The stealth genre is predominantly associated with gruff, grizzled, highly trained assassins with a renegade attitude, stern demeanour and corrupt superiors. Normally involving sneaking or silently killing to get out of dark and tight spots, the tension, evasion and strategy of a well executed infiltration garners a sense of accomplishment on par with a perfectly timed headshot or overtaking your rival on the last corner of a last lap. For all the character tropes that have been used time and again, a stealth game should still be a fun and memorable time.
Serial Cleaner, from Polish developer ifun4all (published by Curve Digital) is mechanically a top down stealth action game, but with a retro setting and a refreshingly cool twist it brings something new to the table.
You assume the role of Bobby, AKA 'The Cleaner'. Trying to balance domestic bliss while paying off debts, our reluctant, less than proficient protagonist accepts a number of cleaning jobs from the mob to make ends meet. The issue is, rather than standard janitorial work, he is tasked with removing bodies from crime scenes, vacuuming up blood (yes, you read that correctly) and pocketing trinkets of evidence.
Of course, there are a number of eagle-eyed cops (and eventually other foes) to make sure nothing is too straightforward. It's snappy, witty and aesthetically wonderful - the '70s setting being fully realised in a papercraft style similar to indie darling Guacamelee. There's also a rich soundtrack, with blaring organ, slap bass and a liberal use of wah pedal. Whether you're sneaking around or lounging around at home, the music is funky, varied and perfectly suited to accompanying our aviator wearing and moustachioed antihero, while lovingly referencing crime caper movies, TV shows and beloved characters of the era.
The twenty levels that make up the main story (along with ten glorious movie-themed bonus stages) become increasingly elaborate but follow the same basic structure of retrieving items and bodies, lugging them back to your station wagon (or other deposit point) one at a time and making a clean getaway before you're caught. The cops, complete with a vision cone familiar to anyone who's played a Metal Gear game, follow a set path and are always on the lookout. If / when you get spotted you'll have to find a hiding place, which they'll investigate briefly before completely forgetting about you and going back to their route.
With a quick tap of ZL you'll get a monochrome view of the whole level, complete with the locations of hiding places, bodies and items. This happens in real time, though, so don't let your guard down. Another visual indicator shows how loud your footsteps are, which will also raise suspicion. It's quite disappointing, then, that there's no analogue movement to tiptoe, walk or run. Finally, holding down ZR will activate your trusty - yet noisy - vacuum cleaner so you can clean up all that unsightly blood on the floor.
The missions are varied in location and theme, if not in task. From camp sites to boxing gyms, each area has cool little details to notice and unique architecture to utilise. Later on it is possible and necessary to alter a guard's path by moving a particular object, but the find, return and escape formula isn't tinkered with, nor are new ideas implemented nearly enough. It is here that Serial Cleaner begins to show a few cracks. With meticulous planning, patience and good timing, a stealth game should make the player feel challenged and well as satisfied, which is inconsistently the case here. There are a few factors which make the game's intentions more and more conflicting.
First off, the placement of the bodies and items are randomised each time you try. In theory this should keep things fresh, and some might argue it adds to the challenge. In practice, however, it can easily turn into a frustrating cycle of trial and error. Furthermore, the lack of any objective-based or geographical checkpoints, as well as having to fulfil all objectives to finish a stage, means that when the cops (who are much quicker than you) do catch up you start from square one.
If you are lucky or close enough to dive into a locker or cardboard box you'll only have to wait a few seconds before everything returns to normal and you can have another go at progressing. It then often turns into a repetitive game of cat and mouse, grabbing an object, legging it to a hiding spot, waiting until the coast is clear and venturing out again. It feels unrewarding, brutally all or nothing, and the satisfaction of beating a stage is more often than not overcome by looking back on the numerous failed attempts it took to get there, with a feeling of mild relief rather than accomplishment.
Mixing up the genre by not using combat as a way out of a sticky situation does make sense, but the necessity to be patient and methodical, as well as the game sometimes being downright unfair, makes it feel like the gameplay is constantly pushing back against its style.
Serial Cleaner is undeniably cool, but can be at odds with itself. On the one hand, the bitesized levels and whimsical humour should allow for a fun, pick up and play jaunt, but it is obstructed by a handful of small but significant frustrations. It's a game that both embraces the tropes of the genre and adds a neat little twist, but it won't be long before even the most persistent of players wished it was just a bit more lenient regarding certain elements.
A neat if limited core concept, combined with some superb retro presentation, Serial Cleaner is held back by design choices that are at best curious and challenging, and at worst infuriatingly obtuse; as a result it is a good game rather than a great one.