Serial Cleaner is a top-down action and stealth game, developed by IFun4all and published by Curve Digital. It released on the Nintendo Switch eShop in November 2017, just a few short months after its July release on Steam and the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One eStores, and has since become something of an indie best-seller, attracting fans and dedicated cleaners from all around the globe.
Assuming the persona of Bob ‘Bobby’ Leaner (or, as you simply become known, ‘The Cleaner’), your mission in Serial Cleaner is to follow after the death and destruction left by the Mafia and clean it all up without being seen – either by the on-site police or your enemies. With your trusty body bags and vacuum cleaner, sharp wit and blood-skating prowess, it’s up to you to rake in the dollars from your filthy and underhanded line of work and ensure that your mother can always afford to make you your favourite meatloaf.
One of the first things that struck me about Serial Cleaner was how grounded in reality it is. Set in the 1970s, and blessed with a superbly nostalgic art style and the musical accompaniments to boot, you start off in just a regular house, in your (somewhat) regular bedroom, with all the marvels of the then-modern world around you. Serial Cleaner’s soundtrack is definitely one of its best features; its music matches its aesthetic and gameplay perfectly, and it is something that I feel truly makes the game magical. Smooth, jazzy, and utterly nostalgia-inducing, it’s a really lovely and refined element which both stands out and makes playing the game a joy. Though perhaps it’s not the most appropriate for a game about cleaning up after serial killers, given its upbeat, positive tempo? Eh, who cares, it sounds awesome.
Smooth, jazzy, and utterly nostalgia-inducing, it’s a really lovely and refined element which both stands out and makes playing the game a joy.
There are a number of interactive elements available for you to look at inside your house before every mission, including the television, the radio, the newspaper and the telephone (which is how you receive all of your jobs from various ruffians and gangsters) – and you can even talk to your dear old mother to see what she thinks about things, making the game an immersive and interesting experience. Serial Cleaner is quite surprising in that sense – it does actually demonstrate convincing world-building and a story to follow. Going in, I expected it to just be a sequence of challenges that needed completing without any of the interactive or personal stuff, so having all of this incorporated as a bonus was wonderful.
You’re free to roam throughout your house and its surrounding land as much as you choose before jumping into your car and heading off to a job, and doing so reveals a very middle-class living for someone with such a dark, dirty secret career. From each of the 20 main story contracts you gain a memento, or souvenir, should we say, of your work – such as a discarded shotgun, an expensive watch, and a notebook – and all of these you display on the shelves in your room like some kind of sadistic art collector. Though I suppose you do get that satisfying feeling of completionism when the shelves are full, it’s still a bit horrifying to think that your poor mother doesn’t know what they’re all really from, and think you some kind of hero for making so much money.
Out on the job, you are given different objectives to fulfil depending on the client at hand, though as a rule you’re expected to dispose of dead bodies, steal valuable evidence (your keepsakes) and clean up a certain amount of blood to make things look like nothing ever happened there at all. The number of bodies you have to remove, the percentage of blood needing cleaning up from the crime scene, and the number of pieces of evidence you have to steal differs with each level, so you can never take that for granted.
You can use your ‘Cleaner Sense’ (by pressing and holding ZL) to find out what your objectives are, where they are located, and also pick out any good hiding spots and plan out your routes to reach them. Be careful, though; you are still playing in real-time when you use this ability, so don’t get careless! This is where the realism of the game slips a little too, perhaps – as what kind of real police would notice that dead bodies have disappeared, blood splatters have mysteriously vanished into thin air, and valuable evidence has been removed from the crime scene and yet still go back to patrolling the area in their same, predictable patterns?!
You can use your ‘Cleaner Sense’ (by pressing and holding ZL) to find out what your objectives are, where they are located, and also pick out any good hiding spots and plan out your routes to reach them.
Anyway, questioning the game’s dedication to reality aside, the difficulty and level of skill required to complete the tasks set out before you increase as you progress through the main story contracts. You start off simple, with the maps being relatively small and with few police to evade, but soon you have to move items in order to pass by them, tactically alter police paths of movement by distracting them with moving cars or shipping crates, and even estimate their fields of vision and the paths they may choose to take as the game takes away the indicators you’ve grown used to taking notice of as standard (e.g. the flashlight ‘cones’ of vision). On some of the levels, it becomes harder to discern paths of movement and fields of vision due to the dark background colours, so looking carefully around (especially through the use of Cleaner Sense) before making a move is a must.
You also have to become more aware of yourself as well – your noise output when cleaning, your slowed movement when carrying bodies and the suspicion which is aroused when bodies have moved or been left, and of course, your path of escape. Things aren’t quite so simple when your work has begun to be noticed, but at least you can use moveable objects to trap police in tight corners and watch and listen to them cry out in alarm – and at that point, it’s a very good day to be a serial cleaner.
Getting caught by the police is no laughing matter, however. Once seen, escaping is near-on impossible, and even if you do manage to escape (or else jump into a hiding place just in time, where apparently even if you’re seen entering it, you’re suddenly invisible?!), their heightened suspicions mean their paths and actions are changed for a sustained amount of time before resetting to the default pattern you have been watching for so long, waiting for an opening.
Worse still, if you’re fully caught and battered over the head and into the ground with a baton, you’re forced to start the entire level over again from scratch. Pieces of evidence and bodies don’t stay in the same places, so don’t take that for granted, either – while you can memorise the layout of levels, you can’t predict where your objectives will be placed, or whose paths you’ll have to avoid crossing in pursuit of them. This can sometimes feel a little harsh, or else entirely unfair, but given the relatively short story length of the game and its price (£14.99), I think it gives it a fitting level of difficulty and a good challenge to test your patience.
