The Cleaner who bears Serial Cleaner‘s namesake is not very good at his job. Throughout 20 levels (and 10 more bonus contracts), he’ll seem perfectly adept. The 20 individual successes that are necessary for a consistent narrative paint him as a consummate professional — always making bodies and evidence disappear right under the noses of patrolling policemen.
But, consider this: Shouldn’t a murder-cover-upper get there before the cops? Take a quick look to other mediums. John Wick’s cleaning crew? There before the cops. Pulp Fiction‘s Winston Wolf? There before the cops. Maybe the guy who hired the Cleaner should’ve let him know earlier; then again, maybe the Cleaner should stop taking such risky jobs.
It feels a bit over-serious to put Serial Cleaner this far under the microscope. After all, it’s a very-not-serious slapstick stealth puzzler about vacuuming up blood and throwing corpses off cliffs. But, this game’s inconsistencies pile up and create a dissonance that all the Formula 409 in the world couldn’t clean up.
Serial Cleaner (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Publisher: Curve Digital
Released: July 14, 2017
Drowning in gambling debts and still living with his mom, the Cleaner is a cleaner somewhat out of necessity. After every gruesome set of murders, the Client calls him up to work his magic — felony-degree unlawful moving of a body, tampering with a crime scene, and obstruction of justice. The snippets of dialogue make it clear that he doesn’t like it but he’s kind of resigned to the reality that this is what he’s good at. Everyone has a price, especially in desperate times.
Every crime scene has the same conceit. Some bodies to dispose of, some blood to literally vacuum up, some evidence to swipe, and some cops to try to catch you doing it all. As Serial Cleaner progresses, the stages get more elaborate. Bigger, more potential paths to take, more distractions to employ. But it’s ostensibly the same idea throughout, just with more cogs and more sprawl in later levels.
The premise is solid, a sincerely potent blend of stealth pathfinding and cartoon hijinks. Dodging Metal Gear-style vision cones, hiding in plants until the perfect time to emerge, manipulating moving objects to affect the routes the guards take — it’s all very cerebral in that video game way where you’ve proudly convinced yourself that you’re smarter than the game.
However, that feeling of savvy wears thin when you consider how you’ve outsmarted the game. The main offender is that every trip to a hiding spot results in the pursuer quickly giving up and going back to their route. Loading screens hand-wave this away by stating that the cops are “too lazy or corrupt” to care. But, they’ve already done the hard work! They’ll gladly chase you around a map, but they balk at looking in a bush. (Another disconnect that has less impact on the nuances of gameplay: Late stages put the cops and the mafia — ideological opposite factions — in the same space to track the Cleaner down.)
Despite what those loading screens say, this is a concession that’s necessitated by the design of Serial Cleaner. Slinking around interiors that are flooded with guards who have sometimes-unpredictable patterns means that there needs to be a safe haven for this to be a playable game. Eliminating them would fundamentally change the flow of Serial Cleaner and it’d be a much different game. Still, it feels cheap as hell scurrying back to a box because you’ve accepted that this represents permanent safety.
For those who are able to eventually ignore this glaring dissonance, Serial Cleaner has a loop that has its charms. Methodically clearing an area and making an escape is rewarding — particularly when you’ve taken the time to understand how all the different paths, shortcuts, and distractions can work to your benefit. Getting away without leaving much of a trace is worth the frustrations, especially when one success is usually accompanied by many failures that precede it.
Serial Cleaner is a stealth game that nails its aesthetic, referential material (mildly related: there’s an excellent Alien-themed bonus stage), and concept. It just doesn’t nail the mechanics of being a stealth game. Developer iFun4all seemingly understands this judging by the copout way it implemented hiding spots. Serial Cleaner is neat, but it isn’t always tidy.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]