So the industry has come full circle, then. While reports of multi-million dollar franchises crashing and burning come in with worrying frequency, solo coders and tiny teams once again trump all bar the most profitable releases. Minecraft, Limbo and Super Meat Boy are just a few of the most recent success stories, though even Ska Studios is no stranger to big numbers – the one-man codeshop’s quirky, minimal and amusing I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 raked in over quarter of a million dollars through the Xbox Live Indie Games service (and that’s after Microsoft took its 30 per cent cut), while the original Dishwasher game was deemed good enough to step out with XBLA’s big hitters. This unexpected sequel, then, is presumably proof that the audience is there for another slice of grim and technical side-on combat. This makes us happy.
If The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai can be seen as a two-dimensional riff on the modern Ninja Gaiden template, Vampire Smile must be Ska’s take on Bayonetta. The ante has been upped. We previously saw a one-man studio with its sights on the same kind of mechanical complexity that the genre’s finest gaily flaunt, but perhaps with an ambition greater than its reach. Today, we see a one-man studio in unstoppable form, balancing complexity, freedom, difficulty and creativity more skilfully than developers ten times its stature. The template remains largely the same – grab an unconventional weapon and murder your way to the credits – but the journey incorporates far more shocking twists and inventive turns than the game’s combat emphasis suggests.
For one thing, enhanced movement abilities mean environments are able to experiment more with verticality and freedom, many open plan areas allowing for a fair bit of exploration and back-tracking. And as before, The Dishwasher frequently – but only ever momentarily – cosplays other genres, ranging from simple Bemani-style musical interludes to a brief yet terrifying jaunt into retro. Yuki’s adventure is arguably at its best when it schizophrenically toys with genre conventions and presentation techniques to explore her fragile mental state, grim flashbacks cleverly interrupting the chaotic carnage (not unlike how Visceral handled Isaac Clarke’s descent into insanity) to bring a welcome change of pace and an unwelcome glimpse of something disturbing. Not that the rest of it is exactly rainbows, pixies and hugs, mind you…
Both visually and thematically, Vampire Smile is just about as bleak as games come. A true assault on the senses, every encounter sees the screen molested by blood splats and obscene amounts of noise and clutter – making it just as hard to concentrate as it is in Bayonetta’s more intense moments – as bones break, victims scream and other general unpleasantness seeps out of your speakers. Love it or hate it, the art style is certainly striking, though even if you find the palette and design a little too close to what a My Chemical Romance song might look like if you could see it, there’s enough substance and ingenuity to the gameplay that many should be able to see beyond the grime. Others, meanwhile, will no doubt revel in the stylish explosion of black and red, although it isn’t just the presentation that stands to divide audiences.
You see, Ska’s latest isn’t just a little on the intense side. It’s brutal. Even more so than in its blood-soaked predecessor, anything that stands in your way is liable to be smashed, sliced or torn up in the most graphic way imaginable, an unfortunate destiny helped in no minor way by a selection of unconventional weapons and abilities. Yuki and The Dishwasher both have their own arsenals – the living dead girl loses an arm early on, only to have it replaced with a ridiculous machine gun/shotgun/chainsaw combo, while her real highlight is the Painkiller, an oversized syringe that can literally bleed enemies dry. The Dishwasher, meanwhile, gets a few of his old toys (like the teleport-enabling Shift Blade), but the Violence Hammer is his standout, a girder on a stick which has had all manner of sharp implements strapped to it with barbed wire. Hardly subtle, but the raw power means stoving in faces has never been easier. On-the-fly switching between pairs of weapons (plus the ability to swap between two sets, for a total of four weapons) adds a level of strategy to combat too – use a heavy weapon to break a foe’s guard then switch to a more combo-friendly tool to really pile on the hurt, for instance.
Though its main campaign may be a little on the short side, Vampire Smile squeezes more clever gameplay detours, edge-of-your-seat encounters, knowing nods to the wider world and hidden goodies than most full price retail releases. Replayability is vast, going back through old areas to round up remaining Ghost Beads (four of which can be equipped at a time to boost or activate certain abilities), challenge yourself with one of the more punishing difficulty settings or even hit up the Speed Run option to show off your mad skills. The trio of story modes all use the same assets, though each does give a different perspective on the narrative, with the two-player co-op option allowing for even more complex strategies and team-based massacres. A bundle of score attack challenges round off the package beautifully, meaning that Vampire Smile has more to it than it has any right to with an 800 MS Point price point and only one guy behind the majority of the game. A grubbier Shank; a tidier Dead Samurai; a dimensionally challenged Bayonetta… however you choose to see it, Vampire Smile is a triumph for the little guy and an utterly superb action game that puts the majority of its peers – both digital and physical – to shame.