Making an accessible schmup (shoot ‘em up) might be one of the trickiest challenges a modern day game designer could ever take on. It’s a strange dichotomy of gaming today that the shmup, a genre that is so synonymous with video games, could have become so niche and unashamedly hardcore. Back in the early days of the medium, shooting down swarms of enemies from the comfort of a spaceship or aircraft probably accounted for 50% of all video games, and while that imagery remains a prominent aspect of the visual language of video games, it’s not something that is necessarily all that relevant in today’s market.
Sure, there are still shmups out there, but most are made in Japan for an exceptionally niche crowd, something that has led to a genre that has become increasingly hardcore in the last few decades. Sure, you still shoot down tons of enemies using a single over-powered craft, but the challenge has now moved distinctly towards the extreme end of the scale with the likes of Ikaruga, DoDonPachi and Espgaluda delivering progressively more intense and visually exhaustive challenges.
Sine Mora tried to change all that back in 2012. Rather than the current penchant for old-school visuals, high difficulty and bullet hell gameplay, the bizarre combination of Grasshopper Manufacture (of No More Heroes fame) and, Digital Reality (a Hungarian studio famous for…….Imperium Galactica?) came together to create a modern day shmup that incorporated a ‘proper’ narrative, cutting edge visuals and more accessible gameplay. In most respects, they succeeded in their goal, and while the original Sine Mora didn’t set the sales charts alight, it was something of a critical darling. I can only hope this improved and updated EX edition can attain the kind of commercial success that alluded it first time around.
The game itself is actually much the same as it was back in 2012, which honestly, is no bad thing. It was a great looking game then, and for the most part, remains so now (the jump to 4K resolution and 60 frames per second gameplay on the PS4 Pro certainly doesn’t harm). The bosses and environments were created by the director of Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Animatrix and they look almost universally fantastic with some of the boss battles proving particularly spectacular. Its eclectic selection of environments and liberal use of colour make this a brighter and visually breezier game than most examples of the genre and it’s all the better for it. Oddly, the narrative doesn’t match the almost cartoon-like visuals….at all. Despite being home to a cast of anthropomorphic characters, Sine Mora’s narrative is actually surprisingly dark and deals with some rather heavy-hitting subject matter. The story itself is decent enough, but the tone makes for a jarring combination with what is an otherwise surprisingly colourful shooter.
Still, while effort has clearly gone into making this a narratively interesting shooter, it is the core gameplay that remains the most important and successfully implemented aspect of the experience. Things can get busy on screen, but this horizontal shooter is certainly not of the bullet hell persuasion – it’s more R-Type than Radiant Silvergun. It is still home to all of the trappings that one would associate with the genre (power-ups, bombs etc), but everything here feels streamlined, something that is immediately noticeable in the scoring system. Rather than elaborating on the ever-complicated scoring system of recent shooters, here, well, you get points for shooting things and lose your multiplier if you die – simple.
What really sets it apart though is its use of time. Beyond the useful ability to slow down and rewind time, rather than having a traditional health bar, you are left with a constantly ticking clock that reduces faster when you get hit and slower when you take down enemies. It makes for a compelling risk/reward mechanic, and something that adds a sense of urgency beyond the constant need to dodge bullets. It may sound like a relatively minor addition, but in a genre that (for people such as me at least) has become so dependent on simply dodging bullets, it’s nice to have an excuse to really go on the offensive for a change.
With a surprisingly decent Story Mode offering an entertaining introduction for newcomers to the genre and Arcade and Time Attack Modes delivering plenty of challenge for the established hardcore, Sine Mora EX successfully toes the line between accessibility and challenge. Despite being around for a number of years, this gorgeous shooter really deserves to be experienced by a wider audience, and I can only hope that this updated EX release garners the commercial success that its quality deserves. A little more in the way of new game modes and content would have been nice (although the new challenge levels and co-op modes are both admittedly great additions), and despite its undoubted quality, it does fail to hit the peaks achieved by the finest that the genre has to offer, but honestly, that’s me picking holes in what is an otherwise exceptional shooter, one that manages to combine genre tradition with modern day visuals and exceptional gameplay.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.