Ah, the humble dishwasher… Perhaps not often considered to be among life’s “winners”, their thankless lot in existence is to clean the leftover dregs from other people’s dinner plates and the closest many of them get to fifty-quid-a-plateful caviar is dunking it into a bowl of scolding suds and scrubbing it clean… Well, not so the nameless protagonist of James Silva’s hyper-violent side-scrolling beat-em-up, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai.
Himself a scrubber of chinaware at the time of inspiration, Mr. Silva apparently went on to develop the game based on the ethos that dishwashers don’t get enough respect. The game won him the $10,000 prize in Microsoft’s Dream, Build, Play contest, along with an XBLA publishing contract. With its unique, nightmarish art style, frantic and well-paced combat and surprisingly compelling protagonist, Dead Samurai became something of a cult hit.
The sequel follows on almost directly from the end of the first game. Having defeated an army of cyborg invaders with the help of his mentor, Chef, the Dishwasher vows to use his otherworldly samurai powers to always fight evil. Troubled over the apparent death of his stepsister Yuki by his own hand, he has relocated to the moon following the annihilation of Earth by fire – an act perpetrated by the Dishwasher and Chef in an attempt to wipe out the cyborg scourge, but blamed on the mysteriously-revived Yuki, and the reason for her subsequent incarceration in the Iffenhaus Space Prison.
The game is split into two separate narratives, one following the Dishwasher and the other following Yuki in their respective quests. As Yuki battles against her own nightmares and the machinations of an enigmatic, demonic villain known as the Creeper, the Dishwasher follows her bloody trail of destruction towards a confrontation that will change them both forever. At first glance the story might seem complicated, but the simple, comic-book style cut scenes and straightforward progression make it much more accessible.
Besides which, Vampire Smile’s story takes a back seat to its sublime action and combat. Largely unchanged since Dead Samurai, combat remains a mix of light, heavy and grab attacks, superfast combos and brutal violence. A suitably eclectic arsenal of over the top weapons like the Violence Hammer and Guillotine (an over-sized pair of scissors) combined with submachine guns (side arms are now mapped to the right trigger to make ranged attacks easier and quicker) and screen-clearing magic attacks to elevate the combat to a level of quality surpassing a great deal of full-priced retail games. The enemies come thick and fast, and on higher difficulties if you don’t get good you’ll only get dead – but at all times the combat is well balanced and fair; enemies employ the occasional cheap tactic, but even these can be countered by quick reflexes and a mastery of Yuki and the Dishwasher’s moves list.
Although the playstyle doesn’t vary much between the Dishwasher and Yuki, they handle just differently enough to warrant a split narrative, and Silva has done an amazing job of differing the atmosphere between stories. Yuki’s game is far more oppressive, the nightmare sections bringing a genuinely creepy edge to proceedings. In contrast to Yuki’s desperate, psychotic rage, the Dishwasher’s more controlled, confident personality makes for a welcome change of pace – and vice versa, obviously.
In addition to the main game, the Guitar Hero-style rhythm game returns at various points during the Dishwasher’s story, rewarding the nimble-fingered either with money to buy upgrades, or “Ghost Beads”, a new addition to the sequel which can be equipped to provide various buffs such as health regeneration and increased damage.
The introduction of Yuki also paves way for the all-new co-op mode, a hugely-entertaining and wonderfully tight mode of play. The flow and speed of the game lends itself perfectly to co-operative play, while the fact that the narrative acknowledges the inclusion of both characters in slightly reconfigured cut-scenes and levels gives it a depth missing from similar modes in other games. Brilliantly, two additional players can join the game to control either the Dishwasher’s pet raven or Yuki’s cat, essentially making it a four-player experience. Add in the Arcade and Dish Challenge modes and there’s tremendous value for money here.
A finely-crafted, lovingly-made side-scroller with more twisted charm than pretty much anything else available from Xbox LIVE, it's hard to find real fault with Vampire Smile. Sometimes it’s hard to follow exactly which button is doing what when it comes to magic, it’s easy to lose track of your life bar and have it leach to zero in seconds flat, and on the odd occasion the continuous grey backdrops can make navigation confusing when you have to backtrack – especially given that the protagonists have to run up vertical surfaces, drop through the floor or spring off walls to reach certain areas. But these complaints are minor – petty, even, given Vampire Smile’s incredible appeal.
Although the graphics remain mostly the same as they were in Dead Samurai, they now flow smoother and a host of new animations and brutal, weapon-specific finishing moves add further depth and rhythm. Excessively gory (but in a good way), uber-violent, dizzyingly fast and unremittingly charming, this is a dark and compelling sequel that does exactly what you want it to by keeping everything that made the original likeable and adding heaps more weapons, enemies, pick-ups and moves.
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is one of the best Arcade titles of the year so far, and one unlikely to be surpassed by many other releases in 2011. Its mix of pure arcade fun and pitch-perfect difficulty, likably-sinister art direction, complimentary angry-rock soundtrack and wallet-pleasing lifespan make it a must for anyone with a connection to Xbox LIVE. In a word: essential.