The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was a fun action game, but it didn't possess the spark and vision that could have made it special. Enter its sequel, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, a beautiful and bleak thrill ride that capitalizes on the original's potential to fantastic effect. Smooth controls and animations make the combat feel better than before, and online and offline cooperative play makes it even easier to enjoy this brutal 2D action game with another player. Even more than its predecessor, Vampire Smile possesses a strong identity, settling into a murky mood that befits the ghastly decapitations you perform. So it might be the game's grim tone that first draws you in, but it's the exciting action will keep you coming back.
That grim tone is initially set by Vampire Smile's outstanding visuals. Saturated reds and greens stand out against black and white backdrops, the cragged hand-drawn mountains in the distance imbuing the scene with a sense of depth. Splats of blood stain the ground, where masses of deformed skulls speak to the horrors that have occurred on this lunar landscape. Eerie silhouettes of menacing marine creatures give the gruesome battle playing out in front of an aquarium an even deeper sense of danger. Each level is given context by handsome comic panels that often show either of the two playable characters in close-up, bathed in blood and driven by revenge. But story isn't limited to pre-level comics; in certain moments, the level transforms and you slowly crawl toward a chair or run from a pursuing fiend. These sudden flashes communicate dread and confusion in a way that a static panel can't convey. The actual plot is fine, but it's secondary to the excellent manner with which Vampire Smile directly communicates the emotions of its two leads.
You begin the campaign by choosing one of these two characters: The Prisoner or The Dishwasher. You play through the same levels and fight the same enemies as either character, but you see two different sides of the violent melodrama, which is a good reason on its own to play the campaign twice. But it's the action that will have you returning to Vampire Smile, even after you've twice beaten the campaign and moved on to its other entertaining modes. Regardless of which gore-sodden hero you choose, the 2D side-scrolling action is fast and frantic. Using the right analog stick, you zoom through the air and tumble along the ground. As you do so, you avoid lurching zombies, charging behemoths, and blue-eyed teleporting freaks and then zip into an opening to do damage. Effortless controls make it simple to dive in with your chainsaw from above, slash away with a standard attack, or juggle pumpkin-headed demons in the air before finishing them off with a vivid chomp on the neck. These finishers are grisly displays of spurting blood and decapitated limbs that are sometimes accompanied by the contrasting sight of pretty pink hearts, which float from their cleaved corpses to replenish your health.
Along the way, you pick up new blades and upgrade those you have, which adds variety should you grow weary of a single weapon. These include the cloud sword, which can be charged up before inflicting electrical damage on the dome-topped robot pressuring you with homing rockets. The painkiller is a giant syringe, while the guillotine is a humongous pair of scissors. Each comes with its own combos, though it takes some time to get used to the heavier weapons. If you are used to your dual cleavers or your light katana, the slower attacks and changes to your movement speed might cramp your agile style. But once accustomed to the more cumbersome blades, you find good uses for them. You can easily switch between weapons, thus combining light attacks with heavy ones. For example, the violence hammer doesn't allow you to swoosh high into the air, but should you switch to it once you're hovering above, you can lay down the law when smashing to the ground. When you throw in a machine gun and a shotgun, you have all you need to dish out damage on a screen full of baddies.
The action feels even better in Vampire Smile than in Dead Samurai, in part due to the air dashing, more fluid animations, and consistent collision detection. For example, when you juggle an enemy in the air, should your blade slice far enough beyond him, you might also damage the enemy behind him or catch him up in the juggle. The campaign comes to a head in a memorable final level in which the art style takes on a new twist and includes a clever visual representation of one of the game's main themes: manipulation and control. If you play on medium difficulty, the concluding boss fights aren't too difficult--just challenging enough to win on your first try with a smidgen of leftover health. Such down-to-the-wire battles are typical of The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, which is not as brutally difficult as the original game. Vampire Smile's difficulty curve is excellent, balancing the level of challenge with your increasing skill. But if you need a greater challenge--or a lesser one--one of the five available difficulty levels should suit you just fine.
If you want to show off your slashing skills, you can load up arcade mode and shoot for high leaderboard scores. This series of challenges trips you up by giving you specific weapons and adding additional rules to the level. For instance, you might only be able to do damage with air combos, or you might only be able to replenish constantly draining health by killing masked heavies and ninjas with grappling hooks. Levels get trickier as they progress, so if you think the early ones are a cakewalk, you'll soon find the test of skill you crave. Or you can hit the dish challenge, which is a never-ending gauntlet of adversaries that continues until you succumb to their onslaught. You don't necessarily have to fight these foes alone, however: another can join you locally or via Xbox Live, not only in arcade mode, but in the campaign as well. The frame rate remains smooth either way you play, and the blood and sparks erupting onscreen is even more intense to watch than when on your own, the lack of close-up fatalities notwithstanding. Two-player battles can get chaotic, but the simple color scheme of most backgrounds ensures that you get a dazzling display of blood and guts without ever losing track of the action. And the camera does an admirable job of keeping both players in view at all times.
The flaws are few and carry over from Dead Samurai. You can initiate a rhythm game in which your character grooves to a metal beat while you punch on the appropriate series of buttons. Considering the grinding guitars that accompany your journey, these moments fit well with the game's overall ambience, but they break up the pace too much. At least this is an optional diversion. Unfortunately, you can't escape the occasional sense of aimlessness that sometimes intrudes on the level design in spite of the scattered arrows that help point the way. But these are negligible issues in a sequel that takes the foundation laid by its forebear and infuses it with gloomy shadows. At 800 Microsoft points ($10), The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is a wonderful value for anyone who enjoys exploring the darker regions of the soul.