I’ve been a massive shmup (shoot-em-up) fan ever since my early gaming days on the NES. As gaming has evolved, so has the bullet-hell genre. You know the kind, where the screen is almost literally filled with enemy bullets with seemingly no way to avoid and survive. Some games take this to the extreme for its challenge, but there’s a few that have a special place in my heart, like Ikaruga. So when a new shmup gets released I’m instantly intrigued and want to give it a go. Sisters Royale: Five Sisters Under Fire is the latest in the genre to release on Xbox One, though its aesthetic may not be for everyone.
The Castle of Shikigami series has been around for quite a while, and while Sisters Royale isn’t a direct sequel, it’s clearly influenced and a spiritual successor to Castle of Shikigami 2, even down to many of the same mechanics and shot types. For everyone else that isn’t as deep into shmups that I am, Sisters Royale offers up a decent vertical scrolling shooter but seriously lacks longevity and content to keep you playing after a few runs.
Normally games in this genre don’t focus on story and narrative, as that’s generally not what you play them. Sisters Royale does include a plot though, albeit one that seems cute at first, but will have you rolling your eyes by the time you play through with each sister. There are five sisters that are prophesied to defeat an evil demon, Saytan (yes, actually spelled like that) and save the world. The people of Pultima have been waiting for them to be saved by these sisters, but that day never came. This is because they hate one another and are too busy squabbling with one another as to who is going to marry the man they’re all fighting over, Yaskin. Yup, I told you your eyes will roll.
The sisters constantly squabble and fight with one another by throwing childish insults, each vying to win Yashin for themselves. There’s an additional character that can be purchased separately as DLC, Ode, and she offers a different viewpoint from the sisters, but again, the story isn’t why you’re going to play Sisters Royale. Even though there’s only a few lines of dialogue between the five acts, none of the sisters come across as likeable as they all fall into the cliché sterotypes we’ve seen a million times before.
As you begin, you’ll choose which sister you wish to play as, each with their own unique shooting patterns and bomb types. While they all have the same size, health and speed, their shot types are quite varied, and some I found were much easier than others. Gameplay is vertically scrolling, constantly moving towards the top of the screen at a set pace. The stages will fill with enemies more and more, each shooting towards you, which is where the bullet hell component comes into play.
There’s going to be plenty of projectiles on the screen, and on the harder difficulties it’s near impossible to stay alive with seemingly no safe zones. At the end of each act you’ll have to face off against one of your sisters, and the levels aren’t terribly long, so be ready to be done with each playthrough in about a half hour or so, depending on the amount of continues you’ll have to use.
There are three difficulties to choose from: Easy, Normal and Hard. The higher the difficulty, the more challenging enemy patterns become, obviously. Not only are more projectiles thrown your way on Hard, but bosses will have more health bars as well. Early on you’ll be somewhat overwhelmed, but once you get a feel for the shooting mechanics and movement, it becomes easier in time. That’s not to say Hard Mode is a cake walk, quite the contrary, offering some serious challenge, though you have unlimited continues.
Each sister is presented in chibi form, a super cute and emphasized version of themselves. You have a regular shot, a summon ability and access to bombs that help you scrape by in a pinch. Each character is unique in all of these attacks, as some sisters shoot a concentrated blast directly straight ahead, while others have weaker homing shots or shoot only diagonally. There’s obviously going to be some better suited than others, but allows you to find a favorite that suits your playstyle. The summon ability is an alternate form of shot that is more challenging to use, but can get you out some trouble, though each one is uniquely different. One sister’s ability can be held down as it simply locks on to any target on the screen and kills them, whereas others can act like a bullet sponge, soaking up a certain amount before throwing it back at your enemies. Again, some are much better than others, but offers some variety.
Normally these types of games don’t offer a tutorial, but Sisters Royale should have had one for its Tension Bonus System (TBS). Your normal shots don’t do much damage on their own, but there’s a system in place that changes your shots into a Power Mode that makes your attacks much more powerful when you’re nearby an enemy or projectile. It’s an interesting risk versus reward system that isn’t explained and something I had to figure out for myself once my shots started going red and doing more damage.
Each boss at the end of each act is challenging, but fair, and you’re given 90 seconds to defeat them. It’s an odd mechanic and seems unnecessary, as that’s usually more than enough time to do so since you’re constantly shooting the whole time, but also because if you die and have to continue, the timer gets reset.
This also plays into the scoring and coin system, as you can collect coins from downed enemies to increase those high scores. When you die your score is reset to zero though, so you need to try and stay alive for a whole act if you want to attain those high scores; something easier said than done. The problem with the coin system is that a stack of coins on the screen at one time really clutters up the already minimal play space you’re given. Couple that with avoiding hundreds of projectiles and you can see where it starts to become a real challenge to stay alive in the constant chaos. With a lack of any unlockables or any sort of online leaderboard, there’s really no point to chasing high scores aside from your own bragging rights.
As for its visuals, its basic but it works. It’s clearly anime inspired but it’s an odd contrast to the sisters we see in the cutscenes versus their chibi counterparts while playing. The aesthetic is going to either win you over or make you want to avoid it and the levels themselves have some color to them, but you’re unable to appreciate them given the bullet hell chaos on screen. As for the audio, the characters aren’t voiced at all, but the soundtrack is cute and bubbly to match the character design and lighthearted narrative.
Sisters Royale offers a decent challenge with its multiple difficulties, but a very short runtime, no unlockables and lack of any progression makes it hard to recommend other than to die hard shmup fans like myself. You’re encouraged to chase for those high scores, yet there’s no online leaderboards to strive towards or show off with. Sisters Royale is a short lived experience that was fun for a couple hours, but that’s about it, even after seeing each sister’s story to conclusion.
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