Dead Samurai was a flawed but interesting concept for a violent 2-D beat 'em up. It looked and played great but the game was also on par with Ninja Gaiden in how unforgiving it was, and that ended up turning off some gamers, including myself, that otherwise might've been interested in it. With Vampire Smile, however, designer James Silva has taken into consideration the reviews its predecessor received to create one of the most well designed 2-D action games I've played on Xbox Live.
Vampire Smile retains much of the original games aesthetic: it's black and white, and has a fair share of badass bosses and visceral combat to look forward to. If the gore in Dead Samurai wasn't your thing than this might not be your cup-of-tea either. The blood, guts and severed limbs have only been cranked up while the frustrating difficulty has been drastically lowered (that is, unless you choose a higher difficulty setting).
There are two playable characters: the Dishwasher from the first game and his vampiric stepsister Yuki that each come with their own separate campaigns. Both characters have a unique arsenal of weapons, some of which are pretty inventive, like the Dishwasher's massive shears (right out of Clock Tower) or Yuki's intimidating large syringe. The weapons act very different from one another, some are fast but deal little damage, some are strong and slow but they can strike multiple enemies, and there are some ranged weapons as well.
To enhance the combat there are also quite a few combos you can use to unleash a wave of pain against any unsuspecting foes, as well as an armament of magical powers to strike many enemies on (or off) the screen at once. Both the Dishwasher and his stepsister have three different talents but they act mostly the same; a magic ability strikes every enemy in the arena, another you have to aim at a group of enemies, etc. On top of that there's also a collection of beads hidden throughout the levels or awarded when you defeat bosses that augment your abilities. They let you regenerate health in combat, lower enemies' blocking capabilities, increase your resistance to rockets or blades, and many, many more.
Despite the game's robust combat system and level of ability customization, Vampire Smile suffers from quite a bit of repetition. For the most part both of the campaigns have you exploring the environments where you'll get locked in a room until you defeat every enemy in there, which then unlocks the doors. Then you'll proceed to the next area, repeat, move on to a boss and the entire cycle starts over again. As a whole the story is pretty nonsensical, but Yuki's story is made a little more interesting because of her continuous mental struggle. You'll be fighting a horde of enemies only to flash back to Yuki in a mental hospital. It's a welcome change of pace that keeps you engaged for the most part, but I feel it's an idea that could've been explored better.
Controlling each of the characters is easy and intuitive. You can run up walls, phase through doors, and even fly if you spam the dodge button enough. With this I would've liked the constant combat to get broken up with a little puzzle solving or platforming, but instead you literally fight waves of enemies, find the key, fight more bad guys, kill the boss and repeat in the next chapter. It doesn't ruin the game by any means but it definitely leaves you with the nagging feeling that Vampire Smile didn't quite live up to its incredible potential.
The cooperative option is one of the game's strongest selling points because you can play through the entire game as one character with a friend who controls the other. The only thing I would've changed about this is when you use a magical ability both players have to stop what they're doing to watch the move, as opposed to only the person casting the spell having to watch it. Other than that playing through the game with a companion makes the fights infinitely more fun (and not to mention far more gory) and it's always fun to break up the combat in the hidden Guitar Hero-style mini-games.
Overall, Vampire Smile is a major improvement over the first game, which was still pretty good in its own right. The combat is tight, the bosses are tough and sometimes hilarious, and there's plenty of reasons to return to the game once you've beaten it so you can experience the story from the other character's perspective (or to collect the myriad of hidden items and collectibles strewn about the levels). If you're looking for a gory hack 'n slash to play alone or with a friend, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile definitely won't suck