Perhaps one of the best things about Serial Cleaner, in that sense, is its variation of level design and its unpredictable aspects. Even though the game is relatively short, and there are limited numbers of main story levels to complete, it never feels like you’re playing the exact same levels twice. You have to clean up places like a campsite, a supermarket, a newspaper office and a dockyard, and each one has something different to offer and poses different challenges to overcome.
Although your objectives may be the same, their locations and the paths you have to take will always vary, and you’ll have to use your cunning and wit to work out how you’ll make it through. Similarly, because you might struggle with certain levels or objectives and it takes you what feels like a million times to get them right, it feels even more rewarding when you finally do get it right and that sweet, sweet ‘make a getaway!’ sign pops up on your screen.
Serial Cleaner has quite a lot to offer in terms of bonus content and objectives, especially given its nature as both an indie title and a quite cheap game. Once you’ve completed all 20 story missions, there are ten movie-inspired bonus ones to complete (unlockable by finding film reels during the main story missions), and new challenges and goals to unlock for the main missions as well. You can even challenge yourself, turning each level into a game of its own – how fast can you complete each one, for instance? Can you complete them blindfolded, directed only by a friend to the right places and the objectives you seek? What are they like to play drunk? Some of these ideas have already been incorporated by the developers, but setting your own challenges is always a fun time, too.
Additionally, again through finding items inside the game’s core story missions, you can unlock new outfits to wear whilst playing the game. Some of these appear inherently comedic – such as the sportswear – but others look cool and inventive, such as a gangster outfit, a cowboy outfit, and a full-piece white suit, complete with a top hat. I bet that last one would be a nightmare to keep clean with such a tense career as this one of cleaning up Mafia victims’ bodies… but I suppose with the amount of skill that ‘The Cleaner’ possesses, it probably wouldn’t take him long to clean up that kind of mess, either.
In terms of faults, I’m not going to lie – Serial Cleaner has a few. For starters, the ‘hit box’ sight cones of the police flashlights can sometimes feel a bit off, triggering even when you’re not within the visible area, which can make you curse and scream indignantly at the screen when you’ve been carefully inching to the body drop zone and suddenly has officers chasing after you left, right, and centre (or is that just me?).
The meaning of the variation of ground textures was also highly frustrating as the difficulty of the levels increased. I often found myself up against an impassable piece of land or rock which resulted in my getting caught numerous times. Trial and error is to be expected with a game of this nature, but some of the level designs just really took the piss. Hoovering up blood feels a little bit awkward and clumsy, too, as your ability to skate over blood (which allows you to move quicker than your regular walk speed) can sometimes send you flying. I found that to do a good job of cleaning up all of the blood in an area, I had to jab the joystick in every random direction possible in the hope of catching the specks left behind, and whilst this was fun for a little while, it soon became a bit of a chore.
Speaking of chores, the narrow movement lines and time windows available in some levels were terribly frustrating; the number of times I had to repeat them, over and over again, before I managed to complete them was mind-numbing. It felt like the paths of the police were often too close together, or too poorly timed in relation to each other, to really feel fair. But I suppose practice makes perfect, and after twenty or more tries, I suppose there can’t be much left to surprise you other than your own dumb mistakes. It must be part of the difficulty to identify that narrow window in which you can act and triumphantly sail on through, body on your back, sniggering in glee as you thrust it out of a skyscraper window or into the boot of your car.
On a final note, was it only me that thought those main menu navigation sounds were strangely reminiscent of the strum navigation sounds in recent Guitar Hero titles? Am I reading too much into them?
Don’t get me wrong, though, I love this game. Not only does it have great level design, a wealth of content to work your way through, and is a challenge to even the most patient puzzle-solver, but it also has an involving sense of a story and is just plain funny. It takes itself seriously enough to gain your investment, but not so seriously that you get tired of it, and some of the jokes made are tongue-in-cheek and the best kind of puns. For instance, after the job at The Deadly Telegraph’s offices, your mother asks whether you met any of the writers. Your response is that you ‘dropped one of them off on the sidewalk’, and that ‘they left a lasting impression’ – given that you threw their body out of an all-glass window on the tenth floor of a high-rise complex, it’s really no wonder.
Overall, Serial Cleaner is a hugely fun title which has plenty to offer. Its £14.99 price tag is more than reasonable for the amount of content which the game holds, and its bonus levels and features are a delight both when playing for the first time or for a second in your attempts to set better records and become a ninja serial cleaner. If you’re still unsure about picking it up, check out the launch trailer below and see if its aesthetic and gameplay catches your eye. If you do end up picking it up, just be prepared to throw bodies in your car, out of windows, and into deep pits, and remember to empty your vacuum cleaner of that blood and guts you hoovered up on your previous job before throwing yourself into the next one. Happy cleaning!
This copy of Serial Cleaner was purchased from the Nintendo Switch eShop for £14.99 by Staff Writer Georgina Howlett as a Christmas gift to herself. She’s spent around eight hours cleaning up after dead bodies, and is now so familiar with her vacuum that she can blank out its incessant humming noise at will. She still hasn’t managed to get rid of the bloodstains on her shoes, though at least she’s rich enough to buy entirely new ones if she has to.