‘Serial Cleaner’ Is a Great Idea Wrapped In An Infuriating Game

AKA: When a terrific on-paper pitch is let down by frustrating design in practice.
July 17, 2017, 5:00pm
‘Serial Cleaner’ screenshots courtesy of iFun4All/Curve Digital.

I love the pitch of Serial Cleaner. It's the early 1970s. You're a young man, Bobby, who lives at home with his mum, and play through brief interactions with her from time to time. Mmm, what's that? Meatloaf, delicious. From the outside looking in, you're just a regular guy rocking around in an ugly estate car. But when you're not watching the tube or flicking through the newspaper, you're sneaking around crime scenes, cleaning up the bloody mess left in the wake of a serial killer, tossing bagged-up bodies into the back of your trusty wheels.

Terrific, isn't it. A stealth 'em up, stylishly presented with a excellently funk-flavored soundtrack, where the objective is never to maim or murder, but to mop up. But in practice, I haven't clicked with Serial Cleaner, yet. I'm not the greatest gift to gaming, someone who can blast through the very toughest challenges, but I can usually break them down eventually, especially the early stages. This, though? It may be just me, but this is hard, isn't it?

I must have been stuck on the third mission of Serial Cleaner for 30 minutes and more, now. That mightn't seem long, but when the objective is simply to gather two bodies and two pieces of evidence and drop them back at your car, and clean up a percentage of the blood spilled all over the place (with a hoover, weirdly, but cool) before leaving the area, and can probably be nailed in a no-problems run inside a handful of heartbeats, I'm wondering where I'm going so very wrong.

A cool-looking new indie game will always pique my interest. But if it's body slamming me from the very beginning, that kinda sucks.

In each stage, there are patrolling cops. They have vision cones. You shouldn't get seen, ever, because when you do it's usually pow, a whack over the head and a "caught" pop-up. The best approach is slow and steady then, watching the patterns, the routes the policemen take around the environment—at the press of a button you can see the whole stage and track their movements. When you want to move, though, it zooms in closer, and the cops disappear off screen, making stumbling into their fields of vision a common occurrence.

When this happens, the chase is on—and each stage has a select few hiding places for Bob to duck into. It doesn't matter if a cop is right on his tail, practically on top of him—close a door between the pair and the policeman will, quickly, lose interest and return to his patrol. The window of opportunity for such escapes is narrow, though, as the police are much faster on their feet than Bob, who's slower still when there's a cadaver over his shoulder.

Expect to see this notification pop up a lot.

And this is where it gets really frustrating. Let's say I've loaded the bodies. I have. But there's still a gun to grab. Fine, simple, let's go. Only I trigger one of the cops and he's after me, and I get caught on the edge of a camper van, because the game's perspective can sometimes make horizontal movement, through doors and narrow gaps, a little tricky. Pow. The level resets completely, and I have to grab all those bodies and clean up all of that blood again. With their locations moved around this time, meaning I can't follow the same path as before. Assuming you were going slow and steady, that's a lot of time lost.

I get it. I'm not good at this. But when a game's first stages are so fiddly—its on-ramping of the player, if you will, is so steep—it becomes incredibly off-putting to anyone without the time to properly tackle it. Like many in this job, I'm rarely afforded the luxury of several hours with any one game, outside of the Big Hitters that absolutely necessitate it—like Zelda, for example. A cool-looking new indie game, in this case by Polish studio iFun4All, will always pique my interest; but if it's body slamming me from the very beginning, that kinda sucks… Doesn't it? And if that puts me off, when it's my job to look at these things, it's going to bother people who've paid money all the more.

Having the option to make the game a little less strict, to keep bodies in the trunk if your mission's interrupted, would ease the player into Serial Cleaner's testing world. I love how it looks, despite the annoyance of sometimes snagging on or walking awkwardly into environmental stuff. The music's wonderful, the presentation throughout thoroughly top notch. And the pitch really does feel unique. But I can feel the enthusiasm draining, as I turn it on for another run. I'm not beat yet, but I fear it won't be long.

Edit: naturally, the first time I try the stage again after these words, I crack it first time. Que sera, and it's off for a smooth ride by the lake.