When it comes to some of the hardest of the hard core genres, the two that are near the top would be rogue likes and the shoot-em-ups. The former challenges players to learn the rules of the game while properly improving their character. And the latter requires hand eye coordination taken to the extreme.
Sine Mora, which was on XBLA and now on Steam, is an example of the latter. Taking an old school design and modernizing it into something new. With that said however, don’t let the pretty graphics fool you, there is a lot of old school bite hidden under the surface… for better and worse.
And when I said pretty graphics earlier I meant it, Sine Mora is easily one of the best looking 2d games I’ve seen in some time. During cut scenes the camera shifts perspective to show the world in 3d and it looks all the more impressive.
Sine Mora‘s premise is a bit of a confusing one taking place on a planet where some people have the power to control time. The stages themselves don’t appear in chronological order making it hard to track what is happening. But there is a dark story involving everything from genocide, to rape discussed before and after each level.
Time control is a major point of playing Sine Mora, as the player has to deal with a timer instead of a health bar. Each time the player destroys an enemy, they’ll gain a few more seconds, and lose time if they get hit. If time runs out before the player reaches a checkpoint (that resets the timer) its game over.
As you play through the story, you’ll have a chance at controlling different characters and ships. Playing the story mode the game will dictate who the player will be for each stage, but the player can choose who they want in the other modes.
Besides the character, the player can also change what ship they’ll use and the ship’s special attack. The ship determines what kind of shots is fired along with the hit box (where enemy shots have to hit to cause damage.) The special power drains the special bar and can be everything from slowing down time, to creating a bullet reflecting shield. Lastly the character affects what “smart bomb” type attack the player has access to. This is replenished by picking up power ups.
The heart of mastering Sine Mora‘s gameplay comes down to playing perfectly. The player’s main gun has a level that goes up when they collect a specific power up, and decreases when they get hit.
The higher the level means more damage and in some cases, it changes the bullet spread. When the player is hit, these power ups fly out of the player’s ship, forcing them to attempt to reclaim them.
Keeping your shot level up is vital in Sine Mora. As losing your power ups before a boss can make the fight impossible to win, due to not being able to cause enough damage before time runs out.
For those interested in getting a high score, the game provides a score multiplier based on how many enemies the player kills without either getting hit, or using either one of their special weapons.
Mastering the game becomes all the more important for players to have any chance at seeing what the game has to offer. While beating the story mode may take a few hours, it’s only a small fraction of the content the developers have in mind. Story mode can only be played on normal or challenging difficulty, while arcade mode is set up as either hard mode or insane.
The higher difficulties increase the amount of time deducted from hits and in some cases, changes the enemy patterns. To give you a frame of reference, I was able to beat the game in normal story mode. I’ve yet to beat the first stage on hard.
Each combination of ship, special and character is tracked for achievement purposes and an online leader board is sure to make score chasers happy.
All this sounds great so far and sets up Sine Mora to be the premier shoot-em-up. But while the developers have modernized a lot of the genre’s design, they made a fatal mistake.
Sine Mora’s multiple difficulty levels and modes was a way of appealing to both newcomers and moderate skilled gamers, and the hardcore shoot- em-up fans. But in attempt to bridge the game’s design to appeal to both, it left Sine Mora in this awkward position of not perfectly working for both groups.
When someone plays a skill oriented game, they expect constants when learning the title. By learning the constants of the rules and gameplay, it allows them to better figure out the game and work towards mastery.
Even though the power ups in Sine Mora are vital for having any hope of winning, they are not in set positions every time, but are random.
For example, let’s say the player shoots down a group of three ships. The first time they do it, the second ship may drop a shot power up, second time they may only get a score bonus, and third time nothing drops.
The unpredictable nature of the power ups takes some of the skill out of playing Sine Mora. As no matter how great you are at the game, if you can’t deal enough damage quickly, you’ll run out of time. This goes back to the phrase: “the rich get richer”, as the more power ups the player finds, the better they’ll be. But getting an unlucky hit or missing a power up can put the player into a losing cycle leaving them unable to complete the stage.
Reading message boards one complaint that I kept seeing about boss fights was about unusual bullet spread patterns. The issue is that the bosses in Sine Mora are all pattern based in how they attack. But because of the speed of the game, due to the timer, you’ll run into plenty of cases where one attack pattern bleeds into another.
For example the enemy will fire off a wave of bullets and before they are completely gone, will attack again. This makes learning the patterns harder compared to other shoot-em-ups.
What we’re left with in Sine Mora, is a game that is difficult and punishes mistakes that hurts its accessibility to less skilled gamers, and where the randomness of success prevents hardcore gamers from fully mastering the game. It’s a shame that a few details do so much to pull Sine Mora down as the foundation and concept of the game is amazing. But when we talk about games aimed at hardcore gamers, it’s the little details that will get you.