When Hotline Miami meets Better Call Saul, you get Serial Cleaner: a 2D game where your job is to clean the scene of gruesome murders. This indie title from iFun4all puts players in control of a nameless professional cleaner, hired by criminals to visit active crime scenes disposing of bodies, covering up blood stains, and hiding murder weapons, along other incriminating evidence.
During my attendance at EGX Rezzed last week, I dropped by the Polish developer’s booth to test Serial Cleaner around some of the team and played three out of the seven available levels in the final game. The gameplay focuses on a more frantic style of stealth, where you must quickly move around a level to reach your objective while evading the police. Dead bodies, murder weapons, and copious amounts of blood are strewn across each mission, and you must vacuum the blood, pocket the weapons, and carry the bodies back to your car in order to make them disappear. Once every objective is complete, you return to your car and escape, completing the mission.
The problem, however, is that this is not really a stealth game. Aside from hiding in a few cover spots, the whole dynamic of Serial Cleaner revolves around avoiding policeman line of sight while moving dazzlingly fast through a level, more akin to Pac-Man than Dishonored. Once you are spotted, cops give chase and run faster than you, dropping you with one hit upon contact. They are very hard to shake off, instantly locking onto you and running considerably faster, leading to a game design that equates being spotted to a nigh death sentence. After trying to escape the first dozen times I was spotted, I eventually learned to just let go of the controller if I was far from a hiding spot and wait for the mission to restart -- it was faster than running through the whole level and being caught anyway.
The nearly instafail issues are exacerbated by the fact missions have no checkpoints, leading to an extremely frustrating loop of nearly completing a handful of objectives and being forced to restart. The way patrols move across the map and the erratic speed with which cops turn around with nary a telltale sign makes planning or skill virtually useless. Serial Cleaner quickly devolves into a mad rush, and I managed to clear the levels by deciding to just blindly run through them instead of properly trying to sneak.
Chatting with the developers, I got the impression that difficulty is both by design as well as a lack of benchmark. One of the game designers acted as the QA for the game, and he imparted unto me that he played Serial Cleaner for dozens upon dozens of hours. After my time with the title, he mentioned how surprised he was to see people take half an hour to beat four levels, given how he was able to beat them in a couple of minutes each.
Technically, the game has an interesting aesthetic, though its levels can be a bit hard to read at times. During the first mission, especially, I kept bumping into walls and fences because the flat 2D art showed very little variation between world objects and background drawings. The second level forwards was a bit more delimited, but still not as clear as it could have been. Though the game only has seven levels at the moment, objectives like bodies and murder weapons are randomly placed, giving it a bit of replayability to the title.
Personally, I found the game unsatisfying. The stealth element was severely lacking, while gameplay itself was significantly simplistic. I did not like the trial and error approach to the missions, where detection often lead to failure and forced you to restart instead of dealing with your mistakes. The constantly frantic and twitchy nature of gameplay also didn’t appeal to me in the least, given I prefer a more methodical and skill-based approach to my stealthy games, like Splinter Cell, Hitman, or even Mark of the Ninja.
However, fans of 2D games might like it, so I urge anyone interested in Serial Cleaner to check out its Steam page. The game managed to hit exactly zero of my interest buttons, but it might hit quite a few of yours.