serial cleaners review

Serial Cleaners Review

“New York is a sucked orange”. That was philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s indictment, anyway: the city as a depraved cesspit bled dry of any value. It’s the antithesis of the old metaphor insinuating a limitless bounty of opportunity: the Big Apple.

Or perhaps those two analogies are more interwoven than they first seem. In the case of our protagonists, the seedy underworld of the crime-ridden East Coast represents the richest opportunities, and the untimely misfortunes of one person make for the spoils of another.

Here, cleaning up other people’s mess pays the big bucks.

The indie game featured in this Serial Cleaners review follows a Gang of four misfits that deal with the aftermath of the city’s worst homicides. As the player, your task is to navigate them through an array of grizzly crime scenes — to dump the bodies, dispose of evidence, and clear up the red stuff.

I spent 16 hours with the game, and as the credits rolled, I found it to have been a far more interesting title than I had initially anticipated. On one hand, it’s unique styling, grungy story, and aversion to the rules set it apart from anything I’ve played in the genre. On the other, it’s a pretty odd stealth game.

Nineteen Ninety Crime

The game opens with a minimalist film-noir cut scene depicting NYC at the turn of the millennium, and the nostalgia it evokes is almost palpable.

I’ve never lived in New York, but I’m wholly familiar with the grimy urban environments rendered here.

In shows like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star, I’ve seen the same flickering neon shop fronts glaring splendidly against the backdrop of the bitter winter months; the somber flow of traffic to the tune of smooth jazz is reminiscent of the calmative midnight scenes in Taxi Driver; the disparity between the sprawl of tightly packed narrow buildings and a skyline of immense 800-foot buildings is something I’ll always be warmly accustomed to as a Londoner.

Nostalgic beatitude is the canvas on which the story of Serial Cleaners is set. It excels at defining a culture that has scarily slipped into the distant past in the blink of an eye, acutely tapping into our memories of the Y2K bug and The World Trade Centre.

VHS distortion
VHS distortion: a pre-requisite for any 90s-style footage!

Of course, it’s not all turquoise puffer jackets and Casio digital watches. Amidst the mundanity of people shuffling back from work, we witness each of our characters just about to start their shift.

Covert crime is going on all the time in these decrepit old streets. We’ve seen plenty of games hit upon this sort of style before, yet I can’t recall one that draws you in with its opening quite so well. 

But this is a video game, after all. In this medium, style must always follow substance, right?

Matchbox Sandbox

So cleaning up crime scenes, then. Our checklist for each level mostly follows the same format throughout. Bodies must be wrapped up and taken back to your car, and so should incriminating pieces of evidence. You’ll also need to use a vacuum cleaner to suck up all the blood.

Unfortunately, the cleaners always seem to arrive at the scene a little too late — when the place is riddled with cops. As such, you can’t just plug in your Walkman and start singing aloud to your favorite Boyz ll Men album as you scrub the place down. The task must be executed methodically and silently.

Well, theoretically. This is your classic video game representation of stealth, remember, so the police display an unrealistic degree of incompetence. Efforts in realism are always something of a mixed bag even in the most complex stealth games, but here, the whole thing is best likened to a Pantomime.

The cops fail to see you unless you’re within a few meters of them, and if you run away, they’ll most likely chalk it up to a hallucination.

I found that getting the job done revolved more around my proficiency with the controls, so my ability to sprint around corners and recall the fastest routes on the fly was more important than being sneaky.

Having witnessed the flash of a human form for the twelfth time, as well as the bodies they’ve just identified mysteriously disappearing, the penny does finally drop with these guys. They’ll eventually take to shooting you on sight, but this didn’t really raise the stakes.

 version of new york
Even the arcades aren’t safe in this version of New York.

There’s virtually no penalty for being caught. Back at your car, you can save as many times as you want, and you’ll have to take each body and piece of evidence back there anyway.

Naturally, you’ll save each time you tick something off from your list, and this took the annoyance out of having to re-do multiple objectives because you messed up near the end.

The lack of penalty also gives you the freedom for endless experimentation, and the thick enemy A.I. was forgiven on account of how fun it was to zoom around the map cat and mouse style.

This is far less of the simulation-style stealth arenas fans of the genre have come to know and love, so what’s on offer here is bound to leave a lot of people wanting more.

It’s an interesting dynamic. Without the tensity of failure, I can’t say Serial Cleaners excels as a stealth game.

Knowing you can re-spawn immediately fosters impatience: with nothing to lose, I just wanted to push my luck, and this was accentuated given that there’s no real incentive for proficiency — no scoring system, extra challenges, or perfect run rewards.

These elements are stealth standards, and they’ve been video game standards since the arcades. The game would’ve undoubtedly opened itself up to a broader audience had it been more fleshed out. Replayability is considered a crucial feature in a stealth game, and there’s no impetus to play a level twice here.

