Her enemies give fruitless pursuit, haplessly swinging and shooting, their blades and bullets finding only air. Soldiers, cyborgs, nefarious government agents, zombie marines; she liquifies them all. A last, lonely ninja hobbles towards her, his katana waving impotently. She lets out a roar and leaps on him, rending his flesh with her bare hands.
She collapses, bathed in their blood, and the nightmares wash over her again.
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is the sequel to James Silva's 2008 indie XBLA hit The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. Silva's story is well known among the independent development community: In 2007, the then-unknown developer (and former dishwasher) won Microsoft's Dream-Build-Play XNA competition and used the $10,000 in prize money to single-handedly release Dead Samurai, which went on to gain a cult following and critical acclaim.
In the three years since that game's release, Silva has clearly been hard at work iterating and improving on his initial design. Vampire Smile boasts what appears to be an entirely new game engine, as well as significantly dialed-up gameplay, local and online co-op, and a wider, more accessible range of difficulty levels. From the menus to the cutscenes, every aspect of the game is polished, stylish and slick.
Vampire Smile sports two solo campaigns for players to choose from. Sure, they can reprise the role of The Dishwasher, picking up his story in the aftermath of the first game's apocalyptic finale. But the real star of Vampire Smile is Yuki, The Dishwasher's prodigal stepsister and the default protagonist of the game's narrative. With a slouched, sullen demeanor and curly black hair hanging over her eyes, Yuki channels the now-clichéd "dark-haired creepy J-horror girl" archetype, though thankfully retains some of her own identity as well. That's largely due to the endearingly goofy touches at the margins of her character -- her gleeful embrace of new magical powers, her giant electrified JRPG "Cloud Sword," her flying feline familiar Paka, and the gatling-gun/chainsaw attachment that she wears in place of her severed arm.
Vampire Smile's story is a mess, but a cool one; a vague mishmash of grindhouse kung-fu and sci-fi tropes told via appealingly Max Payne-ish manga cutscenes. It smartly keeps out of the way of the swordplay, which, of course, is where Vampire Smile tells its real story.
Its presentation is dark and oppressive, but gorgeous in its way-hand-drawn black and white characters swooping and diving through a backdrop of hazy reds and oranges, splashes of blood and water speckling the television screen.
Combat is something of a 2D take on Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, with aerial sword/gun juggling, a deep combo system, hot-swappable weapon-sets and a simple but enjoyable upgrade tree. Each of Yuki's weapons has a healthy list of available moves, and 150-hit combos become de rigueur in a matter of minutes. Enemies perform varied and complimentary attack patterns, and each scene quickly fills with zombies, G-men, spec-ops soldiers, robots, and samurai, as well as buckets upon buckets of blood and viscera. Between the flying limbs, glowing power-ups, teleporting enemies, exploding rockets and gouts of arterial spray, things quickly become crowded and visually cacophonous. So it's a good thing that controlling Yuki is a total breeze.
That's due in large part to her "blood warp" ability -- with a flick of the right thumbstick, she becomes intangible and teleports several body-lengths in any direction. There is no constraint placed on its use, and as a result Yuki can ... well, Yuki can basically fly. It's phenomenally empowering, and the only limit to a player's attack strategy is his or her imagination. Vampire Smile's overall mechanical rhythm lacks the precise brilliance of Super Meat Boy or the terpsichorean grace of Bayonetta, but it remains frantically, savagely enjoyable.
Yuki's solo campaign covers 13 different levels, each one featuring loads of bloody action and some brilliant surprises that I wouldn't dare spoil. And though the campaign is plenty meaty on its own, it is but a fraction of the full experience. As I mentioned earlier, players can also go through the bulk of the story as The Dishwasher, playing the same levels and bosses but with different cutscenes, weapons and combat abilities. Vampire Smile also boasts an appropriately addictive arcade mode, which puts players through the leaderboard gauntlet over a varied list of locations from the campaign. There are also speed-run and dish challenge modes, as well as a full co-op mode, which allows two players to tackle arcade mode or take on the full campaign locally or via Xbox Live.
I could go on. I mean, one enemy appears to be a shark-head sewn atop a pair of giant robot legs; it lumbers about like an AT-ST and shoots rockets. Rockets! But at the risk of going further over my word count than I already have, I'll just say that The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is a brilliantly executed, whirling dervish of a game that all but demands to be ripped open and played to death. Grab your kitty-cat, gas up your chainsaw-arm and sharpen your blades. It's gonna be a bloodbath.
This review is based on the final Xbox Live Arcade version of The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, provided by Ska.
Kirk Hamilton is a musician and writer in San Francisco. He is the games editor for Paste Magazine and writes about games, music and culture for a variety of publications. He can be found online at kirkhamilton.com and on twitter @kirkhamilton.