Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Game Review - Sine Mora: It's About Time (groan)

  • Publisher: Microsoft Studios
  • Developer: Digital Reality/Grasshopper Manufacture
  • Platforms: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
  • Genres: Shooter
  • Players: 1
  • Release Date: March 21, 2012
  • Price:  1200 MSP ($15 USD)

The Shoot-em-up (Shmup) is something of a living relic – a little like pinball, it was king of the arcades until more powerful hardware came around, allowing developers to come up with new and exciting ways play. Despite “bigger and better” experiences becoming commonplace, there are a small group of holdouts that covet these games, much like the fighting game and pinball communities. There is a pureness to these games, one that mercilessly punishes anything but practised and skilled play, and providing little more than bragging rights to a high score. The games are absurdly short, brutally unforgiving and generally underwhelming on a technical level when considering the horsepower available on modern hardware. Over the years, traditional shooting games have become a true niche in gaming; while it never truly died, releases have been slow and sporadic – especially where wholly new IPs are concerned. Sine Mora is both wholly new and rigidly true to its genre roots, but the result is something of a mixed bag.

I’ll get something out of the way immediately: If you’ve read any article on any Shmup released in the last 15 years, you will have inevitably seen something to the effect of “this is not the game to attract newcomers to the genre”.  It has proved challenging for developers to keep their core audience satisfied while drawing in new players. This is perhaps Sine Mora’s one great triumph: This IS the game to attract newcomers to the genre. And while this is something to be lauded, I don’t see their minds changing, nor do I see them coming back. Frankly, I think a lot of this has to do with the priorities of the average gamer and conventions in the industry, but this is a Sine Mora review, not an editorial piece, so we’ll stick to the good, the bad and the very, very ugly.

Sine Mora was co-developed by European studio Digital Reality and Japanese outfit Grasshopper Manufacture. While the Japanese have a long and storied pedigree in the genre, European developers haven’t fared so well (as a quick bit of trivia, “Euroshmup” is arguably a sub-genre in and of itself, and not one that carries much favour among shooting game stalwarts). With Grasshopper handling the art direction and sound design, Digital Reality took care of the rest. Yes, that makes Sine Mora a Euroshmup, but a reasonably well-executed Euroshmup and certainly one that manages to be the exception, not the rule. Sine Mora has tight controls, well-paced game play, solid shooting mechanics and some fun game play gimmicks.

One classy gunbird

It’s also a stunner. Grasshopper has outdone itself here, with a fun (if overused) Steampunk aesthetic and consistent art direction that elevates the experience and enhances the remarkable-for-the-genre storytelling (more on that in a bit). This game is flat-out gorgeous, with highly dynamic landscapes, interesting enemy and boss designs and fantastic animations, all running at a perfectly consistent 60FPS.

It sounds great, too. Yes, the gunfire and effects all have the impact one would expect, but the soundtrack (composed by Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill fame) – like the graphical presentation, lends so much to the game’s atmosphere and dark subject matter that it frankly sets a new standard for immersion in an otherwise flat (pun intended) genre. There is a tragic fragility in the game’s score that mirrors the unfolding tale and provides a stark counterpoint to the mania unfolding on screen.

The audio and visual designs come together brilliantly to underscore the real draw for those unfamiliar with the genre, something that is sure to surprise shooting game veterans: Sine Mora has a remarkable story and universe. Without spoiling anything, Sine Mora spins a yarn of revenge, sacrifice and moral ambiguity. At its heart, it is a tale of revenge, of a father hell bent on avenging his son’s death no matter the cost. Language is heady, a melancholy prose from multiple viewpoints that serves to add method to the onscreen madness. Told in postmodern fashion, the game’s story mode is presented in disparate chunks, fleshing out each pilot’s plight in chronologically shuffled sequences that only start to homogenise as you near the game’s final showdown.

Voiced entirely in Digital Realms’ native Hungarian (another design choice that further immerses you in Sine Mora’s universe), each stage opens with a block of text, translating the passionately acted monologues of our pilot “heroes”. Opting to rest on the strength of the world they created, Sine Mora’s story is never explicitly divulged, opting instead for snippets of personal motivation and hints at the way-of-the-world, as they know it. This lends an air of mystery to the goings on and, while it can admittedly come off as confusing or cryptic, there is a surprising amount of depth presented here, providing just enough information and intricacy to allow our imaginations to fill the gaps. It’s the kind of minimalist writing that fosters debate among fans and, ultimately, the kind that makes you seethe for a sequel. Upon completion of the main campaign, you are treated to extras that help flesh out the canon, including alternative story paths and even a second “true” ending. There is an impressive maturity in the game’s storytelling, sparse though it may be, and is a remarkable achievement for (or in spite of) the genre.

So for newcomers to the genre, in short, this is a game you must try. Unlike most shmups, this is a game you will be able to see to the end without too much trial-and-error. And between the game’s spectacular visual appeal, compelling story and highly polished game play, this should be considered a top class XBLA release alongside platform sweethearts like Shadow Complex, Braid and Super Meat Boy.

One of many boss encounters. The stage bosses are a real highlight.

