The Xbox Live Arcade shooter Sine Mora was designed, written, and coded by Digital Reality, a small studio founded in the ex-Soviet satellite state of Hungary–and it shows. The country has had a tough run of things over the past 60 or 70 years. It had the misfortune of being sandwiched between two squabbling old-world bullies during World War II–namely, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It was occupied by Adolph Hitler, then, bear-hugged by Joseph Stalin until it agreed to become Communist.
Despite several squashed revolts, Hungary remained a puppet state until the end of the Cold War. It’s not surprising, then, that Sine Mora is a thick-necked game–the product of a country that is sick and tired of getting pushed around. It has muscle. It will provoke you. It may even take your lunch money. (See: the weapon upgrade system, where coins that give you firepower are jostled loose when you are hit.) I’ll just come out and say it: Getting clobbered by Hungarians has never felt so good.
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It’s tempting to dismiss Sine Mora as another bullet-hell shooter and call it a day. You fly forward. Of course, it’s one pilot against the world. Several million glowing bullets stand between you and the end of the game, you don’t say? But what this reading misses out on is the game’s physicality. After mere minutes, Sine Mora‘s toughness will snap you out of your blasé frame of mind.
An attitude adjustment is exactly what the shooter genre is in need of. Digital Reality’s war-torn vision includes 1940’s bombers and Soviet submarines. The game has a dieselpunk theme, which exaggerates industrial motifs from the period between the first and second World Wars. The heavy artillery is far more imposing than anything found in modern shooters like Cave’s DonPachi series, where the robotic ships seem so delicate that they would explode if an arrant feather fell on them the wrong way. Bullet-hells are hard as crap, but they are sterile for the most part, even dainty. They safely exist behind the screen, like a lion behind glass at the zoo.
However, Sine Mora feels immediate, and overbearing, and solid. The first thing you notice is the joypad vibrating like you are manning a jackhammer on 15th Street. Well, I take that back. The first thing you notice is the voices of the pilots, spoken in thick, rich Hungarian, with plosives so harsh that they could make a baby cry. Whoever recorded the vocal track for the main character Koss could be the Hungarian Tom Waits, and he should forget videogame voice-work and go full-time into singing the blues.
Not only does Sine Mora talk the talk. It practices what it preaches. If bullet-hell shooters are for masochists, as is often claimed, then Sine Mora is a shooter for ex-KGB and thugs nicknamed “Four Fingers.” It plays dirty. The designers take cheap shots, like whacking you from behind with an enormous wrecking ball. In one instance, as you sneak into a prison to make a hit on a discharged captain, you are forced to fly through the trash chute. One false move means being incinerated, and the wings of your plane scrape against the rocks the whole way.
Even winning hurts. The novel time system seems to be an excuse to use you as a punching bag. Instead of giving you extra lives or a health bar, in Sine Mora, there is a clock that counts down to zero. Then, you die. Every bullet you take deducts valuable seconds, while killing enemies adds a little more time. The result is a system that constantly bats you around, delivering jarring blows that will make you cringe, but hesitates to finish you off, if only so that the bad guys can get in one more gut punch.
A large chunk of Sine Mora’s swagger comes from its surprisingly nuanced story. It sows a seedy tale of betrayal and revenge (Okay) involving feline pilots and lizard commanders (Um…) in the midst of interplanetary war. (What?) Like Starfox, the game has a bit of a furry fetish going on. Though it sounds ridiculous, the pursuit comes across as serious, mainly because the characters are ace. They include:
Ronotra Koss: an old vet, an alcoholic, and a buffalo who has lost both of his legs. He may loosely be based on Charlie Sheen’s character fromApocalypse Now. He is on a suicide mission to kill the co-pilot responsible for putting a bullet in his son.
Myryan Magusa: a pilot who is blackmailed by Koss to fight for his cause. Her race is the victim of genocide at the hand of the Empire. They are sent to labor camps where horrible human experiments are conducted. (A scenario that rings true of the persecution of Hungarian Jews.) She is hiding among the Empire under a fake identity. She speaks through a voice box because she had cancer as a child. She might be a bunny.
Regis Pyre: A sordid member of Koss’s son’s former crew, who was later convicted of rape.
Lynthe Ytoo: A cigar-smoking iguana in sunglasses and a red beret who looks like a warlord, has a sailor’s mouth, and defected to the resistance after being left to die.
If you still aren’t convinced that Sine Mora has muscle, try telling that to “TSUCHIGMO,” or “Sentinel Hexapus Kolobok,” two giant machines weighing in at roughly a kiloton apiece. They are a couple of the game’s staggering bosses. Another boss is an ocean liner built of so much raw metal that there is no way it could float in real life. It sports a small emblem of a heart on its hull, which looks like a biker tattoo and doubtlessly says “Mom.”
Before the fight, you are flying a WWII bomber over a choppy ocean in a climate that looks like Fiji from hell. The water and the sky are a soothing deep blue, and clouds trail off in the horizon, but this is no place for a vacation. Sheer cliffs rip up from the ocean floor, twisting among two perigee half-moons in the distance. The cliffs are so jagged that they could be modeled after fighters from the UFC. Positioned on the rocks are little tanks that look like they are chiseled out of stone, while steel-alloyed helicopters hover above.
The graphics are finely detailed, an accomplishment–and the developers make sure that you know it. In a moment, your plane will perform a circular maneuver, like the pilot is waving to the crowd in an air show. The camera will follow, making a sweeping motion through the environment, showing that this isn’t a flat, two-dimensional shooter, but rendered in full-force with polygons in 3D. This is Digital Reality flexing its muscle. They are showing off. What else would you expect from a tough guy?