Two major games released this week in Ninja Gaiden 3 and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. I've barely played either. Instead, I've been busy toying around with an Xbox Live Arcade title called Sine Mora, developed by Digital Reality in cooperation with Grasshopper Manufacture. You might think me crazy, but Sine Mora has been on my radar ever since I saw its first screenshot, so when given the chance to check out this beautiful looking side-scrolling shoot 'em up I wasn't going to pass it up, zombies and ninjas be damned.
The best place to start with Sine Mora is the game's visuals. In a nutshell, they are breathtaking and do a fantastic job sucking you into the experience. The game boasts just over six levels, each more vibrant and striking than the next thanks to the game's engine that seems to be an amalgam of traditional and cel-shaded graphics.
But graphics only get you so far, and once the awe of Sine Mora's visuals wears off, the cracks in the game's mechanics start to unfortunately shine through. It begins on a fundamental level with how the game is structured. In Sine Mora you don't have a life pool. Instead, you fight against a timer to finish stages. The catch, however, is that every time you take damage the timer drains (you gain back time by picking up power-ups and killing enemies). This becomes a problem because you're penalized for being thorough and cautious. Instead, you're forced to rush which in turn makes you sloppy and leads to your death. It's a catch-22. On paper this gameplay system sounds fairly cool and unique, but it's unfortunately an outside-the-box idea that should have been kept in said box.
While I'm on the subject of things I didn't like about Sine Mora, let me pause to reflect on the game's story mode. Basically, it's a mess. Digital Reality and Grasshopper created a really expansive mythology for Sine Mora that gives legitimate drive and purpose to an eclectic cast of anthropomorphic creatures that fly fighter jet, but they sadly fail to stick the landing.
The story of Sine Mora is dark, involving revenge, weapons of mass destruction obliterating whole civilizations and, shockingly, rape. This is all told to us through uninspired text screens that do a good job painting the picture of the world we're fighting in, but little else. The revenge plot set in the present, the one the player is actively participating in, is scattershot at best. You play as a group of freedom fighters attacking a dictatorship on all fronts, but the various pieces never coagulate. I never once felt a connection to any of the game's characters, even the ones who bit the dust in honorable fashion.
So after making one hell of a first impression on the visual front, maybe Sine Mora didn't deliver the shoot 'em up experience I'd hoped it would. Sine Mora is a title full of great setups and disappointing deliveries — frantic, fun gameplay marred by that frustrating timer mechanic and an interesting mythology that is squandered on a lackluster present-day plot. And that's a damn shame, because I really wanted Sine Mora to stand as a shining beacon for the shoot 'em up genre on the Xbox Live Arcade platform. But a game can't be carried on the shoulders of its visuals (or at least shouldn't). So maybe I should have just stuck with Ninja Gaiden or Resident Evil after all.
Full Disclosure: We received a review code of Sine Mora roughly six days ago. We were held to the embargo date of Wednesday, March 21st at 9am PDT. We played through the game's story mode and dabbled in arcade and boss battle mode.