Sine Mora, new to XBLA this week via Hungarian studio Digital Reality in partnership with Suda 51’s Grasshopper Manufacture, is a stunning masterpiece of the “bullet hell” shoot ‘em up genre. It’s a devastatingly beautiful, crushingly difficult orchestration of creativity and challenge, a true East-meets-West shmup summit that deserves to stand alongside the best from such masters of the form as Treasure and Cave. It’s cleverly classical, paying homage and due deference to genre definition. But it also revises and surprises in a way that isn’t very common within a game style that doesn’t offer much wiggle room either in terms of innovation or in the pixel-width spaces between the millions of bullets that streak across the screen.
At eye level, the look is jaw-dropping with every element from the extremely detailed side-scrolling backgrounds to the tiniest of aircraft rendered in full 3D. Squadrons in the distance bank over lush, rolling hillscapes to attack. Environments are uniformly compelling, evocative and fascinating from undersea tunnels populated by worms that explode in an acid shower to automated robot factories that are visual tapestries of machines and mayhem. The art style is equal parts Porco Rosso-era Miyazaki , French comics such as Blacksad or Metal Hurlant, and Metal Slug.
Anthropomorphic animals tell the game’s vague, largely suggested science fiction story in subtitled Hungarian, speaking in interstitial narratives and through in-flight pilot chatter. It’s a tale of revenge, rebellion, loss, and time control. A chief concept in Sine Mora- which translates from the Latin to “without delay”- is time, and its function as a game element is absolutely brilliant.
Per the title, a sometimes brutal urgency informs every single second of this game. Unlike most shmups with one-hit kills or a shield bar, your proximity to death is measured by a timer. Being struck by anything that the game throws at you incurs a time penalty, and when it hits zero, your time is up. But time can be earned by destroying enemies, so there is constantly an impetus to shoot something, anything, to keep the timer flush with precious seconds.
It’s almost a racing game-inspired concept, but instead of hitting checkpoints to increase the timer you’re shooting at things. This creates some interesting and unusually tactical decision points during gameplay. where you might really need to destroy a particular weapon on a boss that has a difficult-to-avoid bullet spread but with just a few seconds left until death, the better target might be another component with a shorter damage bar.
There is also a time capsule mechanic, which slows everything down. It can make finding your path through the torrential hail of bullets easier or you can use it strategically to line up a shot. Power-ups increase the meter, and there are also pick-ups that impart a color-coded shield, secondary weapon replenishment, or primary weapon upgrades.
You’ll need to grab what you can because Sine Mora is tough. The Story mode offers two difficulty modes but even the “normal” one will test the mettle- and patience- of more casual shmuppers. The higher difficulty settings and the insanely difficult Arcade mode will be were the pros and masochists roost. There are also score attack and boss practice modes.
And oh, those bosses. They are, simply put, among the best if not the best shmup bosses I’ve ever seen, and there’s not a dud among them. I can’t say that I’ve ever had to battle an observatory before, let alone a towering robot construction worker called Papa Carlo. The boss fights are inspired, grueling, and truly epic. The showstopper is a battle against a rotating labyrinth, as much a test of endurance and fine control as it is about shooting its four cores. The mechanical design for the bosses is the work of Mahiro Maeda, a renowned anime illustrator with Neon Genesis Evangelion among his credits. The astonishing bosses in this game are some of his finest work.
Akira Yamaoka also turns in his best in audio support of this shmup masterpiece. The soundtrack is on par with this rest of this outstanding game, a sophisticated retro-electro collection of tracks influenced by Giorgio Moroder (particularly Midnight Express), Vangelis, and some of Jean-Michel Jarre’s darker work. From look to gameplay to score, this game fires on all cylinders without a single skip in its diesel(punk) engine. Even the stark, beautifully designed menus and logos are worth praise.
The nitpick fault most will cite is that it is short- at least if your idea of completing the game is a single pass through the seven-stage story mode on the normal difficulty. I’ve played through the story mode three times and have been enjoying some of the other more difficult modes using a variety of unlockable planes and pilots, logging well over four hours with the game in a week. And I still want to get back into it almost every time I turn on the 360. Sine Mora is a best-in-class game to be savored, loved, and played for years to come.