There’s a moment in John Wick after the titular badass has decimated several attackers who made the idiotic mistake of invading his home. With bodies littering the floor and blood soaking into the carpet, Wick makes a call to contacts from his previous life. Minutes later, a clean-up crew arrives to drag the corpses away and freshen the place up. It’s the job of unsung heroes (?) and has frequently made me question if such a thing exists in other action movies. How often do we see a building full of bodies left behind after an action sequence? Surely they don’t just get left there, right? Even in real life, do the mob have cleanup crews that hide the evidence? According to Serial Cleaners, the answer is yes, and they’re so damn good at their job they can even clean up a crime scene while the cops are are busy investigating it.
Serial Cleaners picks up from the events of 2017’s Serial Cleaner in which Bob was drowning in debt and in need of some serious cash, bringing him into the gruesome world of cleaning up crime scenes. Skipping forward we find Bob on New Year’s eve with three other people he’s brought into the fold: the young Erin and her love of the budding Internet scene, Psycho Hal who has a couple of issues he should probably seek psychiatric help with, and Lati who wants to make it big as an artist but has instead found another type of art form altogether. Throughout the night, the group will reminisce about successful clean-ups, close calls and even how Bob brought them into the gruesome business of hoovering up blood and packing bodies into the back of cars.
There’s a grungy, grimy vibe to the presentation that’s backed up by the heavy use of moody Jazz. It gives Serial Cleaners the appropriate crime-thriller tone. It’s a fun contrast against the very gamey elements, like how characters whip a vacuum cleaner out of mid-air, and quite a change from the more Pop-orientated style of the first game. It’s all used to tell a surprisingly good story via the medium of flashbacks. The four cleaners are all given solid backstories that are engaging to learn about and the voice acting is actually quite good given the small, budget nature of the game. When the credits rolled (anywhere around 5-8 hours) I liked all of them, even if they were working for the mob and cleaning up corpses The only thing that didn’t quite work, in my opinion, was the ending which didn’t hit the emotional high it was aiming for, largely due to the group’s lack of believable reaction.
Back in 2017, Serial Cleaner used a top-down view with 2D graphics but for the sequel, the developers have gone full 3D using an interesting art style that looks….good? Kind of? The lack of detail in textures is a deliberate choice but when you combine it with the sharp angles, stiff animations and even the lack of lipsync the whole package becomes a bit underwhelming.
The setup for nearly every level is the same; evade the boys in blue while carefully grabbing evidence, disposing of all the bodies and hoovering up the blood. An easy-to-understand line-of-sight system and handy circle that tells you how much noise you’re generating make the stealth simple and intuitive, although you can go for a more heavy-handed approach by opening a door in a cop’s face or running full-pelt into them. You get to go on a pretty decent tour of the city, too, visiting a variety of locations that include a sitcom set that looks very familiar, a multi-story parking lot, a fancy yacht (while tripping on drugs) and an art gallery. It’s amazing the kind of sightseeing you can do while tidying up other people’s fuck ups.
As the letter S on the end of the game’s name implies, Serial Killers big gimmick is no longer being limited to a single character. You aren’t free to swap between them, mind you, which feels like the game’s biggest missed opportunity. At least letting us replay levels as other cleaners would have been good, but sadly even being able to replay levels is a missing feature. Instead, you’re handed the meat keys to a specific cleaner, and may perhaps get to swap to a second one during a couple of missions. Putting this disappointment aside, each of the squad has slightly different skills, starting with Bob, the jaded mentor who just can’t seem to get away from the mob and his life of body snatching. He can wrap up corpses in bags, which is great because it stops them bleeding all over the carpet and also lets him wander around in public spaces with them slung over his shoulder without arousing suspicion. Those bags are important, though, because he won’t carry unwrapped corpses, only drag them. Considering his line of work this seems like a slightly strange caveat, but I guess everyone has to draw a line in the sand. Or, in this case, in the entrails. Bob’s big party trick is big able to slide on blood, providing a speed boost and just looking fucking cool in the process.
Lati dreams of being an artist and escaping her rough street life, and as a result of her upbringing, she’s the most nimble of the group. She’s the only one capable of climbing and vaulting, albeit only in very specific locations. She’s a master of parkour, if parkour was the art of dropping 5ft and clambering over a small wall. Exactly why the other Cleaners are incapable of clambering around is a mystery, but let’s not question the integrity of the game’s logic too much, shall we? She can also spray-paint “Fuck the Police” on just about anything, acting as the perfect distraction for the cops.
