I have a love/hate relationship with my PS Vita: I love its games, but I hate that they’re on the Vita. Don’t get me wrong: Vita is a fantastic little device that I’ve had a ton of fun with, but it’s always played second fiddle to my 3DS. Unless my current main game is a Vita exclusive, I’m just not very likely to have it with me on a daily basis.
Those are the circumstances under which I first encountered Sine Mora in 2012. It fired off all the right synapses in my brain: Dreamcast-like visuals that looked fantastic on the Vita’s widescreen OLED display; awe-inspiring gigantic robot bosses designed by Neon Genesis Evangeleon designer Mahiro Maeda; pick-up-and-play action perfectly suited for a handheld. I eagerly plunked down my $9.99 as soon as it launched, and was ready to love it. Then I played it for a few minutes, put the Vita down to take my dog for a walk, and didn’t pick the system up again until a few weeks later, when someone convinced me to try Persona 4 Golden… at which point the Vita became a Persona machine, and nothing else, for more than half a year.
Flash forward to 2017, and Sine Mora’s been ported to a handheld platform that is much more likely to be in my bag when I head out for the day: the Nintendo Switch. And, really, I’m having a blast with it. Everything that seemed great about it five years is great today, only now I can throw the game up on my 55-inch 4K TV, where it still looks fantastic upscaled from 720p. Truly, Sine Mora is a game that deserves a spot in every shmup fan’s library. But the “EX” designation in the new version’s title signifies not only the smattering of new features and modes that have been added to the core offering, but a most unwelcome change, as well: a price increase that far outpaces the volume and quality of that additional content. Sine Mora EX is the definitive version of a very good game and a natural fit for the Switch, but with its threefold cost increase over the original, it’s really hard to recommend it on this platform.
Sine Mora is a “bullet-hell” scrolling shooter, but it does an admirable job at being accessible to players with only a moderate level of skill in this genre. If you crave a serious challenge, you’ll want to jump right into Arcade Mode, which strips away the narrative elements and increases the speed of enemy attacks. For everyone else, the Story Mode combines significantly easier (though no less thrilling) combat with a surprisingly mature narrative touching on everything from the utter pointlessness of trying to change the past, to the dark depths we’re capable of reaching when driven by revenge. Despite the anthropomorphic animal cast, this is no Saturday morning cartoon à la Star Fox; you may end up hating some of Sine Mora’s playable characters because you recognize yourself in the motivations behind their vile deeds.
Sine Mora’s core theme is time, and it’s central to both the game’s plot, and to its mechanics. You’re given a limited amount of time to complete each stage; destroy enemies and you’ll gain a little, take damage, and you’ll lose some. You may feel emboldened by the lack of a health meter to pilot your ship directly into the line of fire in an effort to deal some serious destruction, but you’ll learn quickly that time functions like hit points: once you’ve run out, it’s game over. You can also manipulate the flow of time with an ability that lets you continue moving at full speed while everything else is slowed down; this makes it much easier to maneuver around the enemy bullets filling up the screen, but it’s tied to a limited-use meter that can only be refilled by collecting rare blue capsules that occasionally pop out from the wreckage of destroyed enemies. As such, it’s best reserved for the most impossible situations.
Weapon upgrades are handled in a somewhat unorthodox fashion: any power-up capsules you collect from destroyed enemies will stack and persist throughout the course of a given character’s journey, but if you take damage, you’ll immediately lose them. You’re given a decent amount of time to chase these capsules back down before they drift slowly off the edge of the screen, but you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth putting yourself in harm’s way to go after them—especially because you’ll often not only drop them again immediately upon picking them up again, but lose precious time in the process thanks to their tendency to float directly into the line of fire. Defeating bosses with an under-powered fighter craft can feel impossible, but it’s not nearly as difficult as trying to do so with only have 12 seconds left on the clock because you lost 30 seconds chasing down lost capsules.
Sine More EX provides a fair amount of optional content to extend the game’s value beyond its core Story and Arcade modes, from the Boss Rush and Score Attack modes returning from the original release, to the bite-sized Challenges, Versus, and Co-op modes added just for this EX release. Unfortunately, Challenge Mode is the only truly worthy addition of the new bunch. Versus Mode feels cobbled together and throwaway, with uninteresting levels that seem to have been designed by someone with no investment in the game or its universe (which makes sense, given that original developer Digital Reality closed in 2013.)
Co-op, meanwhile, has been implemented so poorly that it distracts from what might otherwise have been the standout feature of the EX content. Player two pilots a small drone ship that has a cool multi-directional gun controlled with the right joystick, along with limited shield capabilities that absorb enemy bullets—really fun stuff, especially if you get into a groove with your partner where they use their shield to protect both of your ships. But, well, how should I put this? The drone has a habit of blowing up. Repeatedly. And not due to any fault of the player, but rather because the developer of this port clearly didn’t feel like programming its presence into the non-interactive cut scenes or camera-panning segments that occur frequently during each stage. Seriously: you’re there with your partner, wrecking enemy ships and having a great time, and then suddenly, just because the camera changes angles to show you more of the gorgeous background design, your partner blows up, then wonders what they did wrong. It’s hugely distracting, and makes it impossible to get invested in the experience. I’m not a fan of this modern age of post-launch fixes, but I sincerely hope the publisher coughs up a budget to fix this oversight, because Sine Mora would be a blast with properly implemented co-op.
I’m torn, because while I’m a big fan of Sine Mora, it’s just so hard to justify a recommendation for Sine Mora EX on Switch—at least not at MSRP. On the one hand, this isn’t the first time a multiplatform game has come to Switch with a huge price hike, and that isn’t publisher THQ Nordic’s fault; if this carries on too long, Nintendo may have to reconsider its licensing policies. On the other hand, the new content that’s been added for this release is phoned in, and that’s definitely something the publisher should be held accountable for. Nintendo Switch is my favorite place to play Sine Mora, but until the price drops or the bonus content gets a serious revamp, I can only give this a cautious recommendation at best.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Sine Mora EX is based on final review code provided to us by THQ Nordic. The game launched on Tuesday, September 26th, 2017.