There’s been a murder in one of New York City’s many dive bars. Four bodies, two very incriminating bits of evidence, and lots of blood. You sneak around behind pool tables, turning on jukeboxes and throwing limbs to distract the mob circling the area. As you manage to work your way through the bar, you whip out the most important tool in your kit, a vacuum, and start doing what you came here to do – clean.
The main hook of Serial Cleaners is that whoever was here before you already had all of the gory fun, leaving you to sneak around and clean up after them by wrapping up bodies, wiping down pools of blood, and getting rid of any stray limbs dotted around the place. You’re essentially the person who slips into the club after the player guns everyone down in Hotline Miami.
Serial Cleaners takes place on New Year’s Eve in 1999, as four cleaners meet up and reminisce about some of their best jobs of the decade. Through each of the game’s six chapters, we swap between the four in any order as they share stories, with the narrative occasionally focusing on one of them for more backstory.
Eventually the story-swapping gets put aside for some fun twists and turns that can result in a few different endings. Serial Cleaners’ story isn’t anything too unique or fresh, but it’s held up by its likeable cast of characters that are surprisingly fleshed out, like Bob openly being a momma’s boy and Psycho initially struggling to talk much at all. I could do without Viper’s l33t speak, though.
Something I instantly noticed is how the sequel drastically changed its art style. The original game is simplistic and 2D,inspired by the ‘70s that looked like the closing credits of The Incredibles. The 2D aesthetic has been swapped out for full 3D models and environments and it’s a big improvement that seems necessary for the more physics-based gameplay this time around.
The overall vibe has also changed from ‘70s pop to ‘90s grunge, too, giving Serial Cleaners a gritty aesthetic that works well with all of the bloody murder scenes. Each character also has some of their thoughts and actions pop up as visual doodles on the screen, such as a cartoon sketch of one of the cleaners running around with a vacuum cleaner, which helps things from getting too dark. The smooth jazz helps too.
One of the first things you’ll figure out about Serial Cleaners is that it’s a slow game, akin to other stealth games like Hitman. In fact, Hitman is the easiest comparison point, just from a top-down view and without any of the actual killing yourself. Each level will give you a certain amount of bodies, blood, and evidence to clear up, leaving it up to you to navigate through and work at it bit by bit, dragging bodies and evidence to the car, vacuuming up blood (don’t ask me how that works), and Scooby-Doo running through doors to stay away from any cops or mobsters.
The four different cleaners give this sequel an edge over its predecessor, as each one has a unique skill set to keep things from getting stale. Psycho has a more aggressive style that involves cutting up bodies and chucking limbs around, Lati can use parkour to jump over fences, and Viper has a unique hacking mechanic that can let her cause distractions, as well as the ability to move through vents.
Sadly, Bob, the best character, has the least interesting unique move in the form of being able to slide around on blood trails, which makes him feel like the weak link compared to the rest, despite having the most interesting story. Thankfully, the four cleaners have the same core moveset, so even if Viper’s more distraction-heavy playstyle doesn’t suit you, you’ll have enough to get by.
The stealth mechanics themselves are pretty simplistic and generally just based on eye-line and making as little noise as possible when near people, but it’s still satisfying to sneak around and manipulate the environment to your advantage. Although Serial Cleaners starts off quite difficult, you’ll soon realise that there’s not much punishment for getting spotted or messing up, which feels like a bit of a misstep.
Beyond getting chased and having to reset, which in itself can be avoided by running or hiding, cops won’t do much to you even if you leave evidence and bodies in plain sight. As someone who used to love doing Silent Assassin, Suit Only runs in Hitman, it’s a shame that there’s not much stopping you from just moving bodies closer to the objective bit by bit and then running away when you need to. Combine that with a generous save system that seems to work whenever you do anything and it makes Serial Cleaners lack bite.
Even without that challenge, there’s a lot of variety in where you’ll be going. The unique way that Serial Cleaners’ story is told as four characters talk about their biggest hits means that no two levels feel similar to one another. There are a few stinkers (Viper’s introductory mission springs to mind), but most of them are inventive and mess with the formula in interesting ways. Some of the highlights include a claustrophobic corner shop with barely any room to move, a bloody sitcom set that hits far too close after recently seeing Nope, and a drug-infused clean on a cruise that has enemies fading in and out of reality and words appearing in blood as you clean.
It’s just a shame to see no kind of scoring system or level replay in effect here, as it feels completely teed up for handing players some kind of ranking based on how much blood they clean, how little they got spotted, and how fast they were. It’s a missed opportunity considering how much the mechanics feel suited to it, and how games like Hitman have proven its worth.
Although its stealth systems can feel a little too forgiving and easy to work around, Serial Cleaners’ grungey story is still one well-worth going through thanks to its likeable cast, sense of style, varied levels, and satisfying core mechanics that manage to stay fresh throughout the adventure.
Serial Cleaners is available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and PC. We tested the PC version for this review. Review code was provided by the publisher.
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