One of the awesome but frequently overlooked features of Xbox Live Arcade is the opportunity to play independently developed games at bite-size prices (read: ten bones or less). Consider it the Xbox equivalent of iPhone apps -- only with a lot less publicity, flying birds and farting noises.
Every now and then, one of those indie titles breaks out of download obscurity. Two years ago, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was that game, a frenetic marriage of black-and-white comic-book stylings and blood-splattered side-scrolling action. It sold well enough to spawn a frenetic sequel, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile.
Whether you choose to slash your way through the story as the Dishwasher from the original game or as Yuki, his samurai stepsister -- or both, if you can find a friend for co-op mode -- you're instantly thrust into a ballet of aerial acrobatics, roll-dodging, teleporting and button-mash attacks, as bomb-hurling commandos with zip lines and Reservoir Dogs-like thugs with Uzis try to make your quest for vengeance both short and miserable.
This is a game in which environment and ambience easily win best-supporting status. Sickly green hues and splatters of blood splash the stylized black-and-white level structures. Creepy messages on the walls and TV screens add to the ghastly sense of doom and despair. Intermittently, the action blurs to scenes of the main character crawling across the blood-spattered floor of what looks like a surgical room in a space prison, trying to escape a shambling, horrible monster.
Side-scrollers generally get over on the strength of one or two approaches: Wacky platform-puzzle tricks or tides of difficult enemies. Like its predecessor, Vampire Smile hangs its katanas in the latter camp. Preserving your precious life meter is a matter of finding openings in your enemies' attacks and whirling quickly through your weapon sets. If you're wielding the right one at the right time, you can even damage the enemies behind the one you're currently filleting, leading to an electric explosion that sparks the entire screen.
Here's to the friendlier continue system, similar to the points-trade method deployed by the Lego videogames. It replaces the continue hearts you could buy in Dead Samurai. It's much more reasonable for an often insanely difficult game that'll see you dying early, often and bloodily. (Oh, and the developers know exactly how tough their game is. Die 10 times in a level, and you'll score an achievement that unlocks the namby-pamby Pretty Princess mode. It's called "Reviewers Shall Be Pleased." Snap.) Completing boss fights feels like winning a brutal prize fight -- expect cramped hands and tense breathing aplenty.
It's still awfully challenging to keep track of the action when the screen's cluttered with enemies, and the visual effects unleashed by a brutal kill obscure all the ones who aren't yet dead, giving them a chance to pound on you and drain your precious life meter. Just keep mashing buttons -- it'll all work out.
If you're the sort who gravitates to brutal difficulty -- if Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry 3 occupy hallowed status in your gaming library -- you're a 10-dollar download away from your next delicious action fix.