Erin is the tech-savvy team member, a self-described former rave Queen and internet lover who speaks like she learned English from Reddit. Putting aside her use of Internet slang, her small stature lets her crawl through vents but also means she can only drag corpses which is slower and leaves behind a small trail of blood. She’s also capable of hacking into computers and using them to turn off lights, activate sound distractions or deactivate cameras for a short period so she can scamper through the area safely. I found her to be the most underwhelming of the bunch because her hacking is never used in any creative ways.
Without a doubt, Psycho has the most unique playstyles of all the characters, living up to his moniker. For starters, he’s the only member of the group capable of knocking out cops by throwing something at them and hiding them in containers. What can he throw? Limbs. I feel like this needs a wee bit of explaining: Psycho loves his chainsaw and can use it to chop up corpses. It’s a gruesome concept, so gruesome that any nearby police officers will collapse at the mere sight, making them easy to drag off to a nearby container. You can then pick up the limbs and hurl them at other unsuspecting officers with terrifying accuracy, too. It gives Pyscho a very distinctive style compared to his counterparts, urging you to be a little more aggressive.
Despite their clear differences, though, it’s fair to say that each level plays out much the same as the others. The occasional wrench gets tossed into the gears, like having to drag an NPC to a specific place or trying to clean up a crime scene while tripping balls, but by the time I wrapped up the final level I was definitely feeling a sense of repetition. The small levels don’t leave much room for messing about, either, nor do they have any particularly interesting gameplay twists outside of letting you chuck corpses into a waste disposal chute. And yet, there’s also an undeniably weird allure about hiding bodies and hoovering up blood, the same kind of odd allure that the cleaning-sim style games have. There’s no gameplay reason to hoover up every single speck, but that’s exactly what I found myself wanting to do, because if you’re going to tidy up, do it properly, right?
Unfortunately, Serial Cleaners suffers from the same issues many stealth games do. On the whole, we’ve come to accept that the AI in the genre needs to be kind of dumb for the whole thing to work. That’s fine, but Serial Cleaners takes it too far by having police officers, detectives and SWAT teams with the same level of intelligence as the average TikTok user. At first, it’s natural to plan all your moves, to carefully watch the patrols and consider every angle, but all of that quickly changes when you realise just how oblivious the guards are. You can jog past them at close range, for example, so getting around the levels is easy. You’re given a generous amount of time to hide if spotted, even if they see you dragging a corpse, and provided you get behind some cover they’ll go back to their route. Speaking of which, they’re remarkably easy-going about bodies vanishing, as well as evidence. You’d think they’d begin to suspect something was amiss when important evidence disappears without a trace and corpses magically leaves the building and would progressively ramp up security, but nah, it must have just been the wind or something. It’s even possible to inch bodies closer to the disposal point by dragging them a little bit, then hiding until the guard is past and repeating the process. And if you do get spotted, jogging behind a corner and then hiding under a table for 30-seconds will do the trick. A guard may amble around for a while with his gun out, putting as much effort into the search as an 18-year-old minimum-wage chav puts into making your Big Mac at McDonalds, before giving up, and that’s about it.
The point is, it doesn’t really make for a satisfying stealth experience. There’s no challenge, no tension, no escalating sense of danger and thus minimal feeling of achievement when you toss the final corpse into the boot of the getaway car. When the police are so easily fooled, tricked and evaded it takes a lot of fun out of it. It’s more fun when you bumble around instead of trying to act like the perfect cleaning ninja. If you play without a plan there’s a better sense of risk.
As a concept, then, I very much like Serial Cleaners. It’s a genius idea for a stealth game, and the grungy tale of the cleaners is well-told and entertaining. Although they are criminals, and at least one of the group is a certifiable nutcase, they’re a surprisingly likeable bunch of misfits. And as a sequel, Serial Killers makes some smart moves by introducing different characters with different skills. But as a stealth game, it’s lacking. The simplistic mechanics would work perfectly fine if the experience was more challenging or offered more opportunities to be creative in your approach to cleaning. Nor does it feel like Serial Cleaners fulfills its own potential by making the cleaners feel more different or having more complex level designs and so on.
Serial Cleaners is a simple, decent stealth game with a fun premise and story that never quite manages to deliver on its own promise. A solid buy for stealth fans.
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