Serial Cleaners Review: "Ridiculous Enough To Keep You Engaged Throughout"
Stealth-action games have been part of the gaming industry for decades now, but it's a genre that can often feel stale and too familiar. There's a reason many people think stealth gaming peaked 20 years ago with the Thief franchise, and while there's some truth to this due to a lack of evolution on the formula, there's no shortage of mechanically solid stealth experiences. Serial Cleaners is one such example that doesn't rock the boat, but shows how much fun skulking in the shadows and avoiding the watching eyes of enemies can be - especially when it turns up the ridiculous factor.
Serial Cleaners drops you into the seedy criminal underworld of murder and mutilation, where you play as a cleaner - someone tasked with tidying up crime scenes for a variety of clientèle. It's very similar to the first game in the series, but expands on almost every feature with more levels, playable characters, mechanics, and a new 3D art style. Bigger isn't necessarily always better, but Serial Cleaners builds upon the foundations of its predecessor meaningfully, creating an experience with more depth.
The game begins as you arrive at a house on New Year's Eve as Bob - the first game's protagonist - where you meet the other three fixers you'll come to play as during the game's multiple levels: Lati, Psycho, and Vip3r. This start serves as a mini tutorial that introduces you to the major mechanics of moving bodies and cleaning up blood, and also establishes the relationships between the characters, with Bob acting as the boss of the group. Gathering all the characters together to celebrate the incoming 21st Century also acts as a framing device for the story, as each chapter consists of the fixers reminiscing about how they met, their previous jobs during the decade, and their fears of continuing this occupation into the future.
The flashbacks also dive deep into the character's personal lives at certain points, with little narrative segments where you'll explore a childhood home, or speak to your partner, but these sections always felt like filler between the actual levels. The characters aren't developed enough for these moments to really hit home, and much of the game's dialogue falls flat in its attempts at humour or emotional resonance. The worst example of this is the character of Psycho, who just frequently screams about wanting to kill everything and everyone due to a failed relationship, but it comes across like a one-note representation of how mental illness and trauma can push someone toward insanity.
Awash With Blood
The strongest aspect of Serial Cleaners is the stealth-action gameplay, which thankfully makes up the meat of the experience. The premise is simple, most levels thrust you into crime scenes as one of the four characters, and tasks you with sneakily disposing of bodies and evidence, while also cleaning the area of blood. It's not as simple as just cleaning up these grizzly murder scenes though, as police and detectives will also patrol the area on the lookout.
Each of the four characters have their own abilities that differentiate them, and their levels are specifically designed around them. For example, Lati has the ability to scale and jump over fences and barriers in the environment, allowing her to escape and manoeuvrer around the map easier, while Psycho can chainsaw corpses to break them down into limbs that are easier to dispose of or can be used as thrown weapons to knock down police. This makes each level play wildly different, and forces you to learn the different tactics each character has to quickly meet your objectives.
Despite being a stealth game, Serial Cleaners doesn't move at a slow pace like you might expect, and it's often better to move as fast as possible to outwit the patrolling policemen. While it took some time to get used to - and Vip3r's segments provide a break from the breakneck pace due to her focus on hacking and moving through vents - I started to reach a flow state during levels. It became immensely satisfying to work out the patrols and find the perfect timing to dash past security to bag up a body, or to steal a key and lock a policeman in a room where they were no longer a threat in a specific area. The mechanics are all around solid, and made for some of the silliest, yet fun, stealth gameplay I've experienced since Hitman or Mark of the Ninja.
One small aspect that was missing from the levels were challenges or timers. While moving quick was often the optimal strategy, you are never forced to do so and taking your time is just as valid. This is great for letting players experience the game their way, but an optional mode where you can time yourself or complete levels by meeting challenge criteria would have added some more depth and allowed for complete mastery of the levels and mechanics.
Serial Cleaners makes strong use of its 1990s New York setting, with a powerful and varied soundtrack, and a larger-than-life presentation. The game emphasises the grimy underbelly that lies beneath the bright lights and optimism of the 90s with a heavily stylised technicolour aesthetic, which is most apparent in the montages of everyday American life that are placed between each chapter. During gameplay, this is replicated somewhat with a painterly art style that makes use of different shading so that each environment pops. The New York setting also allows for a wide selection of locations during each level, ranging from rundown arcades, to dirty subways.
The soundtrack is also a standout part of the experience, and each character gets their own genre of music that compliments their personality and style of play. As the seasoned veteran, Bob's levels and the portions in between the other levels feature vibrant jazz music, which contrasts the synthetic, industrial soundscapes of the more visceral gameplay where you control Psycho.
There were some notable issues with the presentation during my playthrough though. The experience was marred by consistent technical issues that caused animations to skip, dialogue scenes to freeze as the next line loaded, and the occasional crash upon starting the game. I was also unable to finish the game due to an update that wiped my old save files, stopping me from completing the final chapter of the game and ridding me of five hours of progress.
It's Cleanin' Time
Serial Cleaners is a fantastic sequel that builds upon the strengths of its predecessor with a captivating art style, dimension change, and variation of presentation, while also expanding upon the strong stealth-action gameplay. Its attempts to build a more immersive and involved narrative fall flat, and the frequent technical hiccups do drag down the experience at points, but the gameplay is mechanically solid and ridiculous enough to keep you engaged throughout.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.