I always enjoy a good origin story. Nothing makes a character or setting better than knowing where it came from, or what inspired the ideas and concepts of something moving forward. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is a crazy example of what happens when a simple concept that began in a kitchen over a decade ago comes to full fruition. First as an off-hand comment about Bruce Lee, then an XBLA exclusive, and now a Steam powered monstrosity that completely stole my weekend.
The Dishwasher is a batshit insane story about moon bases, resurrection via alien blood and a post-apocalyptic government that, naturally, is corrupt. For those unaware, this is a sequel to the 2009 XBLA title, but you absolutely do not need to have played the original, as a very brief set of flashbacks set the stage and explain…a bit. I’ll be honest, I was initially a bit lost, but I got over that very quickly as I realized it didn’t impact how I was playing at all. In fact, not knowing who some of the characters were made the reveals that happen in two separate storylines much more satisfying. And the two do work in collaboration with each other, but have totally separate endings that are intertwined and, as such, require you to beat the game with two different characters if you want to “understand” everything.
So, what is the game? The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is a 2D, side-scrolling, ultraviolent beat-em-up. You simply cannot, should not stop moving and comboing in order to stay alive. Despite no apparent leveling system, you unlock more weapons and spells as the game moves on, which gives you even further versatility in the destruction that you dispense. To simplify, you get a fast melee weapon, a slower, more powerful melee weapon, a ranged attack, magic, the ability to grab enemies and the chance to execute a sort of fatality if you get them in just the right position. Similar to Ska Studios other game, Salt and Sanctuary, bosses and other large problems need to be understood in order to be beaten, or you’ll simply get your day wrecked over and over again. On easier difficulties, you can enjoy the mindless violence, but anything higher than normal means getting into a serious combo flow and not missing a beat. It’s delightfully enjoyable.
At first, I wasn’t a huge fan of the super dark and gritty appearance, but The Dishwasher really grew on me in terms of aesthetics. Between the action, scenes are expounded upon with graphic novel-esque exposition, and it finally clicked with me that everything looked and felt like a Dark Horse comic. If things ever seemed too cartoony, it’s because it exists to directly juxtapose with the gore and madness that unfolds. I especially like the way the bosses appear, as they are truly horrifying and stand out like kings of abomination amongst an army of the damned. Any appearance of colors outside of black or red really jump out at you and impress importance or power. Magic goes through a gamut of hues, and coins – tiny, golden blips on a barren landscape – call out to you even among a pile of corpses.
The coins, by the way, are the closest thing you’ll find to an upgrade system. Unlike the aforementioned Salt and Sanctuary, Dishwasher relies on you to work with what you have and what you find. You have a chance to save up cash to either buy items to heal you or increase you weapons damage, but it’s possible and probable to get from start to finish without needing to buy a power up. However, if you get a chance, do a little digging around the levels for extra coins and hidden items. An early musical mini game that I stumbled upon gave an item that increased damage vs the undead and, good news, there’s a lot of zombies about. Items may be a make or break depending on your difficulty and which stage, so, for the smoothest run, be sure to grab what you can and do a little exploration.
Despite the nature of Dishwasher, you might not be as interested in the arcade attack and Dish Mode as the main storyline. Although I understand the Dishwasher’s story is considered the “main” storyline, I was absolutely fascinated and enraptured with The Prisoner’s storyline. Besides having a chainsaw hand and a flying demon kitty companion, her story unfolds in a series of mental cuts into other realities that reminded me of Sucker Punch (in a good way, trust me). It was significantly more dark and psychological than the Dishwasher’s story, but enjoying both was key to having that “Oh damn” moment at the end of both games.
The soundtrack, to Ska Studios’ credit, really fits in perfectly with the world of the game. It floats somewhere between dark electronic and ambient industrial, and, from the barren exterior to the cog and wires of the interior of many buildings, it was important to craft the atmosphere for what was happening and what I was able to experience. There were only a couple of moments when the score felt a little quirky and out of place that took me out of the game, but those seemed to pass quickly and didn’t happen often.
You may also need to take some time and break from The Dishwasher to get maximum enjoyment out of the game as well. There’s certainly enough variety in the stage builds and the bosses, but the grunts in-between can feel tedious if you’ve been playing for a while and you start to rely more on muscle memory than actually playing. A game should never be a chore or monotonous, so I opted to give myself a few extended breaks here and there to relax my cramping thumbs and replenish, and it helped keep the action fresh and exciting.
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is an amazing followup to a nearly eight year old game, and I truly applaud Ska Studio for making it and giving it a huge follow through and tune up from the original. Though it might seem a little plain in comparison to Salt and Sanctuary’s customization and stat system, I feel it stands proudly on it’s own with a great amount of action, a memorable cast of protagonists and villains and some eye-popping storytelling. Fans who get sucked into the combat will find tons of replay value at the higher difficulties and the arcade mode, while one-and-done fans will still strap in for the maddening plot line. If Bruce Lee was once a dishwasher who rose to international acclaim, then Ska Studios may yet becomes an eternal juggernaut of gaming.