The majority of Sine Mora was developed in Budapest by Digital Reality, but eccentric Japanese developer Grasshopper Manufacture provided concept art and sound design. You can tell, too, as there's a Suda51 tinge of the bizarre floating around here, with the classically vivid shoot-em-up contrasting against the dark, warped themes of the underlying plot. Meanwhile, the aesthetics bound disconcertingly from Dieselpunk armies into Steampunk boss fights and back again. It is to Digital Reality's credit, then, that this madness is properly contained.
Based on the story, however, I would keep Hungary's men in white coats on speed dial. Though it features an anthropomorphic cast, Sine Mora's plot revolves around themes of time travel and totalitarian government, and even into much, much darker areas such as rape and slavery - it's like if Steven Moffat and China Miévelle decided to resurrect the Star Fox franchise. This is a tale mostly told in short monologues before levels, and although it's often a touch too vague it's curious enough to retain interest. The design decision to have each monologue spoken aloud in Hungarian is inspired, too; in the context of Sine Mora the Uralic dialect takes on an almost otherworldly quality.
Even if the plot is an unexpected boon, it's a similarly wise decision to restrict it to the Story Mode. For players with no time for text, the presentation stands up on its own in the Arcade and Score Attack Modes. The environments are as vivacious as they are detailed, and span everything from war-torn island shores to a futuristic metropolis in the vein of Blade Runner. Each one is complemented masterfully by Akira Yamaoka's subtle, non-intrusive electronica score. The game has a strong cyberpunk vibe and Yamaoka's chiming bleeps and bloops retain a haunting sense of futurism.
The best design decision of all, though, is that of Microsoft's: to reject the original Story Mode as too hostile for the XBLA audience. The Story Mode's two difficulties, Normal and Challenging, are now a good notch or so below that of Arcade's and Score Attack's Hard (let alone Insane) difficulty. The result is not only both a classic challenge for longstanding shoot-em-up fans and a less stressful one for those of us who like the genre but are rubbish at it, but also a game that genuinely encourages progression from its lowest difficulties to its highest.
Replacing lives with an arcade-like time extension mechanic - shooting enemies increases available time, getting hit removes time, and running out equals Game Over - at first activates survival instincts. Sine Mora lives up to the Bullet Hell tag as early as the first boss, a huge spindly robot dreamed up from the recesses of the Matrix with a penchant for filling up the screen in orange and blue. Encountering him the first time, it's easy to unleash the secondary weapon (in the Story Mode a big old laser) to quickly down his defences, while using the remaining reserves of the time slowdown power to make the massive machine's screen-filling fire sluggish and avoidable.
While this certainly works, wasting the secondary weapon and time slowdown is soon punished - use that tactic on the next boss and it will wipe the floor with you. Also, more subtly and yet more significantly, the score multiplier drops back to 1x each time secondary weapons or time slowdown are used (it rises with enemy kills). This encourages a tactical and thus more skilful approach in which powers are conserved until absolutely needed - especially with leaderboards in mind. The story mode takes under two hours to complete (without using continues) so multiple playthroughs are certainly encouraged.
Yet this has to be balanced against the dangers of being hit. The primary weapon is built up through ten stages of power by collecting red power-ups from downed enemies, all of which is gravy. Not so tasty is how taking damage not only removes valuable seconds but also literally expels the primary weapon's power as the red orbs fly randomly out from the ship. Whether or not to retrieve them across the firestorm of bullet hell is in itself a demanding moment of strategy.
The tactics take on another layer in the Arcade and Score Attack modes through ranking. It's similar in principle to how combos work except the higher the rank the stronger enemies' attacks are, which makes using the secondary powers to reduce rank doubly evasive. Such details aren't only rewarding for core shoot-em-up fans; there's a strong progression of tactics from Story Mode Normal to Story Mode Challenging and then on to Arcade Hard which is very rewarding if travelled. Having said that, it's disappointing there aren't Challenging versions of Arcade and in particular Score Attack, the one-continue mode that only the most blistered of thumbs will enjoy fully.
It would be remiss to conclude without eulogizing the boss fights masterminded by renowned anime director Mahiro Maeda, whose work on The Animatrix and Neon Genesis Evangelion can be seen in the wonderful array of ideas on show. Each boss comes in stages, often transitioned by the camera winding round it in 3D, and each stage offers a different proposition. My particular favourite was the train boss, each carriage sporting its own deadly defence including a huge missile-launching cannon and a rather conspicuous platform made up of six different bolt-firing turrets. Each boss also has a hidden weak spot, though the difference between knowing that and finding it is vast.
It is shame that similar diversity isn't quite as present in the main sections of each level (outside of presentation). There are caverns versus open spaces, and a few unique sections here and there, and the enemies do vary satisfyingly throughout the game, but for a game like Sine Mora the core level design could've been braver more often. It never feels samey, but sometimes it gets close.
Still, it's hard to get too down on a game in which a killer piano can fall on you. I also don't know if such moments are down to Suda51's touch, but I do know there's only so much you can keep him out of a Grasshopper game. Sine Mora, crucially with Digital Reality's contribution, strikes a deft balance between madness and shoot-em-up fun.
Version Tested: Xbox 360