Review: Sine Mora EX (Switch) - Japan-based Nintendo Podcasts, Videos & Reviews!


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: Sine Mora EX (Switch)

By Sairus Delaney

A remaster of a classic is still a classic.

A few years back Sine Mora made some waves as the critically acclaimed offspring of Grasshopper Studios and Digital Reality. This year saw the release of Sine Mora EX, a remastered version of the game for modern platforms with a new layer of polish and a few new bells and whistles for good measure.

Sine Mora is a bullet hell shooter, meaning you control a tiny flying ship as you scroll through mostly linear levels, destroying waves of enemy vessels and avoiding arrays of colorful missiles, lasers and bullets. Levels generally culminate in massive boss fights that ramp the intensity of the enemy fire up to seemingly impossible levels, giving the genre its name.

With a name like Bullet Hell, it’s not surprising that this type of game is generally punishingly difficult. Often the games pride themselves on this, with no effort being made to coddle the player, instead just dropping them straight into endless waves of bullets to see how long they last. It’s not uncommon for games to just focus entirely on snappy controls and interesting bullet patterns with little attention on other parts of the presentation.

From the moment I started playing Sine Mora EX, it felt like the developers wanted this to be the game that changed all that, and give a complete package that didn’t exclude new players or trim down production values outside of the core game play. The solutions they came to result in a fantastic package, but not a perfect one.

Firstly, let’s tackle the issue that a lot of folks complained about in the original Sine Mora: the story. 

Sine Mora EX tries to weave a complex story of war, revenge spread across different points in time thanks to the time traveling abilities of the main cast. The time travel concept is very cleverly woven into gameplay, as I’ll explain later, but the story is almost completely incomprehensible, even after multiple playthroughs. At one point I heard dialogue from the first stage start playing during a later mission, and the story was so confusing that I’m still not sure if that was a bug or a quirk of time travel. 

What little I did understand of the story is also massively at odds with the rest of the content of the game. It touches on topics of genocide, war crimes, rape, and a grab bag of other dark themes, while the rest of the game for the most part is a bright, colorful adventure, flying against cartoony weaponized houses and giant mechanical octopuses. One of the features new to Sine Mora EX is a full English voice over, which can be switched back to the original Hungarian voices any time. The voices are hit or miss, but regardless they do nothing to elevate the story or characters themselves.

Of course, all that said and done, the story really is just the trimming on a game in this genre. What makes or breaks a title like this is the gameplay, and Sine Mora is very successful here. Like I said, it feels like the developers wanted this to be a bullet hell game that would appeal to people outside the hardcore and its gameplay feels built from the ground up to be accessible.  

The most obvious ways it does this are tied cleverly into the time traveling concept of the story. You don’t have any health bar or lives, you just have a timer. If the timer runs out, you die. If you take damage, seconds get cut from the timer. If you defeat enemies, seconds get added. The player can also slow down time around them, effectively freezing enemies and bullets in place for a limited time. Combined, these systems allow a novice player to completely avoid, or at least take a substantial amount of hits before getting a game over screen. 

Levels themselves are also quite beginner friendly with simple bullet patterns and a minimum of environmental obstacles to avoid. Stages climax in the real jewel of Sine Mora’s crown: epic boss fights. These are lavish, multi section affairs that really show off the beautiful art design of the game. The bosses being so good is actually a double edged sword as they highlight how borderline boring a lot of the actual stages can be. There’s a very clear distinction between the long, slow empty scrolling portions of the levels and the thoughtful and often punishing bosses. 

Of course all this talk of beginner friendliness should not scare away those looking for a challenge. On the lower difficulties it’s a simple to mostly breeze through the game, but Expert and even Normal ramp the difficulty up considerably. The game also adjusts difficulty on the fly to fit the player. Playing perfectly will gradually increase enemy strength, how often they fire and how many points you earn. Slowing time, using sub-weapons, or getting hit will all reduce the difficulty and kill your score multiplier.

Digital Reality and Grasshopper also wanted the player to have something nice to look at while doing all this shooting, and they definitely succeeded. Everything is fully rendered in 3D, but the game has you flying along a 2D plane. This allows the action to swoop dramatically through the scenery without actually upsetting gameplay. Some of the larger enemies you fight are truly gorgeously rendered with a distinct art style that has everything look chunky and compacted, but with just enough of a detailed edge to stop it looking like a cartoon.

However, the visuals might actually be too nice as they can cause gameplay problems in certain stages. Occasionally it can be hard to tell what is background noise, and what is an actual obstacle until you ram into it. Some backdrops are also extremely busy, and can conceal incoming missiles and ships. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s a clear reminder of why a lot of bullet hell games do prefer to fly against mostly featureless backdrops.

Disappointingly, the musical score doesn’t match the high bar set by its visuals and is almost entirely unnoticeable during play.

Beyond the story mode there’s a handful of other modes to keep the game fresh. This is where the designers efforts to ease in new players vanish. Arcade and Score Attack are mostly retreads of the story mode but both come with warnings that they are for advanced players. Challenge Mode is similarly difficult although takes the form of a series of quirky mini games.

Co-op is one of EX’s new additions and shows an interesting touch of creativity. One player has control of the main ship which always faces forward, and the second controls a pod that can be rotated to fire in any direction. The pod can also act as a shield for the main player, and control of the ship and pod can be switched at any time with the tap of a button. Although a cute feature, the pod controls are clunky and started to annoy me pretty quickly. Playing the game with split joycons also means you can’t skip the numerous cutscenes during stages as that function is tied to the L button.

Particularly for the Switch it should be noted that while this game is fully playable in portable mode, the intense bullet dodging might be a bit difficult to manage when out and about on a tiny screen. It’s not actually a problem with the game, just something to be aware of!

Overall Sine Mora EX is a wonderful package. The game straddles a very difficult line by offering an entry point for absolute beginners and a proper challenge for experienced players to sink their teeth into. A few hiccups along the way in its presentation and portions of uneven gameplay are easily forgiven when the rest of the game is such a treat. If you have any interest in shmups and you don’t already own a copy of this game, you should probably fix that Without Delay.

Final Score: 9.0 

(Review code provided by the publisher)

1 comment:

Famicomplicated said...

I like how Sairus has become the default schmup guy on staff!