There are loads of fun games built around a top-down, sneaking shenanigans on Steam and across the digital console market, but so far I don’t think I’ve seen one that features such a macabre theme. In Serial Cleaner, players take on the role of a somewhat down on his luck yet nonetheless appropriately hip mob clean up guy. It is his job (and therefore the players job) to visit murder scenes, collect evidence, dispose of bodies and clean up blood and gore, all under the watchful eye of the diligent local police force.
Although it is somewhat macabre, Serial Cleaner is often comical, with a narrative that is driven predominantly between missions. Our hero (known only as Cleaner) leads a quiet home life with his mom, who enjoys cooking meatloaf, gardening and watching boxing with her beloved son. Meanwhile, the radio, TV and daily newspaper advise us about one grizzly murder after another and more often than not, the next time the phone rings, you’ll be off to clean up the scene of one of these brutal, often true-life crimes.
Serial Cleaner is an incredibly simple and often fun game, but there are occasional moments of frustration and it is far from perfect. The good and bad sides of Serial Cleaner are linked to each other, and both link back to the simplicity of the game. For all of the narrative wrap, this is a game about using stealth to solve increasingly large and more complex puzzles, but then again, there’s no stealth button, no mechanic for hiding in shadows and no bumping guards on the back of the head.
Instead, the Cleaner simply moves around the attractive, 1970’s themed, card-art style world in plain view. The stealth mechanic is built around avoiding the sight radius of police officers and other NPC’s such as FBI Agents, and as a result, learning patrol routes and movement patterns is absolutely essential. There are occasionally options to trap enemy characters between crates or in fenced off areas, but these opportunities are fairly limited, and rarely form an essential part of tackling a given level. If spotted, Cleaner’s only option is to run and hide in a bush, box or wardrobe (among other things) as he has no defensive capabilities.
When in a level, the player must (usually) guide Cleaner to dispose of bodies, collect evidence and keepsake items, and clean up a reasonable proportion of the blood splatter that is smeared across the level. Locations for each of these objectives and a few other in-game elements are somewhat randomised at the beginning of each mission (including whenever you restart after being caught) but in general the levels are small enough that this isn’t much of an issue.
Playing on the normal difficulty mode, I found Serial Cleaner fairly easy, with just a few maps that held me up for more than four or five attempts. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the variety of locations and the light and humorous story. If anything kept me playing however, it was the promise of finding bonus missions themed around classic movies, which is a concept I absolutely love. I’m not going to spoil too much here, but if you’ve ever heard the phrase “in space, no one can hear you scream” then you might have an inkling about at least one such bonus level.
Now, I didn’t much like the lack of a defense mechanism for Cleaner, or even a means to slow enemies down, and there is a good reason for that. You see, when Cleaner is being chased (he’s a bit slower than most of the in game enemies and a lot slower than some) he can only hide as I said earlier. This involves jumping in a bush, box or whatever else is around, but what spoils it is that he can do so right in front of enemies, completely breaking the suspension of disbelief. I’d much rather have had a more interactive way of handling this, like using a limited use CS Gas spray on enemies before retreating to such a hiding place, or something like that.
The game is also ultimately a bit boring, and aside from an ever increasing challenge, it doesn’t really change. That is, perhaps, why I enjoyed the movie spin off levels so much, because they are at least something different – and occasionally, they are very different. The long term appeal of Serial Cleaner is probably found in speedrunning aspect, and perhaps that is responsible for some of the design decisions that focus on rapidly jumping in and out of bushes and running away from baddies as if in a Benny Hill sketch. Unfortunately, speedrunning isn’t my thing, but I did find the game satisfying enough to play it to completion, and because I liked them so much, to seek out the bonus content.
Serial Cleaner is a fun, lightweight and fairly short game, but it does have several collectibles (bonus levels, clothes) which are well hidden for completionists, and for those who want a shorter, sharp dose of fun, there is the speedrunning aspect. It looks pretty and it has a fun story to pay attention to (or not) and it has a funky 1970’s soundtrack that keeps things moving. There are some novel puzzles to solve, but they do become repetitive and there is little variety among the actual objectives, even if the levels themselves are interesting. All in all then, a bit of a mixed bag, but overall, a better than average: