The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile Review

I didn’t play The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. That game, created by actual former dishwasher James Silva won the 2007 Microsoft Dream-Build-Play competition and was a surprise hit on XBLA the same year. Having spent a day and change with The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, I deeply regret that oversight and intend to rectify it, well, pretty much the second this review is published. Vampire Smile is beautiful looking, gritty, weird as hell and extremely fun. It might be a little too unbalanced, difficulty-wise, but with two separate characters (with their own unique storyline, weapons and abilities), plenty of fun extras and, let’s be real, prodigious bloody carnage, it’s incredibly satisfying and more than worth the 800 Microsoft points – probably a better buy than any game you’ll play this year (until Uncharted 3 and Mass Effect 3, of course.)


The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile (XBox360 [Reviewed])
Developer: Ska Studios
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: April 06, 2011
MSRP: $9.99

Like its predecessor, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is a side-scrolling action platformer with beat-em-up elements and a grim atmosphere that is both creepy and adorable. Think Bad Dudes, filtered through Mega Man and Cowboy Beebop, written by a JRPG writer with a drug problem. Thanks to its beautiful, hand-drawn art style and retro aesthetic, it’s probably going to get a lot of comparisons to other XBLA stand outs like Limbo, but I kept thinking of Bulletstorm. Vampire Smile’s deliberately referential (and impressionistic) plot/setting/aesthetic, a bloody hilarious sense of humor, copious amounts of incredibly adorable bloodshed and easy to pick up play style make for a similarly awesome super fun good time.

Vampire Smile has a lot for players to enjoy. The Multiplayer mode is bare bones, but a game like this isn’t really something you buy for online free-for-all. It has XBLA and local coop, so it’s nice you can at least enjoy a game with someone in the same room. However the Single Player mode is packed with goods. Arcade Mode allows you to play through 50 levels of combat (in game settings, minus the plot and most of the extras). The only goal is to survive wave after wave of enemies using the weapons you start the game with. Dish Challenge is arcade mode turned up to 11, and endless wave of enemies until you die. Both games are worth checking out but the most variety and fun are in Story Mode.

Instead of a single storyline you choose from two different campaigns: The Dishwasher, and The Prisoner. In The Dishwasher, you play as the titular main character; in The Prisoner, you play his insane step-sister Yuki. The plot picks up from where Dead Samurai left off – this gets a little confusing since the opening references the events of the first game in brief terms, but you pick up quickly enough. Each campaign has a unique story that occurs separately, but is intertwined with the other campaign, and the two games intersect at key points in the story. In each campaign, you’ll get incredible character specific weapons, like The Dishwasher’s ‘Guillotine’ sword (a giant pair of scissors) and Ross Lincoln Award winner for Best Weapon Name, the ‘Violence Hammer’, a sledge hammer wrapped in barbed wire and topped with spikes, or Yuki’s machine arm with both an SMG and a chainsaw attachment.

The main thing you need to take away from this review is that you’ll be treated to a non-stop symphony of pure, hilarious violence. Kill moves include ramming an enemy into the ground from the air, literally snipping their heads off with scissors, biting their necks open, sawing them in half with your chain saw, even ripping them limb from limb. The screen is painted with blood and gore during combat, your swords remain bloody after use, and any room in which you’ve killed a bunch of enemies remains covered in viscera for the rest of the game.

There’s also a seemingly endless chain of extremely old school and extremely cool enemies, like a samurai with a squid for a head, robots who looks like Peter Criss, and zombie skinheads who appear to have overrun a lunar punk club; Bosses include cyborg demons, and one memorable level we won’t spoil that simulates the experience of being controlled by a psychic hilariously. It’s an old joke about the history of gaming but one that never seems to get old no matter how many times developers tell it.

Each campaign also comes with some unique magical power ups, which use the in-game inventory system to excellent effect. For some reason a few reviewers have complained about the inventory system but I found it simple, straightforward and easy to use. Inventory items like weapons and magic powers/items are earned during combat; others like food and other hp restoratives can be purchased from vending machine robots using the coins you collect from vanquished enemies. During combat you access the inventory via the <| button on your controller. You can assign talismans with various benefits, choose which weapons you'll use and access your power up items easily. In game controls are also a breeze - in fact it's no overstatement to say that it would be difficult to make a game with so many button options that's easier to pick up. Weapon select, magic use, kill moves and standard combat are all simple and satisfying. It might feel a bit like a button-masher, since each button has one main function and one default - no Capcom style Enigma coding needed to pull off special moves - but we can't complain at all.

There’s so much more, like the hilarious, out-of-nowhere guitar hero mini games found in hidden places during The Dishwasher campaign. Overall, it’s an exceptional, nearly flawless little game with old school charm and heart and brains to match. Which is why it’s a shame that for a game with so much that is so deliciously right, it’s so unbalanced.

Endless fun? yes, almost. But it’s just too easy, until it’s suddenly (temporarily) so difficult it stops being fun at all. In main levels, normal, mook-level enemies just zerg rush at you NES style. They have their unique moves and require different strategies, but they’re very easy to kill. Not surprising since the point is to see the insane killing moves but the effect is hampered about halfway through, when the game it turns into nothing but levels you breeze through, capped by Bosses that take several increasingly frustrating attempts to pass. Make no mistake, some of this is intentional, and good. Given the genre we’re talking about Bosses who come at you with obvious, pattern-based attacks obscured by dozens of henchmen. Once you figure out the pattern, attacking them is snap. It’s also a nice throwback when you suddenly run out of new sources of food and power up items just before entering a level with several Bosses in a row. But even taking this into account there’s some annoying fake difficulty. For instance, more than once I used my power ups against, and then was killed by, a Boss only to find that when I continued, they were as powerful as ever but my power-ups remained expended (this forced me to restart the level instead of the battle). As it happened in only 3 instances, it might have been a glitch but it was deeply frustrating.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t want the game to be easier. I just wish it wasn’t inconsistent and unbalanced. On all difficulty levels the normal enemies are essentially sword food; only their variety keeps it from getting boring. But when you breeze through level after level enjoying the fantastic carnage you build up a sense of momentum. Having that feeling interrupted by an out of proportion increase in difficulty feels less like a challenge and more like being c*ckblocked. You’ll quickly get used to the weird difficulty dissonance, but it would have been nice not to have to think about it. The lack of consistent difficulty by no means ruins the game, but it should have been noted because it slightly wears away some of Vampire Smile’s considerable charm.

But only some of it. I just can’t stay mad at a game that lets you decapitate a robot with a Katana, and the robot bleeds. Difficulty issues aside, Vampire Smile is just so. very. right.

Pros:

* Beautiful (and creepy-cute) aesthetics/graphics.
* Action packed.
* Mind-blowing carnage, incredible weapons.
* Hilarious, inventive enemies.
* Varied weapons, powerups, kill-moves and enemies
* Useful, simple, old school inventory system.
* High replay value, thanks to excellent mini games and extras, funny achievements, intertwined stories and dual single player campaign.

Cons:

* Unbalanced difficulty.
* Story might be confusing for the unfamiliar.

Final Score: 90/100

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