Stealth and Safety
Game: Serial Cleaner
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
Crimes pays, which is for the best really because it’s messy and carpet cleaning isn’t cheap is it? If you don’t want the fuzz catching up with you after a murder spree you’ll need to be pretty handy at clearing away the evidence. Or so I’ve heard…
Enter Serial Cleaner. Much like all those ska-punk bands that sing about how terrible things are, Serial Cleaner appears bright and cheerful at first glance. However, in a similar vein to Hotline Miami (a comparison you’re going to see more than once here), the retro vibe belies a darker underbelly of a claret-soaked, crime-ridden 1970s, invoking Pulp Fiction and… well, most Tarantino films I suppose. Except the Nazi one.
In fact, Hotline Miami isn’t a bad starting point. Not only are both games top-down nouveau-retro action games, you can pitch Serial Cleaner as the logical and literal follow-up to those series of events. You play as Bobby, the guy who sneaks into crime-scenes after all the proper murdering has gone down and removes all the evidence at the behest of so many cigar-smoking gang bosses.
Every level starts with a section in Bobby’s home (that’s less superfluous than it may seem), which he shares with his mother, where you can revisit souvenirs from previous crime-scenes visited, have a few interactions or simply answer the phone and get on with your next job. You can then hop into your suitably retro station wagon and get to the mission area. It’s not much to begin with, but I liked seeing the less glamorous side of crime for a change, and the humdrum interactions outside of their more interesting activities you’re usually presented with.
The crime-scenes are fairly small in size, and you’re assigned objectives to clear away any sensitive evidence, collect bodies to remove them from the scene and literally clean up blood stains with a vacuum cleaner. It’s a simple set of tasks to repeat, so most of the drama comes from the stealth aspect of the game. Each scene is dotted with America’s finest swinging their pesky fields of vision around the place. Standard stealth-stuff really, albeit with a novel premise of clearing up after crime rather than actually doing the crime. You don’t have any offensive capabilities, so sneaking up and eliminating the guards isn’t an option. You can take cover behind structures in the environment, or go full Solid Snake and take refuge in boxes, but you can’t actually kill anyone yourself.
It’s more of a puzzle game than a full stealth experience, truth be told. The AI is not particularly representative of actually sneaking past guards; even if they see you disappear into a cupboard with their own eyes they shrug and give up the search. Maybe its actually just a faithful representation of AI amongst a very apathetic police force. Who knows. What’s also slightly counter-intuitive for such a game is that if you hug walls and try to stay out of sight you’re liable to get caught on the environment and spoil an otherwise perfect bit of shadow-walking.
The game goes pretty heavy on the 70s aesthetic; visually it certainly looks unique. The environments and characters are rendered in washed-out pastel colours and blocky sprites, not to mention the cops’ prominent moustaches. All dialogue is presented as text, and paints to more of a story than I expected to find in what appeared to be novelty of a game. Rather than being a standard protagonist, Bobby is a man in demand from mob bosses despite being an overgrown mother’s boy. It’s quite nice to have a game star that isn’t an out-and-out badass, returning home every day like Norman Bates rather than Tommy Vercetti. This is of course a simple indie title, and it feels and plays like that. Aside from moving around the environments, all you really need to do is pick things up and move them around. There’s also the option to use your ‘Cleaner Sense’, which basically zooms the camera out and highlights the locations of the bodies, evidence and possible hiding spaces. The game also changes the time of day to match what it’s like around you in the actual real spherical world at the moment, which is worth knowing if fairly inconsequential.
What chimes less well is the music. Initially fun and funky, the constant Starsky and Hutch wah-pedalling and funk pastiches are constant and hectic. I eventually muted this in favour of something a little less repetitive in order to get through the game without doing a murder of my own.
When you restart a level as a result of getting caught, the key items move around the map. Whether this is a way of keeping things fresh or an annoyance as you try and perfect a strategy will depend on how you like your stealth, though. The randomisation of the bodies introduces an element of luck to things you may not appreciate if you’re the cautious planning type, but does mean you can’t just mechanically retread a route that you know works. You could argue, if you were inclined to do so, that this is the game’s way of teaching you actual skills and techniques to conquer it rather than just finding a route that works and retracing that constantly.
A classic indie twist on a faux-retro action game, Serial Cleaner does a lot with a well-trodden stealth mechanic and miniature play areas. There’s not a huge amount to it, but for £11 you wouldn’t expect Skyrim. I found myself drawn to Bobby and his strange double-life, and the gameplay is simple but engaging enough to carry you through the duration. A curious gem of a game, if there’s any justice this should really ‘clean up’ in the download charts.