Without digging into the semantic details too much, auteur theory -- the idea that a single, charismatic designer can leave his mark on a game -- was a popular talking point a few years ago. While no longer part of the games criticism zeitgeist, auteur theory is usually applied to the monoliths of the games industry (Shigeru Miaymoto, Gunpei Yokoi, Will Wright), or the unapologetically quirky (Goichi Suda, Keita Takahashi).
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile (Xbox Live Arcade)
Vampire Smile's twin campaigns follow the eponymous Dishwasher and his stepsister Yuki in the events directly following the first game. The backstory is all a bit muddled -- especially if you never played the original Dishwasher -- but I'm pretty sure that the cyborg shadow government has set up shop on the moon; the Dishwasher wants to save the world (I think), and Yuki wants revenge on the people who framed her as a terrorist.
Silva's real success, though, is in the level design: the early maps are full of dead ends, secret passages, and looping corridors around fantastically oppressive and gloomy crypts, dungeons, and government prisons.
The levels aren't so big that Yuki gets lost, per se, but the assets are similar enough for players to feel disoriented. This disorientation compliments Yuki's in-game paranoia nicely, and you'll never know when she'll have a psychotic breakdown. Making the player feel vulnerable works in Vampire Smile's favor -- the combat serves as a release valve, a cathartic bloodbath that eases tension.
Players have two choices: play in chronological order and be confused for half of the game, or play the Dishwasher's story first and ruin what little pacing and structure there is. There are a few places where Ska Studios tries to compensate for this discrepancy, but all it does is create plot holes.
In any case, the exposition that bookends each fifteen-minute level vascillates between being melodramatic and purposefully obtuse and the characters -- with names like The Fallen Engineer and General Diaboli -- are cheesy, pulled along on the strength of the game's gruesome visuals.
Late in the game, a text adventure section is equally problematic: when Ska Studios plays with retro game mechanics, it says more about its love for rock music and old adventure games than it does about the world or characters of Vampire Smile.
What does tell me about the characters of Vampire Smile is the game's combat. Watching Yuki rip someone's throat out with her teeth communicates insanity to me better than the story does; seeing the Dishwasher pull an enemy's head off like a grape does the same thing. The combat is obviously the Dishwasher's strong suit and where Ska Studios devote the most of its effort.
The hand-drawn animations are fluid and pop out of the backdrops nicely; the controls are tight and responsive; and there are limitless options for juggling combos and chains, thanks to your ability to "blood warp" with a simple flick of the right analog stick.
Both Yuki and the Diswasher have four melee weapons, four magic spells, and two ranged options with which to slice, cut, crush, pommel, hack, electrocute, blast, and saw a host of zombies, cyborgs, ninjas, cyborg ninjas, and ninja cyborgs. Vampire Smile is also quite well-balanced, with a slow and steady difficulty arc: I died often but rarely felt frustrated. The boss fights are particularly fun: each one requires a different strategy, each one teaching me how to better time my evades or how to use a more efficient combo.
That's not to say that Vampire Smile has to be mindless, as so many beat-'em-ups are wont to be. It certainly can be -- button-mashing works to an extent -- but money, health, and magic are dropped from enemies dispatched with special finishing moves (generally triggered by following on-screen prompts). It's not necessary to master these special moves, but Vampire Smile is tough enough that a light, well-timed touch is rewarded.
Vampire Smile also uses slow-motion to great effect: a slow-down signals a narrowly evaded attack or a finishing blow. Vivisecting an enemy frame by frame gives an added sense of weight and resistance, visual feedback that suggests you're cutting through sinew and bone and not just polygons. In terms of cathartic dopamine drip -- pleasure, punishment, motivation, learning, empowerment -- the purity of James Silva's vision is clear, though stunted.
Vampire Smile never forces players to use anything besides, say, the Shift Blade; and at the end of both three-hour campaigns, I could juggle enemies in my sleep. As the maze-like level design of the first two-thirds of the game gives way to long corridors and boss-rush arenas, Vampire Smile borders on tedium. With very little to differentiate the two campaigns or the two protagonists, this weakness crops up relatively early in the total package.
To put it another way: after a few hours, enemies begin feeling like a pesky chore sitting between the player and the next fun boss battle, not another chance to explore the game's combat.
Vampire Smile can be loads of fun, but that fun is fleeting.
THE VERDICT - The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile
Reviewed by Joseph Leray