In many ways, James Silva and his Ska Studios is the poster child for indie games on the Xbox 360. When Microsoft launched its Dream Build Play competition for indie developers in 2007, Silva won with his game The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai which Microsoft published in 2009 on XBLA. And while Ska Studios has been busy on the sequel, Silva has managed to release four game for the Xbox Indie game marketplace, including the bestselling parody I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT!!!1 and the fantastic multiplayer deathmatch ZP2KX. So when The Dishwasher 2: Vampire Smile releases on XBLA this week it will mark the developer's 6th game in the last 3 years. And rather than burning out as might be expected from so many releases, Ska Studios has improved with each new game. The end result is Dishwasher 2, which very well may be one of the most polished action games since Devil May Cry 3.
The gameplay is king in Dishwasher 2, with some of the most fluid combat I've ever played. At first, the button configuration seems like a fairly generic action game. X is your light attack, Y for a heavy attack, and B grabs enemies. But everything changed when I realized one simple deviation: I could now cancel a grab with either attack button. You see, grabbing an enemy in Dishwasher 2 normally sends you and the enemy flying into the air and pounding the foe into the ground. But by cancelling a grab, I could now continue my combo in midair, grab it again, combo again, and continue doing this four or more times before the enemy exploded into a red mist. Combine this new aerial freedom with the right stick, which performs a dash in any direction, and I was suddenly grabbing, throwing, dashing, and comboing with the greatest of ease. Then throw in a machine gun using the right trigger, magic with the left trigger, and five unique weapons for each character that can be swapped at any time for even more combos, and combat becomes an absolute joy to play. I didn't think I'd ever say this about a game, but I was actually sad when enemies stopped spawning into a room; the combat and combo system is just that fun. Can you remember any other action game where that happens? I can't. Kratos and Dante wish their combat and combos were so fun, fluid, and frantic.
Just because the combat is so versatile though, that doesn't mean the game is easy by any means. Pulling off 100+ hit combos is fun in the easier difficulty settings, but an absolute necessity for survival on the harder settings. However, because I had so many combat options and the life-saving right stick dash available to me at any time, when I did die, which was often, I always knew very clearly that it was from a mistake on my part. The game is punishingly difficult, but also remarkably fair; a delicate balance that the first game didn't achieve and has now been nearly perfected in the sequel. I really cannot stress enough how essential that right stick dash is though. By the end of the game I had almost completely forgotten about the standard jump button, because it was always far quicker and more useful to simply dash into the air in whichever direction I desired.
The story follows two characters, the titular Dishwasher and his cyber-ninja prisoner stepsister Yuki. No, the story doesn't make any real sense, but once I was caught up in the action that no longer mattered. Right up until the end, each new level brought a new breed of insanity that I was sure couldn't be topped, only to find something even more outlandish in the next level. The red mist from defeated zombies, ninjas, robots, and everything in-between soon lead to a constant stream of progressively twisted bosses. And then there are samurai moths, sharks with robot legs, and...well, I don't want to give all of the surprises away. Suffice it to say that in the long history of videogame elevators, Dishwasher 2 tops them all. Yes, that includes Turtles in Time.
And yet with the game's story taking a backseat to the action, it also has some of the most brilliant storytelling mechanics in gaming. I am speaking, of course, of the game's nightmare sequences. These only occur during Yuki's campaign (which I highly recommend playing first) and are exactly the kind of storytelling that videogames can do best. Again, I don't want to give the specifics away, but in terms of creating a duality between feelings of invincibility and helplessness, the nightmare sequences are nothing short of brilliant.
It helps that Dishwasher 2 is quite impressive to look at. The hand drawn black and white world looks like a maddening pencil sketch come to life. The only color comes from highlights on certain enemies and the spray of blood when one is defeated, and the effect is quite stunning. And despite the monochrome backgrounds, environments were always filled with interesting details, whether it was on a barren moonscape or an industrial complex. The violence is all ridiculously over-the-top, but those who are squeamish may take issue with the gallons of blood spilled in a matter of seconds from first starting up the game. Though, I would argue that the violence is more along the artistc lines of Killer 7 than the excessive gore of Mortal Kombat.
If there is a downside to Dishwasher 2 it is that both character campaigns traverse the same set of levels. They are very good levels, and after completing the game three times I am still not sick of them, but a fantastic recycled level is still a recycled level. It is still worth playing both stories though. The Dishwasher's campaign, after all, provides much-needed context to the events of Yuki's story. However, more importantly, each character has their own set of unique weaponry. Yuki's giant syringe and cloud sword (which the game is quick to clarify is named after clouds and bears no relation to a certain Final Fantasy character) play completely differently from the Dishwasher's giant scissors and the barb-wired mace known as the "violence hammer." Replay is also encouraged through collectable beads to augment your character and cash for weapon upgrades, both of which carry from one character's campaign to the other.
And just because the single player campaigns are completed doesn't mean that the game is done. Aside from the numerous collectables to find, completing the game once unlocks the extremely hard samurai difficulty setting and a leaderboard-based speed run mode. Then there are 50 arcade challenge levels that mix up the action with various battle conditions, such as only being able to damage enemies with aerial combos or setting your health to constantly drain and refill from defeating enemies. If you're looking for a more social experience, the entire campaign and arcade levels can also be played in co-op, either on a single system or with a friend over Xbox Live. And the whole thing is topped off with the dish challenge, a survival mode pitting players against a seemingly endless supply of enemies. As I mentioned before, I was upset whenever there was a shortage of enemies to squish, so climbing the dish challenge leaderboards quickly became my favorite diversion.
Don't get me wrong, I love games with deep character development and rich plotlines, but sometimes I just want to eviscerate a robot zombie dragon with an oversized pair of scissors. When an action game as finely tuned as Dishwasher 2 comes along, it's hard not to stand up and take notice. The Dishwasher 2: Vampire Smile easily lives up to genre greats like Devil May Cry 3, God of War, and Bayonetta. In fact, because the action is limited to a 2D plane, the argument could be made that it is superior since every action is that much more precise and there are no wonky camera angles to fight against. The fact that it was developed by a three-person team literally in someone's basement just makes it all the more impressive. Perhaps if it were a full priced retail game my excitement would be tempered, but as a $10 downloadable title, The Dishwasher 2: Vampire Smile is an action gamer's dream come true.
The Dishwasher 2: Vampire Smile releases on XBLA Wednesday April 6. A copy of the game was provided by the developer for the purposes of this review. The single player campaign was completed once with each character on normal difficulty and a third time on the Ninja difficulty setting. One level was also completed on the Samurai difficulty setting. 38 of the 50 Arcade challenge rooms were completed, and at least 2 hours have been spent on the dish challenge mode. In total the game has been played for 11 hours.