Sine Mora EX is an enhanced version of Sine Mora, a shoot-em-up originally released in 2012 featuring futuristic planes, anthropomorphic characters, and one of the darkest storylines I’ve played through this year. The re-release is no great leap from its predecessor, adding a co-op mode to the main adventure and English dubbing not present in the original. Sine Mora EX is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, though a Nintendo Switch port has been announced for later this year. Owners of the original on Steam will be able to upgrade to the newest version for free.
As someone picking it up for the first time, there are glaring flaws in storytelling and mechanics that make it hard for me to truly love Sine Mora EX. The gameplay can be overly punishing and outright unfair, even though the controls remain tight and responsive. Sine Mora EX is a game made for fans of gruelingly difficult shoot-em-ups; casual players will likely find the game less appealing.
Edgy for the sake of being edgy.
Sine Mora EX is shockingly grim, starring heroes that are not always great… or even particularly good. The closest thing the game has to a main hero is Ronotra Koss, a disabled buffalo on a rampage to avenge his son. Argus Pytel, the buffalo’s son and pilot of the Cobalt King, was murdered for disobeying direct orders to drop an atomic bomb on an innocent race of people. His revenge-driven father systematically hunts down Argus’s co-pilots, including one jailed for raping a young woman. His victim turns out to be a young woman from the now-enslaved race, and Koss is more than willing to blackmail her into flying missions for his own vengeance. It’s disturbing and somewhat surreal, dealing with complex issues like racial tension and genocide with talking lizards and cats.
This would be an interesting take on time travel if Sine Mora EX ever explained a damn thing about the world. If it was merely silent and mysterious, then it could at least follow in the footsteps of narratively-light games that use scenery, journal entries, or audio files to build their world. Instead, it expects the viewer to understand what’s going on even as the time period shifts back and forth without a moment’s notice. Twists that could be powerful and moving fall flat because I was too busy trying to figure out their implications. Time travel is already an obtuse plot mechanic without indirect storytelling fuzzying the details.
It’s time to talk about time.
If it wasn’t immediately obvious, time is a central mechanic in Sine Mora EX. You must complete your objectives while a timer ticks down menacingly at the top of your screen. You will die if the clock reaches zero, but it resets itself at key checkpoints throughout the stage. And while your plane does not have health in the traditional sense, getting shot shaves seconds off your timer. Killing enemies adds time to the clock, so when you’re running low you can shoot down a few small fries to make up for lost time. It’s an interesting way to tie in the game’s central narrative themes, and the ability to slow time at key moments meshes well with the bullet spam bosses like to throw at you.
When an enemy attack lands, losing a few seconds on the clock isn’t your biggest concern. Attack upgrades, found from orbs dropped by fallen enemies, also spill out of you. So if you’ve been piling up those upgrades for several stages it can feel particularly devastating to lose all that to a cheap enemy attack. You have a few desperate moments to pick those attack upgrades back up, but in the midst of an intense wave of enemy bullets and lasers and mines it can be harrowing to avoid having them knocked right off again. One bullet’s graze can quickly spiral into your inevitable doom.
Back to the beginning.
Death itself in Sine Mora EX is usually a gentle slap on the wrist, sending you back to the stage’s last checkpoint. You start with all the same upgrades you had when you passed that checkpoint, meaning that you better hope you don’t drop your upgrades just before hitting the next one. And with every death you lose a credit, a set of extra lives that dwindle down as you progress through the story. If you run out of credits, your options are to restart (the entire campaign, it turns out) or return to the main menu where you can pick a stage to start from. This becomes more frustrating as you move onto more difficult stages because you begin with absolutely no upgrades. If a boss plans to pop up mere seconds later, your piddly starting gun will feel crippling to use. You could always start from a prior stage, but dying there feels like a complete waste of time and credits.
The credit system feels like an archaic mechanic better suited for arcades than modern consoles. It’s not like I could put insert any extra quarters into my PS4, so why bother with a credit system?
Despite my complaints about unclear storytelling and frustrating difficulty, I enjoyed my time with Sine Mora EX. For shoot-em-up fans the game has plenty of replayability and a ton of optional modes and challenges to play around with. Though the campaign itself is only three or four hours long at most, it’s jam-packed with a ton of gargantuan steampunk bosses with unique attack patterns and weaknesses. Each level offers a glimpse of the world as a whole, and having the same stage show up at different points in time is a great way to showcase destruction and decay. Unfortunately, Sine Mora EX has a few too many problems to recommend to anyone who isn’t already in too deep in the genre.