As he approaches the enemy with sword in hand, our protagonist contemplates the manner in which the ensuing dismemberment will play out. Does he gouge the eyes out first? Or go straight into a clean decapitation? How about drilling a chainsaw through the abdomen after a nice sprinkling of bullets? Welcome children, to the encapsulating universe of The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile. It's brutal, relentless, disturbing and utterly amazing from start to finish. James Silva's vision, the boss behind The Dishwasher, wasn't an instant hit in 2009. Dead Samurai was a flawed experiment, but we're happy to report that Vampire Smile uses that original formula, improves upon it, and injects a concoction of sickness never before seen.
Picking up where Dead Samuria left off, Vampire Smile begins in a very familiar zone. The little maniac who gave up his day job to pursue a life of murder, returns to slash his way around levels filled with endlessly challenging foes. Comic book panels are still the preferred method to deliver the story, except now they work well. Where the story lacked first time around, Vampire Smile excels with the introduction of Yuki, the main character's sister. Her journey is terrifying, delving into psychological trauma as she continues along a road to revenge. The story can be extremely harrowing in places, when Yuki's mind drifts back to her time spent in therapy, fighting off inner demons and running away from her greatest fears. We're not trying to undermine the importance of The Dishwasher himself, but his story (much improved over the first), is overshadowed by Yuki's insanity driven escapades. Two crazy stories in one crazy game, and with the same black humour carried over, Vampire Smile surpasses its predecessor and provides a creepy tale surrounded by lunacy.
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile was never designed to engage through its narrative, that really has nothing to do with why this game is so damn good. It's about the gameplay. Most importantly, and it was a big complaint in 2009, the difficulty curve has been smoothed out. You won't be smashed into the ground in the same way as before, although Vampire Smile will keep you alert, so any lapse in concentration will result in death. We'd recommend starting off on Normal before moving up the ladder, it's not a walk in the park, but there's always new weapons and new techniques introduced to help you along. That's when Vampire Smile is in its element - variety. Within the first hour of gameplay, Yuki can use a couple of blades, a chainsaw and a machine gun. Swapping between each is quick and easy with intuitive controls. Both the shoulder buttons and triggers are used for changing items and starting a chain of destruction. The right analogue stick helps you move around the environment with lightning fast dashes, boosting the intensity. Bayonetta would be proud; the combat is deep and satisfying, constantly changing with syringes, magic and shotguns...and never dipping in quality.
Vampire Smile is extremely violent, easily one of the bloodiest games on any platform. The manner in which enemies are dismantled is incredible, rewarding players for combining the various death tools at their disposal. Unlike Dead Samurai, the enemies here are more varied. The suited goons are updated, but you'll have to deal with newer enemies which crop up faster than anticipated. Inside one level, it's possible to encounter a couple of fresh faces (mechanical or otherwise), and it greatly improves the overall pace of the game, alleviating any drastic jumps in difficulty. The only real fault throughout the entire game is a teeny tiny issue that we had with the bosses. They're all completely bonkers and twisted, but they don't require any special tactics. Ripping into their skulls is met with enormous satisfaction, then again, either character will be dashing and slashing as if it were a normal encounter. Gratefully, the combat is still very rewarding through fresh ideas and an upgrade system that, while not entirely necessary, does up the ante.
Of course, the most striking part of Vampire Smile is the look. Dead Samurai was reasonable, relying on its uniqueness more than anything else. But here, Vampire Smile is a wild mix of dark tones splashed with vibrant red. This is one of the prettiest indie games around, not just on the Xbox Live Arcade. From an artist's point of view, the game is gorgeous and gives the impression that you're playing inside a living comic book. The design, both conceptually and technically, is terrific. Just look at the screenshots. Each level has secret areas for you to discover (hint: run up along every wall), unlocking bonuses and giving you a chance to bang your head to some metal tunes. Vampire Smile is a cluster of many genres that shouldn't work, but somehow, it does. For every guitar riff that's played, there's a chilling melody to go along with Yuki's history and a chopped limb or ten. It mightn't work on paper, but boy does it work in code.
Now for the moment of truth and a question of time. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile only costs 800 MSP (AU$13), and for that price you get two interlinked stories that never outstay their welcome. They'll take a few hours each to complete, but that won't be enough. As soon as the next difficultly is available, you'll want to see if you can handle a more tenacious version of what you just experienced. For reviewers like us, there's a 'Pretty Princess' achievement that allows you to play a tame Vampire Smile. It's very tongue-in-cheek, but that's why we love it. Then you have the leaderboards to see if you can outclass your friends. If that wasn't enough, there's also an Arcade mode and co-operative play (local and online). Whether you want instant bloody gratification, or even if you're a masochist who wants to be punished, there's plenty to keep you entertained and glued to the screen.
Vampire Smile is essential for every Xbox 360 owner who can stomach its gory, never-ending assault on the mind. James Silva and his team have created a stunning little game, one that fixes every complaint from the original, only to suffer a minor mishap during some of the boss sequences. Apart from that, we can't fault it. You're getting a better balanced, a more refined and a far superior product. It's an unforgettable journey into the weird and wonderful world of two mentally ill characters, and possibly the best indie game since Limbo. After playing it, we only have one question, how the hell wasn't this banned?