The cleanup guy. A figure often played in very different manners in film, games and books. Usually, he’s simply the guy you pay to take care of a stiff in a back alley somewhere. Sometimes, they are also suave and well dressed. In video games, they instead take the form of a playable, overworked janitor, a la Viscera Cleanup Detail. Serial Cleaner takes things differently.
Bob Leaner is a gambling man with a heart who has friends in the mob. These friends, at some point, noticed his inherently punny name and turned him to cleaning for money. The game is isometric and has that cartoony comic book art style about it. So yes, it is very much like Hotline Miami. It’s desire to imitate is pretty much stamped on it’s forehead. The distinctive soundtrack, the unique art style, taking contracts on your phone, and getting to go home after every grisly job.
His other motivation to take this well paying albeit risky job is to help his old mum, whom he loves very much. They watch TV together between missions, shoot the breeze and have hot cocoa. Cue the “D’awwwww” from every player. Bob still takes jobs from the mob, which he finds to be very wholesome and clean, and a mystery client who pays very well, but treats his corpses rather roughly.
So the tone is all over the place. It’s lighthearted, it’s dark. Bob’s dry wisecracks about corpses being food critics because they were fat are combined with his disapproval of young and hungry serial killers wringing pretty ladies’ necks for fun and profit. There’s this effort all around trying to justify how Bob is a lesser scumbag than most of his employers. He looks like a slouching, cartoon version of Dr. Disrespect. That right there is irredeemable by definition!
Story goes on to reveal that Mr Baddy, the Echo Killer, a serial killer who apes other, more popular serial killers that came before him, might be the mystery client. Well well, how ironic and self aware! Turns out, instead of a momma’s boy like Bob, Echo has a strained relationship with his mother, who is trying to protect him from going to jail. But he doesn’t want that, oh no. He’s looking forward to the cops catching him. And you are stealing his thunder by cleaning after him.
They’re even designed to look very similar, with both wearing aviators, but Echo being blond and pale compared to Dr Dis… Sorry, Bob’s tanned, long haired, moustachey complexion. A classic foil. So that is clever-ish. However, Bob takes a few YEARS to actually figure out that Echo is his client, so he’s definitely not. How he’s survived so long in his business, we’ll never know.
Let’s quickly go over Hotline Miami, just for pointers. It’s a 2013 isometric shooter featuring a very fast pace and very high difficulty. Enemies can kill you in one hit. It takes place in the 80’s. It’s regarded as a cult hit and it’s music, themes, aesthetics and even gameplay have all been deemed iconic and imitated here and there. To this very day, you can see people cosplaying Jacket at cons and in other videogames. Alright, now that’s out of the way, let’s play spot the copycat.
Serial Cleaner is an isometric stealth puzzler with a distinctive art style and a soundtrack made exclusively for it. It takes place in the 70’s and features actual historic happenings. Acknowledged in a matter of fact fashion, they don’t do much functionally. Enemies can kill you in one hit. You can’t defend yourself, but you can hide.
Now for the differences. As opposed to being a rage-fueled psychotic murderer, you’re just a bottom shelf scumbag trying to get by in life. So you get by on your wits instead of your massive balls and poor sense of self-conservation. If you were expecting Viscera Cleanup Detail… It has some of that. Cleaning controls are quite awkward and having to vacuum up the blood is dangerous and time consuming.
The game’s difficulty was nerfed for normal, but the Steam version kept in the old version in as Hardcore mode, which I went with. The game is not short on challenge. It even adds extra modes for you to up the difficulty to truly outrageous levels, if you so wish. It also features extra contracts and outfits based on movies. If you’re inclined to, you could feasibly play this for 30+ hours. Gameplay consists mostly of dodging sight cones, Metal Gear Solid style. Being spotted is not always a death sentence, if you can reach a hiding spot, which will make you invulnerable. This is fun in that childish sense of pretending to be invisible, when really everyone can see most of you sticking out of a tiny container. Serial Cleaner has a bit of a sense of humour, right at home surrounded by all the corpses.
Remember to change the controls as you start, since movement was probably assigned to the arrows by a very vengeful left handed person. Even after that, pickups are thrown to K and L for some arcane reason, but at least you’ll be able to WASD your way around the maps like a reasonable human. In the game, maps have the 2D issue of not being always easy to read, and running face first into walls is a common occurrence.
Needing to push a key seldom used in normal games to hide when three cops, a gangster and a man with a gun are on your ass did get a couple “GRARGH”s and “OH WHAT THE F”s from me. Certainly some ham-handedness was involved, but I can’t help but feel I would have nailed the input if it was assigned to something more reasonable like the spacebar. Or at least, I’d have only myself to blame if the option was up to me!
Serial Cleaner paces itself kinda poorly, introducing new and deadlier enemies like gunmen and cameras that game over you on sight instead of on kill right at the very end. By that point, the player has probably mastered how to give slow cops and fast gangsters the runaround, but shooters in particular make the situation a lot worse. The final level even goes back to basics, with a couple melee slow enemies and a much faster one, requiring a bit of trickery to get around.
The two before that can merrily suck a mouldy banana, though. Verticality is hardly ever a good friend for isometric games. Some enemies can bypass this, and shoot you in the face. It does the game no favours.
For the most part, the game is reasonably entertaining with some spikes of frustration. Unlike Hotline’s mysterious storyline and silently charismatic protagonist, Bob Leaner is quite dull, but the gameplay might be enough to keep you around until the end.
Music is distinctive, albeit not on the iconic level Hotline reached. Story’s just there. Gameplay is the meat and bones of this title, and while I can’t recommend it to the general public, Serial Cleaner gets a tentative recommendation for fans of this particular “Stealth only” genre.