Sine Mora review: A shmup in time

Growing up in an era where arcades and shooters were king, I have plenty of fond memories of games like Raiden and 1943. As the genre has evolved, difficulty has dramatically increased -- as has the number of bullets -- relegating my interest into the realm of fascination rather than participation. I can certainly appreciate a game like Ikaruga, for example, but I've come to terms with the fact that I lack the dedication to ever finish it (or probably even clear the second level).

That's why Sine Mora is so refreshing. It offers up both a serious challenge for serious shooter fans and a palatable experience for lapsed addicts like myself.%Gallery-141456% Sine Mora tells the convoluted story of a man seeking revenge for his son, who was murdered by the military for refusing to carry out orders. Another branch of the story centers on a group of time-travelling rebels bent on destroying the empire that enslaved its people. Plot generally isn't a central component of most shooters, but it features rather heavily in Sine Mora, including pages of fully voiced text and lots of in-game dialogue (all of it spoken in Hungarian, the native tongue of developer Digital Reality). Is any of it necessary to enjoy the action? Not a bit, but it lends an air of credible fantasy and even promotes some attachment to Sine Mora's characters.

Lending more credence to the fantasy is an absolutely gorgeous presentation, replete with brilliant colors, incredibly sharp environments and detailed character models. While played on a 2D plane, Sine Mora takes advantage of its 3D engine at every opportunity, periodically sweeping the camera in an out of the action as your character banks around a mountain or dives under the sea. Boss encounters too are spectacular, ranging from a massive robotic squid to a gigantic weapons platform.

The title itself is Latin for "without delay," a play on Sine Mora's time-bending themes. Time plays a fundamental role in the action. At the top of the screen, there is an ever-present timer forever counting down toward zero and, ultimately, your death. There's a rather befuddling explanation for this gameplay conceit in the story, but don't worry yourself about it too much. The upshot is that, unlike most shooters, being hit by an enemy bullet doesn't result in death, but rather in the loss of a few precious seconds. If the timer ticks down to zero, it's game over.

Thankfully, blasting enemies adds time to the clock, effectively shifting the traditional shooter dynamic toward aggression rather than evasion. While there are plenty of bullets -- especially during boss battles -- simply avoiding them isn't enough. In other words, if you aren't efficiently killing enemies, you're actively approaching death every second.

Where Sine Mora strikes the balance between challenge and accessibility is in offering several different modes of play. Story mode is by far the most lenient, giving players lots of continues, plenty of time on the clock and the ability to restart the game from any unlocked level. Arcade and Score Attack modes are geared toward real shooter fans, coming in only two flavors of difficulty: Hard and Insane. Hard features more aggressive enemies (i.e. more bullets) and a much shorter timer than story mode. Insane ups the ante even further with enemies that explode upon death.

Arcade mode also reduces the number of available continues and must be played from the very first stage every time. With only fifteen seconds on the clock, it's significantly less forgiving than the story mode. Thus far, I've managed to clear stages one and two before exhausting my three continues.

The shooting mechanics should be familiar to most players. Each pilot has his or her own shot type and super weapon (nukes, homing missiles, lasers, etc), and there's also a range of special abilities useable by any pilot. Special abilities can reflect bullets, rewind time or slow it down, making it easier to avoid enemy fire. In story mode, pilots and abilities are chosen automatically. Arcade mode, on the other hand, allows players to choose a plane, pilot and ability, making for a wide spectrum of possibilities.

There are 63 possible combinations, actually. I know that because Sine Mora tracks each combination in a series of "Chronomes," letting players know exactly how well they've done with each possible selection and giving yet another hardcore goal to strive toward. Maybe you're a whiz kid at Chronome 41, but can you handle 17? I'm sure fanatics will be shooting for all 63. Meanwhile, I'll keep inching toward my goal of one.

Sine Mora's unique time mechanic serves a dual purpose. It gives less dedicated players a chance to enjoy one of the industry's more vibrant genres while simultaneously giving hardcore players a new spin on an age-old formula. I heartily recommend it to either group without delay.

This review is based on the final version of Sine Mora for Xbox Live Arcade, provided by Microsoft.

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