourage you to discover, it’s anything but. Sine Mora EX demands and deserves your full attention.
Shmup your mouth
The opening levels of Sine Mora’s EX‘s are gentle enough. They introduce you to excellent controls, weapon upgrade progressions, and a unique twist on a health bar. The story is rooted in time manipulation but mostly serves as a justification for the game’s key mechanic: your health bar is a stopwatch rapidly – and unstoppably – counting down to zero. While you can never halt the clock, you add time by defeating the many, many on-screen enemies. So hiding in the corners, waiting for the attack waves to end, simply isn’t an option here. Time will run out and you will die. Plus, chances are one of those bullets will hit its target, inflicting a time penalty and hastening the end.
Luckily, all is not lost because there are plenty of helpful power-ups to survive and thrive in each of the Story Mode’s seven stages. Red Orbs sequentially upgrade the primary weapon; increasing rate of fire and weapon spread. Sure, it’s a bit of a trope, but going from a pea-shooter to a catastrophe-blaster is insanely satisfying. But it is equally fragile. Just a single hit, in addition to the time penalty we discussed earlier, pops all weapon upgrade orbs out of your plane like Sonic’s rings when he runs into a weaponized woodland critter. As luck typically has it, the power-ups will float off into a barrage of bullets and a decent level run could quickly devolve into an embarrassment of errors.
Let’s quickly take stock of the exponential nature of how challenging things can get in Sine Mora EX. Getting hit reduces the time clock. Instantly removes all weapon power-ups. The only way to regain the power-ups is to chase them into dangerous territory – requiring time and allowing for more enemies to appear and more bullets to be shot…increasing the chances of yet another hit and sending the whole run spiraling down.
There is no question, Sine Mora EX is challenging. It’s tough. And after about a dozen-or-so hours with Sine Mora EX, while I’m still a novice, I feel more confident in my abilities. The game teaches you to get good by unlocking each stage upon completion and encouraging new high scores. Leveraging every tool in the kit is key to improvement. Strategic use of the limited (pardon the pun) bullet time ability is vital to escape the more hectic moments. It’s kind of like prompting an NES slowdown at just the right moment. Memorizing the enemy and bullet patterns leads to the best use of the time-based abilities and this is really where things get interesting.
Battling bosses is a riot. A wonderful cast of varied, giant robotic apparatuses are lovingly unique and instantly memorable. Think of a Happy Meal from McDonald’s. Remember that circular maze on the side of the box? Throw some laser beams, cannons, and checkpoints in there and you have one of the craziest bosses in the game. Twisting and turning, tight paths, ruthless design. Some of these moments are so maddeningly, frustratingly difficult I couldn’t help but kick the air in front of me or get off my seat and stand close to the TV as if that would give me an advantage. Yet, I’m smiling and laughing at how hard it all is. Plus, in a separate mode, I can train against each Boss to fine tune my strategies and hone my skills.
Writing a review for a game this difficult is particularly challenging because the gameplay is the primary takeaway here but the difficulty is darn-near equally as prioritized. You should know this game is hard but a great game, like this, provides tremendous player control, and invites replayability in a variety of modes to hone one’s skills. So sure, I “beat” the Story Mode but I haven’t done it in a single sitting. I completed each stage. After playing some more Arcade Mode (which is wonderful because you can explore a more diverse variety of pilots, weapons, and abilities) and maybe, just maybe, overcoming the first of 15 Challenges (I’ve legitimately put four hours into Challenge #1 and haven’t beat it), I’ll attempt a single-sitting playthrough or maybe even increasing the difficulty.
Artistically, Sine Mora EX is lovely to witness. Lush colors and varied environments look stunning on PS4 (up to 4K Native on PS4 Pro – not reviewed). While technically a 2.5D perspective, it is sometimes difficult to see the enemies pop out from the background. This means a few well-camouflaged tanks or planes can blend in with the beautifully rendered and animated environments. The game is tough by design but this element seems more incidental and negatively impacts the experience from time to time.
Unfortunately, I can only imagine how quickly friendships must be ending across the world for those brave enough to try Sine Mora’s cooperative mode. It’s limited to couch co-op only (no online) and the second player fulfills a “support” role to protect Player 1. With so many options and modes available throughout the rest of the package, the multiplayer could have been a bit stronger. With all that said, this doesn’t weigh too heavily against Sine Mora EX.
At it’s core, Sine Mora EX is a punishing, true-to-form Bullet Hell shoot’em up. It’s designed to be welcoming to newcomers and in many ways, it is. And while the gentle opening quickly gives way to a more traditional challenge, the big celebration here is the unique health bar mechanic. Every moment is a balance of risk and reward. Wait out a barrage of bullets for too long and its game over. Attack too aggressively and the maelstrom might be overwhelming. Trading off laser-focus to destroy enemies with pin-point accuracy with a broad vision to evaluate the landscape happens in milliseconds and is vital to thriving in this unforgiving environment. It’s all presented with style and confidence. And by the way, it’s gorgeous to look at too.