Awesome 2D Hack n' Slash is Awesome
If you still have an inner 13 year old, you'll LOVE this game. If you're 13 years old you're also likely to love this game. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is an excessively emo hack n' slash n' rip n' tear game that because of its art style, you might be embarrassed to admit you like. But if you enjoy really fast action games which make your thumbs scream for mercy then you'll love this game even if you're an adult who thinks they're too old to enjoy something so emo looking.
Vampire Smile is the sequel to "The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai" which was an indie game made by one guy, James Silva who won Microsoft's "Dream-Build-Play" contest. The winners got funding and their game published on the Xbox Live Arcade Marketplace. He's certainly not actually 13 years old, but he's definitely in touch with that side of him. Vampire improves a lot on the original's gameplay and art, but Ska Studios is still only three people in a basement.
The story is told via comic book cutscenes between levels, but there's not too much to it. It's a simple revenge story with some evil cyborgs taking over, corrupt people in positions of power, a corrupt government etc. The story is told from the perspective of The Dishwasher or Yuki The Prisoner. The thing that I had trouble reconciling was whether or not the game was being ironic with its over the top dark, emo, angsty Jhonen Vasquez, Hot Topic mentality and language. The art will probably be very divisive because some gamers might be too turned off by anything emo to give it a fair shake. If they like action games then it's their loss.
Everything in the game artistically is in line with what you'd expect. Silly dialogue about life, death, evil, darkness and cleansing it all via killing. This is mixed in with occasional cute things and also old school video game references (many of which are actually pretty funny). Yet despite the utter seriousness of the storytelling, the small tutorial prompts from the game are quite perky with exclamations to not forget to just have fun! It's clear that Mr. Silva just wants you to enjoy the game and would prefer you play this game with a smile on your face rather than your face covered in white makeup and bangs covering one (or both?) of your eyes.
Boiled down, the game is going into a room, the doors locking behind you and fighting until all the enemies are dead. Sometimes there's a key you need to get past a certain area but there's no puzzle solving or platforming. There's some very light exploration you can do to find hidden items, but they're usually not too far away. The reason you want to play this game is for the fighting, and if you don't like that then it won't do much for you.
While playing I couldn't help but think that this is kind of the game that I had hoped Shank would be which is like a 2D Devil May Cry. They have many things in common such as brutal melee combat, a variety of weapons, air juggling, quick time events, boss battles and gore. The difference being that Shank got rather boring after a while, the enemies lacked variety, the action wasn't as fast or precise and the boss battles could get boring or very monotonous.
In Vampire Smile you have several abilities and weapons that you gradually unlock. You have light and heavy attacks, grabs, a quick dodge ability, magic and guns. Also you have light and heavy weapons which you can change on the fly to mix up combos. If you're playing Yuki, you can only grab when wielding light weapons, and The Dishwasher can't dodge as fast when carrying heavy weapons. The combat is very air juggling focused and makes it very easy to do with a few simple button presses. When an enemy has been sufficiently pummeled, blue sparks start coming out of them and button prompts below your character start flashing. Depending on which you press you might rip the guy's limbs off, do a quick samurai style slash, stick a chainsaw in their chest, bite their neck, or slam their head into a wall etc. There are a lot of finishing move animations that vary based on the weapons you use or your proximity to the walls or floor. The variety of animations really do a great job of keeping the combat from feeling repetitive.
There are a lot of other moves in the game which are key to its speed and tight control. The right thumbstick controls the dodge/fly move which lets you zoom in any direction and stay in the air indefinitely. This move is key to getting behind enemies, dodging fast enemies and avoiding boss battle attacks which threaten to remove half your life bar. Pretty soon you'll find yourself zooming all around the screen air juggling and grabbing enemies without even hitting the ground.
There are a lot of manga style speed lines in this game and during these finishing moves, the camera zooms in moving frenetically with a lot of motion blur which makes these gory endings that much more horrific. Oh, and satisfying. Very satisfying. Certain enemies when ripped apart in this bloody fashion give you health hearts which heal you, so it's very important especially in later levels that you finish enemies off because it's the most accessible way to heal.
