The 1970s are popularly characterised as an era of boldness. The ramifications of second-wave feminism and the American Civil Rights Movement were beginning to manifest, reshaping the social world. Meanwhile, big fashion ruled the decade, alongside the emergence and mainstream acceptance of disco, heavy metal, and rap. Drawing elements from the revolutionary music and lurid brightness of the ’70s, iFun4All’s Serial Cleaner is a love letter to this tumultuous period. Unfortunately, the fantastic evocation of a lost time is served by an uneven gaming experience that, while fun, is frustrating and unlikely to remain with the player for more than a few weeks.
A profound sense of silliness lies at the heart of Serial Cleaner, stretching from the visuals, through the wafer-thin story, and manifesting most prominently in the gameplay. Users become the Cleaner, a moustachioed Mafioso who, as his title suggests, clears crime scenes after gangsters have finished their bloody enterprises. While players are armed with only body bags and a vacuum, the goal in any given scene is tripartite: collect evidence, move bodies to drop points, and hoover up the blood stains bespattering the environments. While each task is simple in isolation, the locales that the Cleaner works in are swarming with police agents, making Serial Cleaner into a top-down stealth-based adventure. The NPCs adhere to patrol patterns, which can be disturbed by removing bodies and evidence or activating noise-creating devices. Alternatively, police behaviour can be altered by moving interactive parts of the scenery. Furthermore, players are able to outwit the officials by leaping into hiding spots—ranging from cardboard boxes to potted plants—dotted around the environment. Despite the inclusion of this bizarre (though convenient) emergency escape route, the quasi-randomised object placement can make the game teeth-gnashingly difficult, as enemy patrols sometimes become near-impossible to avoid. Compounding the frustration arising from seemingly unfair failures is the hard resets that occur on capture, as gamers are forced to restart the entire level, with the revised object placement requiring a new strategy to be formulated. A checkpoint system might mitigate this issue, but would also cheapen the overall experience, so no easy solution is forthcoming. The brevity of individual missions makes failure more palatable, but Serial Cleaner still feels disrespectful of the player’s time. For those able to overlook this issue, the game justifies its entry fee with a wealth of content, including 10 bonus missions (based on classic films) and a wide variety of challenge modes, in addition to the 20 core story missions.
Thankfully, the gameplay is engaging enough to maintain interest throughout the adventure because the narrative offers little more than insipid justification for the Cleaner’s activities. Saddled with gambling debts, the character takes on jobs in the hope of raising enough money to pay back his creditors, even while continuing to make ill-advised bets. Matters take an unexpected turn when the Cleaner gains a client from outside his organisation who requires him to clear crime scenes that become ever more bizarre, while the outside world is gripped by fears of a murderer known as the Echo Killer. These various plot threads weave together without any real surprises, resulting in banality, reinforced by the pedestrian storytelling techniques. Nevertheless, the game does bear a hint of sparkling wit in the satirical proposition of an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary situations in the hope of overcoming ordinary problems. Unfortunately, the developers choose not to expand on this aspect of the narrative, although, to be fair, Serial Cleaner is not intended as an exploration of morality and ethics. Gameplay is paramount, and the story is present merely to string together a series of increasingly difficult missions, whereas the audiovisual presentation does the heavy lifting in terms of tone-setting.
Broad strokes and garish colouring define Serial Cleaner’s graphical style, resulting in an energetic and sometimes confusing atmosphere. Adopting a top-down perspective allows the game to avoid the complexity of many stealth titles, ensuring accessibility. However, this viewpoint, when combined with the 2D cut-out style of the characters and environments, causes orientation issues in the multi-layered levels. Reassuringly, the level design is usually straightforward enough that any confusion is short-lived and easily overcome. The flattened, papercraft aesthetic does require an adjustment period, but the simplicity of the style allows detail to come to the fore, whether that be in the Cleaner’s film-inspired alternative clothing options or the homely touches applied to the game’s various settings. While each locale is richly decorated, only a few stand out as truly memorable, with many seeming samey and nondescript. Regardless, the flat shading and simplistic colouring help the game to evoke the neon-drenched vision of the ’70s so often witnessed in the media. This effect of the visuals is replicated by the soundtrack, which variously draws from disco, heavy metal, and electronica to create a set of background music that writhes with insistent energy to set the blood pumping. Aside from the music, Serial Cleaner contains little audio, and that which is present is merely passable. The lack of noise can seem disconcerting, but ultimately backs up the purity of the experience, where every element is intentionally tuned to focus attention on the gameplay.
With every aspect of the production designed to reinforce the importance of gameplay, Serial Cleaner stands out among projects that strive to employ emotional narratives and first-class graphics. While the hook of the game is enticing and the stealth-based mechanics are frequently fun, the experience is dragged down considerably by a pervasive sense of frustration and wasted time. Unfortunately, the project is so pure and so focused that attempting to rectify the existing issues would, in all likelihood, make the game worse. Serial Cleaner is ideal for a bored weekend, but lacks a certain spark required for staying power.
Reviewed on PC