Xbox Live Arcade has recently seen an influx of digital games posing as triple-A titles. The likes of third-person-survival-horror-action-adventure game I Am Alive, and the play-God-in-a-world-of-masked-freaks that is From Dust have proved that big concept, (fairly) complex games are viable in the console digital space.
And that’s all well and good, but I still want a degree of minimalism from my XBLA offerings. I want high score challenges, streamlined mechanics and games that I can dip in and out of quickly and easily. I don’t always want to be worrying about save points or remembering what just happened in the story, I can get that from other games.
What happened to the days when it was enough for XBLA games to be simply… enjoyable?
Enter Sine Mora, a side-scrolling shooter and collaboration between Hungarian developer Digital Reality and Japanese outfit Grasshopper Manufacture. I know, I know, it hardly sounds like a match made in heaven, but… Suda 51 is part of Grasshopper. Where there’s a Suda 51, there’s a way.
There’s enough of a way to manipulate time, apparently, which is central to the design of Sine Mora and one of the things that sets it apart from its genre competition. Bizarrely, time is used to determine your ship’s health as well as a defensive tool. Every hit reduces your time limit, while every kill you inflict increases it. If it hits zero you’ve lost and you’ll need to restart.
This creates an interesting dynamic which forces aggression, but also rewards your bullet hell avoidance skills. Risk-reward scenarios are continuously thrown at you as you weigh up whether to go for the risky or avoid the enemy altogether and hope he scrolls past you without scoring a hit. Choose the latter option and you better hope enough easier enemies come your way to rack up your time before the level ends. Choose the former and you better make sure you get the job done.
Defensively, the right trigger slows down time. However, it’s only the enemies that are slowed down, which gives you a better chance during those moments in which you can’t see the wood for the bright, neon bullets. This is limited in duration to prevent a potential imbalance between skill and outcome, although defeated enemies will occasionally drop orbs that refill your gauge.
In truth, when playing through the story mode, this ability isn’t really required until around the half-way point because the difficulty curve is fairly forgiving (on ‘normal’ difficulty) – this is hardly as taxing as Ikaruga, for example. Still, crank up the challenge or get to the final chapters, however, and you’ll be using it constantly and desperately hoping for the pickups to flow freely.
You’ll want to memorise exactly what your special weapon does (unique to each ship) and how the ‘firepower’ pickups improve your standard gun. The state of your weapon is vital to working out which onscreen enemies you can realistically engage and destroy, and which you should avoid.
Disappointingly, the narrative of Story Mode is presented in an incredibly dry and lacklustre manner; confined to text between stages and the odd bit of expositional dialogue during gameplay. If you put the time in and read everything that’s thrown at you there’s a decent enough tale to latch on to, but given what I said earlier about ‘simple enjoy-ability’, it stands at odds with the frantic, jump-in-and-play style of gameplay Sine Mora strives for.
If you want to avoid the narrative altogether you can skip Story Mode and head straight into Arcade or Score Attack. Score Attack limits you to a single life and tasks you with, as the name suggests, getting as high a score as possible. Arcade gives you three lives and ramps up the difficulty. Both of these modes give you the option of selecting any of the ships featured in Story Mode and also allows you to trade in your time manipulation powers for either an impenetrable shield or the ability to rewind after dying – both of which are very limited in how often they can be deployed.
No matter which modes you play, though, what never changes are the wonderfully designed stages, ships and bosses. Steam punk has been done before, but Sine Mora still manages to look and feel fresh and charming thanks to the care that has clearly gone into every visual detail and the way the colour palette changes drastically from one stage to the next.
Bosses are of the ‘giant’ variety and range from mechanical dragonflies to expansive, cannon-laden steam trains and mobile mining rigs. If you can’t be bothered with an entire level, all of the bosses can be tackled in isolation (once beaten for the first time) in Boss Training mode.
Sine Mora is hardly a reinvention of a classic genre, but it is a fine example of it with enough bits and bobs tacked on to prevent it feeling outdated or plagiaristic. Play, enjoy and return to set the high score. I’ll see you on the leaderboards.