The gore and violence in this game is reminiscent of God of War which also feels like it was written by a 13 year old but without the emo goth art style. I dare say that Vampire Smile is the best "I just had a bad day, I hate this person, I need to vent some frustration" game I've ever played. Quickly zipping from enemy to enemy tearing limbs, spewing blood with punctuations of death animations is incredibly exhilarating. It helps in no small part that the sound effects are equally brutal and bring the animations and weapons to life.
I read that the James Silva loves Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry and even disregarding the moves deliberately taken from those games the influence really shows. The difference being that I totally suck at those games and can't for the life of me do interesting combos because it requires me not only memorizing the move button combos but then combining them in an interesting fashion. Vampire Smile's controls are simple and intuitive enough that I can do amazing looking moves and know that it's not just button mashing despite the ferocity with which I mash away. It's not often in a game like this where I get tired of my one combo and feel like experimenting while playing.
The difficulty on normal felt just about right. There were a few bosses that I had to play over and over and over, but usually the solution was to calm down, mash the buttons less, pay attention to the boss patterns and dodge. One complaint I have is you can't skip each boss' intro title card when the boss checkpoint restarts. This got really annoying when I had to make several attempts before beating the boss. Other than that, the game has very good checkpointing so I rarely got truly frustrated.
Enemies in the game are surprisingly varied. Some are merely stronger iterations of earlier enemies, but a lot of them have entirely different behaviors and require different approaches to killing. This gets especially interesting when you have a combination of enemies in one room all of which behave differently. There are also a lot of boss battles all of which feel quite different. The balance of difficulty in boss battles go up and down a lot. Sometimes I'd have a lot of trouble with one boss, only to beat the next one very easily.
The game also has an upgrade system where you can increase your health, magic and the amount of damage your weapons inflict. These carry over between game modes which is very nice. There are some items you can use to restore health and magic and also equippable items that buff or defend your from specific enemies or weapons. I didn't perceive much difference when using any of these or the upgrades mostly because combat is so fast, most enemies don't have health bars, and you don't usually have time to pay attention to how much quicker an enemy goes down during an encounter.
Other game modes include an arcade mode which consists of 50 separate levels/rooms with different enemies and conditions. These are a nice change of pace because they mix up the mechanics so in one game you might need to kill enemies for more time or to restore health. Some others may require you to air combo or bite their necks to kill them. These individual levels can be finished quickly, but it's very hard to stop once you get going. The other mode is The Dishwasher Challenge which is a one life survival mode where you constantly face new waves of enemies. I have no idea how long this mode can go because I'm not yet good enough to get very far.
There're also local or online coop modes. I played some local coop which was fun, but the problem we ran into was it's really really easy to lose track of where you are especially because the game is mostly black white and red. There are some colored arrows above the players' heads but they didn't help much especially because the arrows disappear during grabs which is something you're doing quite frequently. In this mode the game smartly foregoes the tight zoom in moments since it would be much too chaotic if it zoomed in whenever any character did a finishing move.
In the single player campaign, a second player can control the crow or cat companion who can shoot lasers that stun the enemies. Eventually they can kill an enemy but it's not powerful or fast enough to be practical. The real problem is that the movement of the game is so fast that it's likely the 2nd player will spend more time looking for where they are than actually playing. Still, it's very cute.
I've already mentioned the art style, but the other thing the game has going for it is its excellent use of special effects to make things more exciting. The use of blue sparks and electricity overlayed on the 2D animation recalls Don Hertzfeldt's later films' optical film effects. There are copious clouds of blood, and occasionally blood will appear to splatter on your screen. There are also some great looking water effects which help mix up the environments and complement the artwork well.
With two completely different characters with different weapons, several game modes and a number of difficulty settings, Vampire Smile is a really terrific package. The game is exclusively on Xbox Live and sells for $10 or 800 Microsoft Points. The combat is excellently designed and a hell of a lot of fun for players of all skill levels. I sit somewhere between button masher and someone who knows what they're doing and I constantly enjoyed playing this game. I admit to rolling my eyes at every bit of the story, but the game is so much fun I didn't mind it at all. Again, if you like hack n' slash games with really fast combat, super tight controls and lots of blood then play this game! Your inner (outer?) 13 year old will thank you.