Nevertheless, I still had fun with these matchbox crime scenes. As stealth mechanics go this is pretty bare-bones, but what was there was robust enough to enjoy messing about with.

I loved scooting around a crime scene to the befuddlement of my enemies, and when I think about it, that’s a large part of what I like about stealth games in the first place.

The Hitman series recognizes there’s a comedy, a juvenile glee, in witnessing utter confusion in your enemies, and Serial Cleaners nails that same element despite its loose approach.

serial cleaners
You’ve gotta break some eggs to make an omelet, I guess.

It’s not a totally shallow experience, either. While your objectives never really change from the standard trifecta, the gameplay is kept fresh enough thanks to each protagonist’s special abilities — as well as how each environment is structured to exploit them.

Lati is more nimble and able to quickly vault obstacles to escape capture, while Viper has the skill set to hack light switches and electrical equipment to cause a distraction.

Each character has more than one trick up their sleeve and discovering these is part of the fun, so I’ll try not to spoil that aspect any more than I already have.

The short length of each level also does a lot to keep the mechanics from getting stale, and when you take that in conjunction with the quick save ability and overall lack of fail state, negatives can become positives depending on your perspective.

Top-Down Town

A large part of my enjoyment gameplay-wise came from the art direction. The whole thing is played from an isometric perspective, and even though the camera is zoomed out far, I was thoroughly impressed with the designer’s careful eye for detail in each level.

From the dingy down-trodden apartment block, complete with a rear window view of the snowy city, to the cleverly arranged, multi-layered maze of a TV set, each crime scene has been affectionately crafted to radiate the charm of the decade.

Aside from a couple of less-inspired outdoor levels, each new environment was inventive and imaginative in both the gameplay and visual sense. The mechanics in Serial Cleaners are basic, but I felt they were pushed as far as possible thanks to the level layouts.

serial cleaners
So no one told you life was gonna be this way.

The scenery was also scored with some fantastic music. From Boom Bap style East Coast beats to meandering trumpets and swelling Rhodes chords, most of the tracks did a great deal to envelop the environment in a rich sonic atmosphere.

The same attention to detail was also given to the story segments, and I particularly liked the music written for Bob’s legitimate cleaning job as a younger man — where lush 80s chorus effects gel with a burst of warm, late afternoon sunshine. It felt like Vaporware the game.

The only aspect that let the overall presentation down was the close-up character models. The low-poly renderings aren’t noticeably bland during gameplay, but using the 3D engine for cutscenes left a lot to be desired.

People have no facial animation when they speak, and rather than this coming across as intentionally artistic, it just feels a bit off. I think the game loses that potent nostalgic edge in these rougher moments, and I would’ve much-preferred cutscenes depicted in stills within the style of the cinematic reels.

The cinematics weren’t just for the game’s opening sequence: you’ll see a new one in every act. These moments went a long way in making small, isolated levels feel part of a broader world, and they each hone the same hypnotic allure I referenced at the start of this review.

And, generally, it was the segments devoid of stealth gameplay that pulled me in the most. I enjoyed the gameplay, but what kept me hooked was the Scorsese-inspired stage play that was the narrative.

Yappy New Year

The story takes place on New Year’s Eve, and between levels, we witness each of the four protagonists reminiscing together about their most memorable jobs.

The story takes place as a lengthy conversation throughout the night. The player has the choice of which protagonist they want to play as: you’ll listen to the dialogue between the crew, and then be given the opportunity to pick which character’s past you want to delve into first.

Once you’ve played each level as it relates to the conversation at hand, the act finishes and you’ll move on to the next lot of levels.

The narrative opens up non-linearly and retrospectively in a similar fashion to Tarantino’s Resiviour Dogs, and there’s something inherently gripping about this type of narrative framing. The game weaves lots of little stories from different time periods into a big twist, and the payoff was executed brilliantly.

serial cleaners
Many of the game’s story scenes take on this cool stage-play look.

The characters themselves seem to fit standard archetypes at first. We’ve got the out-of-touch but time-served leader in Bob, the rebellious hacker with Viper, the crazy yet misunderstood chainsaw-wielding Psycho, and the supposedly street-smart, wrong-place-in-the-wrong-time Lati.

Through some niecely implemented non-stealth gameplay sequences, however, the game deepens their respective arcs to be much more meaningful.

There were a few instances where the script felt a bit forced, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of Viper’s forced, cringy text speak, but these moments didn’t take away from the overall impact. If anything, the occasional blips were made more noticeable in contrast to the good stuff.

