Booting up Sisters Royale: Five Sisters Under Fire for the first time, we were completely blind to everything about it. All we had to go from was the name, cute cover art, and the understanding that it is a shmup of some kind. We were optimistic as to what to expect. Judging by the 'moe' style and naming convention, we felt fairly certain this would probably be a clone of a Touhou game. As of the writing of this article, no official Touhou shmup has made its way to the Nintendo Switch (though there is the fan-made Azure Reflections), so we were excited to see if this game could offer something similar to Nintendo Switch owners.
From the main menu, this game starts with a solid first impression. The menu looks inviting and fun, the music sounds upbeat and invigorating, and the coveted “option” sub-menu actually exists. Immediately, before even beginning the first stage, this reviewer selected the “options” tab and began to look around. Everything appeared promising! There was a functioning control config, screen rotation, dialogue disable, and even a secondary “maniac” submenu where the player could adjust in-game features like bullet-size. Inclusions of this nature tend to be a very good sign that the developer has some knowledge of what shmup players are looking for and they are not just churning out a cheap product. There is also a practice mode on offer as well. So far so good.
At the character select screen, the player can choose from five distinct protagonists: Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur, and Lale. At the select screen, these characters do look distinctly different from one another, which we appreciate. In summary then, up until loading into Stage 1, this game had presented itself well. But then the gameplay began...
To our surprise, rather than flying around in the air, as in a Touhou game, the player’s character sprite is walking around on the ground, Guwange style. Furthermore, rather than having a standard focus shot and slow button like in Touhou, each character has a unique focus attack of varying quality. At the time of this review, we have played multiple clears of each character on both normal and hard difficulties, and while we have by no means optimized the game, it does certainly seem like some characters are blatantly better than others due to their unique attacks. From our experience, the two most noteworthy characters – and the ones we recommend playing at first – are Sonay and Selma.
Sonay is the default character, and it is easy to understand why. Even though the narrow shot would typically indicate that she is an advanced-style character to use, it’s her unique attack that likely makes her the strongest character in the game (for survival, at least). Her unique attack is an effective homing dog or dragon (it’s hard to tell) that essentially allows the player to chew through the entire game while in focused movement. Shot-switching is rarely required, even in hard mode. The second sister, though more difficult to use, is more interesting and is our favourite. Rather than having a homing option, her unique attack is three energy swords that form a triangle around the character. To use the swords, not only does the player need to be fairly close to the enemy, but also needs to spin around with quick circular movements to deal damage. This is a unique shmup mechanic, to say the least, and our favourite part of the gameplay of Sister’s Royale. If there is a reason to buy this game and play it, this sword attack is it.
Needless to say, we can safely conclude this is not a Touhou-inspired game. Instead, after doing some more background research, we discovered that this game is a spiritual successor to the cult classic Castle of Shikigami series — now things are making more sense!
Whenever reviewing a new shmup like this, it’s typically good practice to put in a decent amount of time engaging in the survival gameplay to get a feel for how the majority of players will experience the game, before digging deeper into the scoring aspects. With shmup design, the idea is to pull new players in with strong (or at least interesting) visual and sound design, and then offer up engaging survival gameplay that can hook new players into staying around and feeding credit after credit in pursuit of a high score. With Sisters Royale, though, even if it does appear to have put some thought and care into how the scoring system works, the game struggles with the basics.
While playing, there was something oddly familiar with the graphic style of Sisters Royale, but not in a pleasant way. To say the graphical presentation is outdated would be an understatement. There was some game in the distant past that Sisters Royale reminded us of, but took some time to figure out. After sitting down and staring at screenshots for about half an hour, the answer finally arrived: Spyro The Dragon. The models and enemy designs look like a cleaned-up PS1 game. Perhaps this is intentional in some way, to be inviting and cartoonish, but the graphics look cheap and generic.
Musically, this game also suffers from blandness. None of the tracks, besides the main menu music, have any kick or flair. To illustrate this, in one of the playthroughs of this game, there was a glitch in stage 2 that disabled the stage music, but it wasn’t until near the end of the stage that we noticed that it was missing. Again, like the visuals, the music isn’t awful or unbearable, but aggressively generic – like many of those PS1 Spyro knock-offs you forgot you played until you started to dig through your closet for old games to sell.
The level design continues this trend. There is nothing obnoxious or absurd when it comes to gameplay; the enemy layout and bullet patterns are functional, but again nothing stands out and gives that shmup Dopamine injection. Besides the additions of environmental hazards like wind, ice, and darkness, the stages don't stand out from one another. And, while the inclusion of these environmental hazards is interesting in concept – since they are making use of the fact the player is walking – they still don’t tie into the core gameplay very well. The hazards seem more like rough drafts rather than fully-realized ideas.
On the matter of system performance, it is a relief to say that the frame rate seems solid and consistent, the game runs smoothly. However, when it comes to controlling the character, Sisters Royale runs into another problem: input lag. Right away, we could tell that something was off. Dodging bullets felt sluggish and movement felt slippery (even when not walking on ice). So, after a lag test, we were not surprised to see that the game suffers from six frames of input lag. In general, shmups on the Switch do tend to suffer from more lag than their PC or PS4 counterparts. However, even in comparison to its fellow Switch shmup peers (which average at four frames), Sisters Royale takes its time to get moving.
Also, it is important to convey that it’s not just a matter of the game feeling dated or unrefined. In the world of shmups, many beloved games have their share of disappointing or silly elements, like the voice acting of the Castle of Shikigami games. The issue with Sisters Royale, then, is that it also lacks that hook or personality to draw players in, at least for memes or the ironic satisfaction of clearing something absurd or ill-conceived. Sisters Royale is not a bad game, but it’s not a good one either. There is some fun to be had with its better moments (Selma’s swords, basically), but not enough to justify the entry fee. It’s not a game that you will immediately regret buying, but it’s not one you’ll be eagerly awaiting to arrive in the mail, either.
It's regrettable that we have to be dismissive of a new shmup release, especially one inspired by Castle of Shikigami that does seem to be sincerely trying to offer up a fun experience. With that said though, when it comes down to the basic fundamental aspects of the genre – visuals, music, stage design, gameplay flow – Sisters Royale feels unfinished. It’s hard to care about the scoring system when the structure it is built upon doesn’t satisfy enough to encourage players to spend hour after hour routing and experimenting.