The title of this playtest is taken from the first piece of advice in the game’s "How to Play" menu. In a way, that describes the game better than I ever could.
Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is about, despite the comic book style cutscenes in every level. Apparently, the titular Dishwasher blew up the Earth in the previous game because it was overrun by cyborgs and zombies, and so this game takes place on the moon. Unfortunately, the cyborg/zombie menace followed the Dishwasher to the moon, and this post-apocalyptic society was recreated, and the Dishwasher (who is also an undead samurai) decides he needs to wipe it out again.
In the meantime, the Dishwasher’s stepsister, Yuki, (who the Dishwasher apparently killed in a ninja/samurai battle, but who was returned to life as a vampire by some random demon) was accused of the crime of blowing up the Earth and held in a floating space-prison just above the moon. She escapes and decides to get some revenge on the people who imprisoned her, but not before getting her arm cut off and replaced with a chainsaw/chaingun.
Yeah, I don’t get it either.
What I do get is the combat. The Dishwasher and Yuki both attack using the traditional action game quick/heavy/grab attack setup, mapped to X/Y/B. Each character can hold up to four melee weapons at a time between two loadouts. Two weapons can be equipped per loadout, and they’re swappable mid-combo by pressing the right bumper, and loadouts can be swapped with the left bumper. Each weapon not only has its own look and attack style, but its own dodge move, mapped to the right stick. For instance, the Shift Blade is a relatively straightforward katana, but it allows you to teleport freely through the air and across the ground like Nightcrawler from the X-men.
The Violence Hammer, on the other hand allows the Dishwasher to roll along the ground and follow up rolls with a heavy attack, but takes away the Dishwasher’s ability to fly freely through the air. Dashing at an enemy will place you at exactly the right distance to attack them too, which makes combos much easier, particularly if when they take to the air. Both characters have guns as well. Used with the right trigger, they can be fired in multiple directions and are remarkably handy when enemies teleport or attack from above you.
The grab button can be used to grab and impale enemies, toss them into the air, or piledrive them out of it. Even grabs can be chained together. After a launcher, the Dishwasher can bounce enemies repeatedly off of the ground to continue an air combo or lead up to an Izuna Drop to finish an enemy off.
Speaking of finishers, when an enemy has been weakened enough, the buttons for any available finishing moves will flash below the character. Finishers range from grabs that impale a single enemy to vampire-style neck-bites to dashes that behead entire groups. I’d describe them in more detail, but frankly, with the primarily monochrome color scheme and the blood splattering all over the screen and walls, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on a lot of the time. Since finishers are quite common, the game can almost become a sensory overload.
However, when you finally overcome the sheer amount of visual noise onscreen, Vampire Smile’s elegance reveals itself. Combat almost becomes a dance. Darting in and out of groups of enemies and hitting four or five at once with single swings of the Violence Hammer, before dodging back out to use the Guillotine (essentially a giant pair of separable scissors) to weaken a single heavily armored enemy, shooting a jetpacking foe out of the air, and launching another skyward to start an air combo feels both fluid and rewarding. As the screen is generally filled with enemies, learning to prioritize them to fight more efficiently becomes a matter of survival.
You might see an enemy zombie with a grenade that it intends to rush you with, a pistol-wielding cyborg in a suit, and a giant robot samurai all surrounding you. Do you eliminate the weak zombie first, since it can do the most damage in a single attack? Dash over and take out the guy with the pistol to avoid any long range damage? Dodge behind the samurai to trick the grenade zombie into exploding on him (oh yeah, enemy attacks hurt each other in this game!) to open him up to a life-ending grab attack?
Also, on the off chance you don’t want to think, you can use "Dish Magic," screen clearing spells that cost a magic skull. The spells (activated with the left trigger and a face button) can shoot lighting at everything on the screen, pick up and eat people, slash things to bits, or steal health from the enemies around you. These abilities are generally visually spectacular, and are helpful when you’re surrounded or low on health.
An action game is nothing without its bosses, and Vampire Smile’s bosses are a special type of ridiculous. The first giant boss fought in the game is named Goreface. He’s (she’s?) a giant mound of rotting flesh that spits zombies at you. I’m not kidding, the thing spits like five zombies out of its mouth at a time, that have to be dodged or destroyed in order to approach and attack it. The weirdness just kind of build from there. You’ll fight fire breathing living tanks, grim reapers, prison wardens, and hockey players by the time the game is though.
One of my personal favorites (from a visual perspective anyway; this guy killed me like five times) was Murderfly: a giant butterfly with a skull for a head that’s holding a giant knife. Seriously. Just take a moment to process that. There’s another boss encounter that I love that’s fought in a wildly cool and unexpected way, but I’d feel bad spoiling it for you. Let’s just say there are some shades of Psycho Mantis in the fight.
I’ve spent the majority of this playtest just talking about the gameplay, but it would be derelict of me not to at least briefly mention the game’s aesthetics. Drawing heavy inspiration from the Crow (the Dishwasher even has a crow that follows him around), the Dishwasher: Vampire Smile has a very distinctive, mostly black-and-white art style that almost looks as though the sprites were sketched onto the screen. The music has sort of a grim, grungy sound. It’s just ominous ambiance when you’re walking alone through the industrial and urban environments, but the guitars and piano kick in when a battle starts. The overall effect works really well, and the keys definitely help the battle music stand out from similar tracks in the genre.
Yuki and the Dishwasher each have their own variations on the battle theme as well, which is awesome. In addition, you’ll occasionally come across guitars and amps that the Dishwasher can play guitar solos on. These segments start a little rhythm game, and are cool little changes of pace from the general chaos. Besides, they’re pretty pleasing to the ear.
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is practically everything I love about action gaming. The art style is distinct, the music is great, it’s challenging, and, most importantly, the game is just fun. Sure, the story doesn’t make any sense, but fun can be enough to carry a game. Sometimes, you just need to kill stuff and not die.
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile releases on Xbox Live Arcade on April 6th.
Food for thought:
1. Although the story is pretty inconsequential, there are three different routes to take. One with the Dishwasher (which I started with), one with Yuki (which seems to be the main story of the game), and a coop story with both characters.
2. Alternately, if you want to ignore the story completely, there’s an arcade mode that drops you into rooms of enemies with various rules and regulations to follow. Maybe the player’s health will constantly be decreased and can be regained by killing enemies, or guns will do extra damage but most attacks are weaker. Some of the challenges are pretty tough, too.
3. The easiest difficulty setting in the game is "pretty princess mode." When you choose this difficulty, the screen will be filled with hearts, and enemies will spray hearts instead of blood. I actually found this more disturbing than just the blood.
4. This game has ZOMBIE SHARKS ON ROBOT LEGS in it. I just thought I should mention it.