The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai is a side-scrolling 2D beat-'em-up in which you, an undead samurai dishwasher, mash up various cuts of cyborg and zombies using a range of sharp implements. So far, so Xbox Live Arcade, but the impressive thing is that it has all been put together by one man: James Silva, winner of the Microsoft Dream Build Play contest. The more impressive thing is that he's done a better job than the majority of full-time developers making Xbox Live Arcade games. And not just in a patronising, "Aw, hasn't he done well?" sense, but in a, "If you worked on Watchmen: The End is Nigh, how do you f***ing sleep at night?" sort of way.
The key to this is the game's ultraviolent combat system and enemy design, which allow for a delightful range of combination attacks, juggles, weapon-switches and finishers, and a huge variety of scenarios upon which to practice them. At first there are the Feds, who fire the odd projectile and slap you about, but most of whom can be outwitted with Y-button thrusting strikes, triple-X-and-up block-breakers and downward-slashing aerial attacks. They're soon joined by Special Forces, who use the right-stick evade technique you also have, block more, and use grappling hooks to winch themselves into the sky and fire their guns diagonally downward, or drop an area-effect grenade. Then you get ED-209 homages, and masses of easy-meat zombies, and jetpack troopers with heat-seeking missiles, and worse.
With so many enemies and effects to pick through, things get a bit frantic, but there are enough visual and audio cues to quickly stitch together reactions and try and fold them into growing combos - stacked up by a cooldown meter in the top-right - without succumbing to their attacks, which is the tricky part. The Dishwasher certainly doesn't mind knocking you about, forcing you to stock up on health supplies and continue-heart pieces at the occasional weird-robot-head vendor thing, when you'd rather be investing the pickup currency in weapon upgrades and other specials.
Level design is usually basic left-to-right, with occasional variations and some slightly more complex, multi-path layouts with the odd key to uncover, but generally each section of a level is a self-contained fight, which you can often escape from if you can't face it, but generally stick around to battle through. Because that's what The Dishwasher is about. There's a boss to worry about in each level too, and they boast increasingly complex attack patterns, generally functioning as more powerful, larger liabilities than the rank-and-file enemies you're trying to manage. They often have a few of those around as well to complicate things.
In one sense, then, it's a Viewtiful Joe-style hackandslash with a fairly deep combat system, but on another it's a high-scores game, and extends further in that direction away from the 14-level Story mode, with room-by-room Arcade levels and a separate Dish Challenge mode. The tops of the leaderboards for these are already terrifying, but as with all XBLA games you can compete against your friends rather than the mad people if you want a more representative challenge, and you probably will, because matching some of the Arcade stage scores is the sort of bleak prospect that changed Bizarre Creations' entire attitude to social competition between Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and last year's follow-up.
There are also co-operative options, which you can do in the Story mode once you collect a certain amulet, and this alleviates the spiralling difficulty somewhat, as do the several basic difficulty levels. The Dishwasher is hardly the most inclusive game, but it makes an effort, and the co-op is typically rewarding, if a little hard to follow on screens already laced with bloody effects set against smoky, dreamlike backgrounds.
Indeed, The Dishwasher is deceptively pretty - all sketchbook-and-crayons layered with smudgy atmosphere, caught in a deathly limbo somewhere between Okami, Castlevania and Alien Hominid. It's also home to some silly touches. The Achievements are amusing (the Peter Moore one in particular), the Guitar Hero mini-game is completely pointless but also sort of charming, and the pre-level comic-book story cells are closer to Braid than Gears of War.
It's certainly not without fault - the movement controls are very responsive, and sometimes cost you your footing as you try to line-up a last-pixel jump, while there's a tendency in some levels to spam particular enemies, and a couple of bosses are torturous rather than challenging. Frankly, I will never finish it unless I get Simon "Street Fighter IV" Parkin interested and manage to kidnap him for an evening. It's also going to turn you off pretty quickly if you're just here to mash buttons, and while the real-time weapon-switching finally delivers on the promise of Giant Enemy Crabs, it too can be a little confusing in the heat of battle.
For those who persist with The Dishwasher, however, there's a deep and interesting set of mechanics here, which ought to appeal to fans of Viewtiful Joe, God Hand and perhaps even those a little disappointed by MadWorld. Never mind the fact James Silva made the whole thing by himself; if the next game he makes can distil existing game ideas with this much confidence, he'll already be able to teach his Xbox Live colleagues a thing or two about where they're going wrong.