The shmup genre is understandably much loved by some gamers, as it boils down the basics of gaming. Often intense yet simple to play, difficult but easy to grasp, shoot 'em ups were fundamental in the retro arcade scene and continue to entertain us on modern systems, often as download games or budget retail releases.
Sine Mora EX, however, is among a breed of shoot 'em ups from recent times that shakes up the formula in terms of gameplay and storytelling. Originally developed by Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture, it opts for an undeniably gritty and mature narrative. It touches upon themes of weapons of mass destruction, concentration camps, ethnic cleansing and more besides. Throw in a time travelling hook that had us scratching our heads first time through on PC in the past, and you've got a storyline more complex than "evil thing taking over the galaxy, defeat it".
Originally voice acted solely in Hungarian, this EX release - published by THQ Nordic - introduces some rather hit-and-miss English voiceover, making us grateful that the original Hungarian track is available. One key improvement, though, is that story segments between levels are displayed more clearly; in the original version it wasn't even clear who was talking at times. It's a small touch that makes a big difference in terms of understanding what's happening.
While it may seem like a chatty shoot 'em up is a distraction, it adds to the experience in Sine Mora EX; it's a game with environments and enemies of a brooding intensity, and with a stylish setting. If you blend old-style fighter planes with enormous killer robots, and include settings such as sweeping countryside, a weapons facility and a vibrant city, you have an idea of how big this game goes on atmosphere. It's a good looking game, too - some assets and rendering have been improved over the original, and this is a very solid port on Switch. There are a couple of brief moments of slowdown that don't particularly affect gameplay, but aside from that it's a smooth and handsome 60fps experience on the TV or handheld.
To finally get around to gameplay, Sine Mora EX has a few hooks to try and set itself apart from various other shooters. At the core of this is a capsule system - in Story Mode you have the 'Speed Up' capsule which slows the on-screen action to a crawl; it's a limited use item that you can refill with collectibles. It's best saved for when the screen is flooded with enemies or bullets. In the story you move through various characters and fighters, too, and each of these have different limited-use Sub-Weapons, some of which look fantastic in action.
These mechanics are all topped up (in Story Mode) through a Token system, including your primary weapon. You can level up you core weapon up to nine times, adding power and spread depending on the character. If hit, however, these power-ups pop out and you have a limited time to gather them up, and rather than lose life you lose time. You're always battling a countdown, adding vital seconds by defeating enemies or grabbing the right tokens. If you get hit too many times and run out of seconds, that's the end point.
It's a clever and well balanced mechanic for the most part, though Sine Mora EX has the same gameplay quirks that somewhat tempered the quality of the original. It can occasionally be cheap - for example if you get hit near an edge of the screen your power-ups may all completely disappear before you've realised what's happened; if you lose your weapon's power in the later stages and get left in a loop of restarts with a peashooter, it's as good as a game over.
There are frustrating moments such as those that flirt with the line between challenge and unfairness. More's the pity, as at times it's a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging shooter, oozing visual appeal and throwing up some exciting boss battles. A run through Story Mode may only take an hour or slightly longer if you can clear it, but combined with the narrative it can be an engrossing experience. Each player may find sections that irritate them, however, where the mechanics and balancing aren't quite in sync.
Beyond the Story Mode you can tackle Arcade, which defaults to a higher difficulty and with less continues; ideal for the most skilful players. 'Score Attack' and 'Boss Training' also return, with these being particularly welcome for short bursts on the go. Sadly it's the new content, used to pitch this EX version and justify its budget retail status - that's a letdown for the overall product.
'Challenge Mode' has a handful of modest missions to tackle, though unlocking them is brutally difficult as they make the tricky main game seem like an easy ride. Then we have 'Versus', in which two players are supposed to shoot at each other and in one case race. These are embarrassing, frankly, and do the original game a disservice. The Versus challenges are lazy single screen efforts (apart from the 'race') that could be bashed out in no time at all by anyone with access to the engine and very basic knowledge; one minigame even fails to load music.
The other noted addition is support for co-op in the main game, in which the second player controls a small drone that can put up a limited shield or fire a relatively slow and weak weapon. At times it works well, especially when player two 'guards' the lead player with the shield, but it's another sloppy implementation. Every time there's a scene transition or in-game cutscene - which is very frequent - the co-op drone simply blows up, likely due to a desire to not code it into cutscenes. It then simply reappears when gameplay resumes. On one occasion in particular this is fundamentally broken - in an awkward late boss encounter a post-cutscene spawn drops the drone right into an energy beam, costing vital seconds in possibly the game's toughest encounter. Due to the nature of the boss (a rotating maze, of sorts) this feels almost impossible to beat in co-op.
Overall, then, Sine Mora EX leaves mixed emotions; it's a solid and handsome port of a PC shoot 'em up that does some unique things and has its high points. Yet some gameplay flaws remain, and new additions for the EX release are mainly phoned in and lazy.
Sine Mora is an intriguing, stylish shooter that's well worth a punt at a budget price. Sine Mora EX, however, is a trickier sell; the underlying quality is still there and it can be a memorable experience, but the additions are sloppy and add little, making it tough to justify at its full price. On Switch it has portability going for it, with the game looking handsome on the handheld or TV - it's understandably sharper and easier to play than in the previous Vita version, for portable fans. It's a fascinating game, and may draw you back for plenty of repeat plays or even score-chasing runs to climb online leaderboards. Its flaws, however, mean it's not currently among the best of its genre.