Saturday, July 8, 2017

Review--The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, by Ska Studios

(update: I mistakenly referred to this as "new weird" in the original title of this post. It is not by any means subversive enough to be new weird.)

I had a perfect nightmare
On a starry, torrid sea
I am cast to prison
At a crippled demon's plea”
from the initial trailer

This is a sequel to The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, which was published on Xbox Live Arcade, and which I have not played. I downloaded the demo to Vampire Smile one evening, figuring that the sequel would be the better experience, and I was immediately blown away. I cannot overstate this enough—I was blown away. Within this maybe-ten-minute intro level I was not only sold on the game, but sold on the game so hard that I had to buy it on the spot.

In Vampire Smile, you play as either the Dishwasher himself, or his sister, Yuki (in an rather odd arrangement, the game tells Yuki's story, with the Dishwasher playing through the same levels in her wake and arriving late to most of the major scenes, yet you have to play his story to get the better ending). Yuki is the easier character to play, as the Dishwasher feels slightly less responsive, but once you are used to him he plays with his own, perhaps more graceful, rhythm.

The story starts with Yuki, framed for the destruction of Earth in the first game, imprisoned in a supermax space prison orbiting the moon. She endures nightmarish hallucinations regularly, and after the latest, awakes to find herself outside her cell, surrounded by the dismembered bodies of the guards. She grabs a katana and tears her way through the security to the escape pods, losing her arm in a battle with the prison warden on the way. She wakes up after a crash landing on the moon, with a chainsaw unexpectedly grafted to her mutilated limb, and sets out through a dystopian world populated by zombies, Jack-O'-lantern-headed robots, cyborgs, ninja-commandos, and the like. Over the course of the game you will pick up other unique weapons for each character—a man-high pair of scissors, an equally over-sized hypodermic syringe, a pair of meat cleavers, kusarigama...not to mention some magic super-moves. Each character also has their own minion—a flying, laser-shooting kitten and a crow respectively, and these can be controlled by a second-player controller.

The story reads like madcap fanfiction. The Dishwasher has destroyed earth, which was corrupted by "cyborg blood" created by something called "The Fallen Engineer," the moon becomes the last redoubt of humanity, but the Engineer is now poisoning it in the same manner, corrupting its leaders with his "web of lies." This, dear readers, lends itself to a very fun interpretation of what a disease spread by lies might be. It is wonderfully weird, and feels like there might be world-building here that we are not privy to. It takes such a kitchen-sink approach to the universe, and the narrative is very bare bones, and has so little grounding in sanity that it breezes by without much impact until the end, which is satisfying, though oblique. It's all surreal and dreamlike, complemented by a grotesque gothic-punk art-style drawn with rough, charcoal-sketch outlines, and scattered with un-voiced comic-panel cutscenes. It's all in chalky black-and-white, with only a few touches of color in pale-pastel lighting, soft backdrops, glowing health pickups, psychedelic magic explosions, and the blood.

There is a lot of this latter. The grotesque violence is central to the gameplay and the narrative, with blood splashing the walls, the ceilings, the floors and even the fourth wall itself, and each finishing move against each roughly-drawn, cartoonishly-proportioned enemy reducing them to a gaseous explosion of gore, splitting torsos from legs, heads from torsos, and scattering limbs to about the area. All this palls into inoffensiveness quite quickly, as a matter of fact, due to the unreal nature of the art, and quickly ceases to be noticeable as much more than another part of the aesthetic palette. But it never ceases to enjoyably compliment the cathartic action.

The gameplay follows the mold of Devil May Cry in a 2D space, with combos and directional inputs for different attacks. It has just enough depth to require and hold your attention on any difficulty above easy, while being simple enough to understand fairly well within a sitting. It's possibly fastest and most frenetic combat I have ever played. It is never not fun, and it is absolutely transcendent when you achieve flow (also known as being "in the zone") during battle. And did I mention the enemies can, and constantly do, hit each other?

Hidden here and there in the stages are various perks, some helpful, some humorous (the game is rife with cheeky, informal remarks and Easter Eggs that do a far better job of establishing kinship with the developers of this two-person project than the same sort of humor does in a large, impersonal, corporate production). There are also a few literal stages, complete with amps and electric guitars, on which you can perform distorted, wailing solos via a little rhythm game (and yes, the lead developer is a fan of Brandon Lee's The Crow), which interludes compliment the already superb rock soundtrack. And the icing on the cake is that the entire game is playable cooperatively, with a new tweaked take on the story in which Yuki and her brother fight side by side rather than alone.

There are a few cons: I think the simplicity and low skill-ceiling does lower the replay value a tiny bit, and the game could have been a few levels and bosses longer; enemies can about-face in (seemingly) just a frame or two mid-attack to hit you if you dodge past them, and these attacks often come out so fast that they can instantly interrupt you if you end a dodge within range, hindering aggressive play.

The frustration caused by this last is tangible, but it does not ruin or even greatly mar the experience. The game is entirely stylish, mostly fun, weird as all hell, and delightfully inventive. It's a flawed little masterpiece, a must-play if you like action games or slick visuals. It is even a little Lovecraftian in its own unique way. To my mind, it's about as good a piece of modern weird fiction as you can hope to find in the mainstream.

An almost perfect nightmare, and its on Steam now, too.

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