For shooter veterans, however, the recommendation changes somewhat. Is Sine Mora still worth an investment? Absolutely, yes. But there’s a caveat, and not a small one. For those of us who pride themselves on one-credit master runs, the game disappoints. Upon completion of the game’s story, arcade mode becomes available (and with it, an impressive array of ships, pilots and payloads). While this is a great (if expected) addition to the package, the game falters here due to the steep increase in difficulty. The game level in arcade mode is hard or harder, which is sure to scare off rookies (why normal or easy aren’t available here seems like a complete misstep), and the game’s core gimmick, time, falls victim to another game play mechanic that wasn’t an issue in the campaign: Random powerups.
See, Sine Mora uses a timer – ever counting down to zero (and your death) – in place of extra lives or a health bar. So long as you have time, you can’t be destroyed. Killing enemies and parts of bosses grants you additional time, while taking damage strips you of huge chunks of the game’s precious commodity. In theory, it’s an excellent system with a classic risk vs. reward dynamic. In reality, it’s woefully unbalanced. In Sine Mora’s campaign (incidentally, only playable in easy or normal difficulties), the time mechanic is so lenient, it rarely forces the player to do much more than avoid getting hit too often. In arcade mode however, the timer is significantly reduced, forcing the player to shoot with as much aggression as accuracy and you better hope you don’t take more than a single hit or it’s lights out.

While in theory, this should make for a consistently intense experience – constantly putting yourself in danger to eke out a scant few seconds with every kill sounds like a shooter’s dream, in reality it exposes the game’s powerup system as unbalanced at best, broken at worst. This isn’t generally an issue throughout the stages, as careful shooting and dodging will ensure you make it to the end, but the flaw becomes glaringly apparent the first time you reach a boss. Now, don’t get me wrong: Finding yourself at a boss with under ten seconds to doomsday is clearly a purposeful design choice. All the bosses have several destructible segments (which reward you with time when destroyed), so a lot of the strategy becomes what and when to shoot in order to be successful.

The fault lies in the game’s handling of powerups. While boost items are dropped frequently (every five or so regular enemies killed will drop an item – shields, weapon strength, bombs, slow-mo, etc.), what that item will be is completely random. Your primary weapons fire can be upgraded up to NINE times and there are no guarantees as to where or when you’ll find an upgrade. Now, consider this: You will reach most bosses in arcade mode with about 9-12 seconds left on the counter. At mid-strength and with careful dodging, you’ll be able to deal enough damage in a short enough window to earn extra time and room to breathe. With little to no weapon upgrades, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to take out a part of the boss in time, let alone the whole beast. This wouldn’t be a major issue if getting to the boss underpowered was an infrequent occurrence, but I’ll estimate that around 50% of the time I arrived at a stage boss sufficiently underpowered that the boss fight would be too difficult for my skill level, and about 25% of the time, underpowered enough to make victory impossible. Failing on my own terms is something to expect from the genre; trial and error is a genre staple, after all. But getting to the stage end knowing an attempt is futile is simply bad design.

In the end, it all comes down to value with Sine Mora. On the one hand, the game’s campaign mode is sufficiently compelling to recommend on its own merits. The story and writing are great, the art direction outclasses most AAA retail titles, and the game’s foundation is rock-solid. On the other hand, the game falters in the value department with an arcade mode that will prove far too difficult for most newcomers, and too unbalanced to make repeat practise and mastery a worthwhile endeavour for veterans. Considering a shooter’s main source of longevity comes from high score chasing, it seems tragic that Arcade mode isn’t offered on a lower difficulty, or at least with tweaks to balance out the more stringent time mechanic.

Epileptics beware

At about an hour front-to-back for the campaign, 1200 points will inevitably be too steep a ticket to entry for genre newcomers curious to see what the buzz is about. Conversely, I feel like most shooting veterans (save for the most skilled among us) will lack the patience to invest their time honing skills in the arcade mode – where most of us will spend the bulk of our time - on a mechanic so heavily dependent on luck. It’s a shame, as Sine Mora was a fairly high profile release for a new shooter property, and compelling enough that I think the online leaderboards would have been buzzing for months had there been a little more time spent balancing the powerups and an additional (easier) difficulty mode added for newcomers looking to get a taste of the thrill known as the one-credit-clear.

In the end, Sine Mora should absolutely be commended. It has taken the genre in an exciting new direction for storytelling, sets a high standard with tight controls and game play, impeccable art direction, and provides a wealth of extra modes and ships to toy with when you’re finished the campaign. But while the story mode will entertain newcomers to the genre, the bullish arcade mode will scare them away, and I don’t foresee a lot of shmuppers out there willing to look past the arcade mode’s balance issues to make it worthwhile mastering.

At 1200 points, it’s difficult for me to recommend this game to either camp – the longevity just won’t be there for most of us. If you’re a shooter junkie like me, this was a day-one, sight-unseen no-brainer in any case, but for just about everyone else, wait until it drops to 800 or 600 points and jump on it. It’s a spectacular title to be sure, but flawed enough to make even the most rabid shooter fans balk at the value herein. Sine Mora is a great achievement and should be played, but 800 points seems like the sweet spot for this one.

- Ryan McLaren


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