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Wot I Think: Serial Cleaner

What Mr. Wolf Did In 1971

I don't like it when I don't know if I like something or not. After this many years of wibbling about games, I feel as though my Iron Hammer Of Judgement should be absolute. With 70s-styled stealth puzzle game Serial Cleaner [official site], though, I am confounded. Time and again, I fire it up and my brain clearly tells me "yeah, I really dig this", but a few minutes later I've alt-F4ed right outta Dodge and am busy making a colleague endure my shower of invective about the game.

I tried to come up with a more insightful way of putting this, but all I've ended up with is this: Serial Cleaner is a really good game put inside the shell of a bad one. Or maybe vice-versa.

It's a great, great concept, with style to match. You're a freelance cleaner for what, for want of a better term, we'll call the crime industry. Killers are good at killing, but maybe not so hot at cleaning up after themselves, so they call you to get rid of the bodies and clean up the blood, plus any other assorted evidence.

Trouble is, the rozzers are already at the scene by the time you arrive, which means you're playing cat and mouse while trying to haul bodies back to your car and (very literally, in this interpretation) hoover up the blood. Hide in cupboards and caravans, sneak out to haul a cadaver around by the armpits or pocket a gold watch splattered with telltale wrist-based DNA.

The stealth is broadly similar to the cone-of-view Metal Gear Solid system; blunder into an enemy's eyeline and they'll immediately pursue you. If they catch you, it's instant death and back to the start of the level.

(Have you guessed why Serial Cleaner makes me frustrated instead of happy yet?)

If spotted, you can sometimes outrun 'em for long enough to jump into a hidey-hole, at which point things go Must Have Been Rats a few seconds later. Which is fine by me: stealth tropes exist for a reason, and one of those reasons is that enemies remaining permanently on a state of high alert is extremely hard (though not impossible) to reconcile with having a grand old sneaky time.

What is less fine is the sudden failure aspect. Getting caught means insta-death and restarting the level, which is a miserable business after you've spent seven long minutes being painstakingly cautious but didn't predict that one enemy would suddenly turn in your direction. (Enemy movements are less prescribed than in some stealth games, which sounds great on paper but in practice means a lot of sudden punishment despite best-laid plans).

Every body will have to be reached and taken back to the car all over again, every bloodstain will need hoovering up all over again. What should be joyful silliness - I'm hoovering up blood right behind a copper's back! - becomes grinding, miserable repetition far too early on.

Serial Cleaner tries to ameliorate this repetition by randomising body/item placement every time you restart the level, but I think this backfires. You can't learn from your experience about how to best approach each corner (as in Hotline Miami, which this has a little in common with), but instead are effectively back to square one each time.

Though levels aren't especially long, and nor is the game as a whole, having to repeat every aspect of them several times over rips all the theme's joy away and replaces it with increasingly tedious routine.

It's not as though I can retry a failed level in a completely different way - even if the bodies might lie in a different corner to last time, by and large you still need to follow the same route around the map to collect them and then back from them to the car, repeating the same evasions in the same places, very possibly many times over.

Serial Cleaner has a certain get out of jail free card there, in that it's a smirking simulation of a (mostly) imaginary job, and as such might justify daily grind. But one of the troubles here is that, with its capering 70s style, all funk soundtrack and moustachied marathon runners and Zodiac references, it's loudly proclaiming, "hey, look how fun I am!"

Maybe some smart ideas just can't survive translation into a full game, or maybe a smart idea cannot survive without equally smart design. I think in this case it's that Serial Cleaner's levels need a stronger, more thought-out puzzle element rather than relying on this oxymoronic combination of randomness and repetition.

It's not that strategy's entirely absent - you need to employ some timing, and learn where the hiding places are - but it takes a distant back seat to try, try again, and the joke just can't survive that. I appreciate that checkpoints might seem to be anathema to the silent post-assassin concept, to that one perfect run structuring, but one mid-level save really would make all the difference here, I suspect.

Conversely, you can to some extent and in some cases game the levels by jumping into a hiding spot right in front of a pursuing enemy, at which point they can't work out where you are and give up a moment later. This might sound like insultingly dumb stealth mechanics, but if anything it plays out more like the game I suspect Serial Cleaner wants to be - madcap, rule-bending oddity, rather than mechanical reruns.

I shouldn't be doing this. I shouldn't be writing grim words about a comedy stealth game that's basically What Mr Wolf Did In 1971. But I am, because it's really annoying.

And yet every screenshot I stuff into this article makes me yearn to play Serial Cleaner again. "Yup, that's exactly the kind of game you dig," proclaims my ignorant hind-brain yet again. Maybe I was just having an off day last time. Maybe the dice will go in my favour this time. Maybe I've missed something. Maybe I'm playing it wrong. Maybe...

Maybe Serial Killer is a great idea with appealing style, saddled with iffy design and insufficient flexibility. Walks the walk, but the talk's another matter. For some, that's going to be forgivable because of its conceptual novelty and stylistic verve (which includes unlocking wackier or film-inspired character outfits and maps). Me, though - I want to scrub all evidence of Serial Cleaner from my PC before its lovely look tempts me into having a tedious time all over again.

Serial Cleaner is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam, GOG and Humble for £12/$15/€15.

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