Sometimes, story segments and gameplay merged. We’d go from Bob dumping bodies in the late 90s to him visiting his dying mother in the hospital; after cutting up corpses with a chainsaw in one level, we cut to Psycho discussing books with his partner in their house.

It was in those story-centric gameplay moments that Serial Cleaners harmonized its elements particularly well.

The isometric birds-eye camera might exist functionally to serve stealth gameplay, but in these narrative interjections, it also facilitates a Sims-like window into a turbulent relationship or mundane day at work.

serial cleaners scene
One of the more emotional scenes that’s carried by a beautifully designed set.

I was glad to see an initially cliche story become increasingly more involved. The game won me over with an unorthodox blend of styles from all facets of media, and honestly, I was fascinated with how it reframed my usual methodology for criticism.

The verdict: Harmoniously Inconsistent

Score: 7.5/10

serial cleaners
You can’t brick a brick.

Despite an array of clearly defined shortcomings, I couldn’t help but find pleasure in Serial Cleaners’ eccentric characters and idiosyncratic translation of the 1990s.

Even though I considered the gameplay to be the weaker element, I also relished in my ability to forgo any semblance of stealth: to skate gleefully on a trail of blood with a line of truncheon-wielding pigs behind me.

That’s one of Bob’s special abilities, and for all Serial Cleaners did to box itself in as a paper-thin stealth game, a lot of fun was borne out of its disregard for genre conventions.

It’s an interesting, artistic, and entertaining ride — a rather odd mish-mash of genres and styles that draws from a rich culture of art from many mediums, but that somehow manages to satisfy as a game.

A bit of a mess, then, but as our player characters also discover, sometimes a mess is worth your time.

Pros

  • An intriguing and well-paced gameplay-driven story with many twists and turns
  • Simple yet satisfying stealth that prioritized the sillier thrills
  • Superbly directed cinematic sequences
  • Rich, evocative music that matched perfectly with each scene

Cons

  • Jarring 3D cutscenes that felt out of place
  • Lack of any reward for performing well in a level — no scoring system, leaderboards, or extra challenges
  • Some occasional peculiar line delivery and stilted conversations between characters

Alternatives

If it sounds like you’ll enjoy Serial Cleaners’ flavor of stealth, here are some other titles you’ll no doubt have fun with.

Monaco: What’s yours is mine

monaco what's yours is mine

Uniquely, this is a stealth game best played with friends — it’s one of few co-op-based titles in the genre.

Between robbing banks and performing prison breaks from a top-down view, you’ll also find a great story inspired by some of the best movies of the last fifty years. If you’re into crime games, you have to check out Monaco.

El Hijo

el hijo

Swap murder scenes for the Mexican desert and hardened New Yorkers for a little kid with a slingshot, and you have El Hijo. The game is very similar to Serial Cleaners with its isometric camera-style stealth, but it’s decidedly more lighthearted.

Metal Gear Solid (original)

metal gear solid (original)

Metal Gear Solid’s top-down stealth-action gameplay is still as fun as ever. If you enjoy a great story and straightforward stealth mechanics, you need to give this classic a try if you haven’t already!

Mark of the Ninja

mark of the ninja

There aren’t many games that cross side-scrolling platforming with stealth, so Mark of the Ninja is a rare gem indeed. It takes a simple approach to stealth that prioritizes your proficiency with the controls, making for quick, satisfying blasts of fun.

Heat Signature

heat signature

Heat Signature isn’t a straight stealth game. Each mission presents a chaotic romp through space, and it’s your job to navigate a mercenary through a maze of deadly scenarios from a top-down perspective.

Improvisation is your greatest asset, and with no real penalty for messing up, fans of Serial Cleaners will feel right at home.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: I heard this is actually the second game Draw Distance has produced in the series. Do I need to have played the first title to play this one?

Answer: The first game, Serial Cleaner, is set in the same universe as the sequel, but it’s certainly not essential to have played it to enjoy this story. Both stories feature Bob as a protagonist, though, so if you enjoyed his ark in Serial Cleaners, you’ll want to check out his debut!

Question: I don’t tend to have a lot of patience for stealth games. Will I enjoy this?

Answer: The mechanics in Serial Cleaners are fairly basic, so don’t write it off if you don’t get on with more complex games like Hitman or Dishonoured.

You can play to fit your own definition of fun, and with no real penalty for getting caught and unlimited saves, I’d say you’d still find enjoyment here even if stealth games aren’t your thing.

Question: I don’t have a PC. Are there any differences between platforms?

Answer: Serial Cleaners is also available for Mac OS, Linux, and Nintendo Switch. Other than some minor graphical differences, there’s no change in how the game plays on each platform.

Play Log

Linden spent 10 hours with Serial Cleaners in total. There weren’t really any extra challenges to work through, but he got through the entirety of the main story and is now working towards the alternative endings.

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