Serial Cleaner (Switch eShop) Review
Some games are so stylish — where the look, sound and all-round atmosphere are enough to make an average game a great one. With Serial Cleaner, its cool, 70’s aesthetic goes a long way. But it’s not so easy to tell if it goes far enough to elevate the action-stealth game lurking underneath.
You’re The Cleaner: the mustached, aviator-wearing criminal you’ll be controlling for around 7 hours. Your job is to sneak into crime scenes, avoid the cops and clean up any evidence, bodies, and blood that has been left by your client. Sure, it may be a bit too late to clean up the scene of the crime once the cops are there, but you’re also running around cleaning up blood with a vacuum cleaner, so the game isn’t taking itself that seriously. The game overall carries a dry dark sense of humour while you’re dealing with some bloody and macabre scenes. It helps to lighten the mood, given it’s not a super serious ‘Disposing dead bodies simulator’.
The story is set throughout the 70’s, where The Cleaner is working off some hefty debts with the mob, doing clean up for a serial killer and coming home to have conversations with your Mum. The story unfolds through phone conversations, reading newspapers, watching TV and listening to the radio. Most of it involves you having to go around between each job to see what’s being reported, but you can completely skip this and just answer the phone calls, and be on the way to your station wagon. There isn’t much to the story, but there doesn’t need to be. There’s just enough to keep everything moving along, and the sections where you’re at home are just a further extension of the look of the time.
Once you hit the crime scene, you’ll find the cops patrolling around with a good ol’ Metal Gear Solid cone of view to help keep you out of sight. As the cops patrol, you’ll be running around stealing evidence, dumping bodies and cleaning blood, and then getting the hell out of there. The cops are generally all over the places you need to clean, so it becomes a frantic dash over the blood patches while trying not to generate too much noise to draw their attention — in case catching you in their sight isn’t enough. If you do get caught in a cop’s line of sight, you can leg it to a hiding spot where they can’t arrest you and you just need to wait for them to go back to their usual route. In the heavily patrolled areas, this can get frustrating fast, constantly popping in and out of cover to slowly get a body back to a body drop point, or to clean up a patch of blood that takes several tries to get, then waiting for the cop to hang around until they go back on patrol. A helpful addition is ‘Cleaner Vision’ which zooms out the map in black and white and highlights the points of interest. While it’s not as easy to see cop locations in this mode, this is useful for when you’re taking shortcuts across the map into unseen areas.
Over the course of 20 contracts (and 10 bonus unlockable contracts), I found myself struggling halfway. The first few contracts cover most of the mechanics that will see you through the rest of the story; then things really get moving along, and it turns out it’s more of the same. This isn’t necessarily bad, but there are a few issues that really suck the fun out of sneaking around and completing the contracts. The big one is that every time you start or redo a contract, the placement of items and bodies are randomised. This kills any momentum you have built up. Instead of getting better by learning the environment and how to get around it, you’re stuck having to readjust around this inconvenience, and hope the placements are reasonable this time around. Sometimes you’ll get a perfect run where everything just goes your way and you’ll feel unstoppable, other times you’ll get to the getaway point, get spotted and are unable to outrun the cop. You’re forced to do the entire thing again. Keeping the placements the same until you have at least completed the level would’ve gone a long way to feeling a sense of achievement about completing the level, over the sense of relief that it’s over.
Early on, the levels are at least of a size if you do have to redo everything it isn’t so taxing, and the stealth is still fun. But the later half of the game makes the layouts more complicated and increases the number of cops. It also adds in some cops that don’t follow a pattern, which turns some sections of gameplay into moments of pure chance – will you avoid their gaze or are they going to relentlessly follow you around even though they haven’t spotted you yet. It’s hard to tell if it’s a case of unfair AI or if I just needed to be better at it. But because of the erratic nature I wound up with even more time hidden amongst pot plants and in boxes waiting for cops to eventually clear off, and then make a beeline for your area when you come out of hiding. All of this aside, I was still invested enough that I did want to see all the different locations. Each level has either a eleganza magazine or a film reel hidden within which unlocks new costumes and the aforementioned bonus contracts.
The bonus contracts are fun movie-inspired locations that have you removing ninjas, knights and aliens while collecting evidence that also serve as movie ‘easter eggs’. I found that they leant more on the funnier side of the first half of the game than the needlessly elaborate later half, they’re worth finding and unlocking. The costumes you can unlock along the way aren’t bad either. I spent most of my time dressed in the ‘The man with no name’ cowboy outfit as I threw bodies into piranha tanks. If you want an extra challenge and feel that the contracts are too easy, you can also change 20 different settings that modify different things such as no cone of view, no hiding spots or added time limits.
If there is something that Serial Cleaner nails, that is the style. There’s no reason the game couldn’t have been set in the modern day, but it leans into the 70’s vibe with the music, aesthetic and some funky wallpaper. The angular, nearly pastel art style is a nice change for a top down game. The only time this falters is when the environment starts to obscure dialogue boxes during night time contracts. Although if night time contracts make it harder to see, check your settings. I wasn’t sure why it was always night time in the game. It turns out there is a setting called ‘Real World Data’. Having it ticked meant that the game would simulate the light setting to your system clock. So, you can either avoid playing at night, or turn that setting off if it bothers you. I enjoyed playing the game more in docked mode, as it was much easier to make sense of some of the more visually busy settings in the last half of the game, and the dialogue was much easier to read. It is perfectly playable in handheld mode and I spent about half the time playing it this way. The only real downside to this is that the text can be a bit hard to read, and having it in handheld increased the risk of snapping the system in two during some of the more annoying moments.
For all the frustrating moments, there is still an alright stealth game underneath. if you found sneaking around in the Metal Gear Solid games enjoyable there is some fun to be had here. Serial Cleaner has style and it helps carry the first half of the game, but the only real reason to keep playing after this is to unlock the bonus contracts at the end.
Rating: 3 / 5
Nails the 70s look and music
Stealth is fun when it works
Enjoyable bonus contracts
Randomised item locations
Frustrating last half of the game
Inconsistent and unfair AI