Avoid the filth, clean up the filth—make up your mind!
Stealth is a tricky genre for developers to get right, as it requires a deft and subtle balance between taking power away from the player, but still ensuring that they feel empowered.
Think of the best stealth heroes: Batman, Snake, Sam Fisher, or Agent 47. In their most core stealthflavored adventures, they wouldn’t last seconds in a straight fight. Outnumbered, out-gunned/knifed, and with the constitution of a wet napkin when it comes to a straight-up ruckus, these heroes nevertheless felt powerful. The trick is that great stealth games ensure that the player is given the right tools for the job. It’s not just about staying out of sight, but about making deliberate decisions based off the sandbox before you and, well, playing with it. SerialCleaner does not do this. Not at all.
In fact, it strips everything back, leaving you, a guy whose job it is to clean up the mess left behind after mass killings, to dart about a series of top down levels. Avoiding the cops and cleaning up splashes of blood are the order of the day, broken up by bouts of body shuffling and awkward door puzzles. It’s infuriating. A standard play session plays out like this: You start a level, and must eye up the map as a whole to get a handle on enemy placements, patrol routes, and the locations of all the things you need to collect/clean. You experiment with a route. You fail and you get caught. Then you try again. You get a bit farther, and then fail again and start over again. This is fine when restarts are quick and breezy like HotlineMiami, or when failure is all about the steady accrual of the necessary knowledge and muscle memory required in order to succeed ( DarkSouls). The problem here is that this is occurring within a play space where you have so little tangible or satisfying agency. There is no adequate spin of your role here beyond just not being seen. Other heroes might stalk from the shadows, fulton balloon out useful soldiers, utilize gadgets in different ways, or change costumes to evade fail states.
While the idea of a pared-back hardcore stealth game sounds tasty, without at least some kind of interesting choice to make the whole experience falls flat, and quickly becomes irritating. Upon completion of a SerialCleaner level, you are more likely to punch your card and call it a night than punch the air and get stuck into the next.
One especially infuriating element which occurs across some levels is the random redistribution of the collectable objects. You can spend ages analysing enemy patrols and figuring out a safe route to a corner of the map. You can then fail doing something else afterwards, and the same object will be in a different place next time, rendering all your work (for this can’t really be called play) and muscle memory completely worthless. Stealth fans, heed our warning:
SerialCleaner might promise a hardcore genre fix, but behind the ‘70s veneer lies a game that takes pleasure in leaving you fuming. And unlike actual cleaning, it awards you with none of the satisfaction of a job well done.
“The whole experience falls flat, and quickly becomes irritating”