A fresh take on a stale genre, Sine Mora succeeds on all fronts. At a cursory glance, the game resembles classic side-scrolling shooters like Irem's R-Type. Once you get a taste of the back story and experience the game’s unique time mechanic, it becomes clear that the similarities to the classics are merely superficial. Sine Mora manages to incorporate modern touches without compromising any of its classical appeal. Its issues are minor, and its accomplishments are enough to make this game stand out from the pack as one of the best XBLA titles so far this year.
You begin each level with an allotment of time that is constantly counting down. The only way to extend your clock is by destroying enemies, collecting time power-ups, or reaching checkpoints. If you're hit by enemy fire, you survive, but you lose a chunk of time. For better or worse, running out of time is the biggest threat in Sine Mora. This is highly unorthodox for the genre, which by and large, relies on single hit kills or health bars. This mechanic is a large part of what makes Sine Mora feel so fresh beneath its familiar exterior. Even on the normal difficulty, there are times when you're frantically hunting enemies to fuel your clock. The hunt becomes increasingly important as you take on the harder difficulties in the Arcade and Score Attack modes. The need to hunt is relative to your performance, though, so it's possible to avoid desperation with solid navigation, allotting you more time to choose your targets with prejudice.
If you strip away the time/health mechanic, Sine Mora retains the qualities that made classics like R-Type and Gradius so addictive: a series of varied stages punctuated with brutally impressive bosses, a thorough weapon upgrade system, devastating secondary weapons, and a steep learning curve. There's no shortage of power-ups to find, but they tend to come randomly from common enemies, rather than from distinctly tinted targets. Characters, planes and additional powers (Capsules) are unlocked through the Story mode. Each of the seven characters comes with a unique sub-weapon, which range from scatter bombs to a giant pair of sonic swords. In addition to the standard Capsule used in Story mode (Speed Up), Arcade mode lets you choose from two additional options: Roll Back and Reflection. The first lets you reverse time, and the latter activates a reflective shield. Despite the character selection, there are only three planes to choose from, in addition to a handful of meaningless paint jobs. The planes differ only in terms of their appearance and hit-box location. Paint aside, there are 63 combinations, or "chronomes," to choose from within Arcade mode. The characters you control come from a motley stable of anthropomorphized beings that make the Starfox crew look like common Beanie Babies. They hail from both sides of a devastating war and have often suffered at the hands of their enemies. Whether they've been oppressed, mangled, or manipulated, every one of them has a dark past that’s carried them toward the events at hand. Thankfully, the stage design is a beautifully multifaceted trip across the world of Seol, rather than a murky reflection of its shadowy inhabitants. Locations include serene seascapes, underwater prisons, and a futuristic metropolis, to name a few. Despite their range, each stage remains faithful to the dieselpunk art style. Occasionally, the game takes control and navigates your plane toward a new section of a level. Although this tends to unnecessarily break up the gameplay, it allows you the opportunity to appreciate the attention to detail in a particular stage that would otherwise be missed from the standard vantage point. Given the quality of the level design, visually and spatially, it's almost possible to overlook this disruptive shift in perspective from time to time. Some of the most striking details can be found on the big bosses you encounter. Boss designs range from the pseudo-organic to architectural monstrosities that feature multiple targets and stages in and of themselves. They're balanced properly between innate difficulty and the relative lack of time you're likely to have at the end of a level, because their mini-targets present opportunities to boost your clock. The breadcrumbs of narrative in Sine Mora bolster the characters and their world to a point that you sympathize with, despise, and even admire them. It's easy to forget you're playing a game with simple, arcade-inspired roots. Because the story is told from different points of view without respect to chronology, it can feel disjointed at times, but it does manage to come full circle in the end. For anyone willing to go the extra mile, beating Story mode on the challenging difficulty unlocks an alternate narrative that delves deeper into the Eternal War and the individuals behind it. Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture have augmented the old shoot-'em-up formula with thoughtful additions that prove to be not only challenging, but addictive as well. Sine Mora evokes nostalgic sentiments of a bygone era and joy in its colorful and diverse world that you’ll want to return to time and time again.