Serial Cleaner was an indie game released in 2017 to a fair bit of applause and appreciation. The Steam version in particular has almost universal very positive reviews (here’s ours), while the critic and audience scores on Metacritic were slightly more mixed. It was one which unfortunately passed me by, lost in the ether as I was enjoying Horizon: Zero Dawn and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Thankfully, the top-down stealth orientated original was successful enough to spawn a sequel: Serial Cleaners.
Whereas the original sported a more basic look and a single protagonist, Serial Cleaners introduces 3 new members to the cleanup crew and a much more detailed art style. Does it pull off the perfect getaway or leave blotches of a job left unfinished?
I’m Winston Wolfe, I Solve Problems
Serial Cleaners opens with an introduction to all of the new criminal crew. There’s 4 in total, including our returning anti-hero from the original, who now leads this eccentric bunch. A psychopathic yet deeply curious brute, a budding art student with a wavering self-assurance and a hacker who speaks in acronyms because it’s so el-o-el.
The 90s backdrop works superbly well in providing creative setups for their missions and backstories. It’s a very Pulp Fiction-esque type narrative, where the present-day scene acts as a gateway to explore how each member entered the fold and became part of the crew.
The writing and dialogue is adept at exploration of each character’s motivations and history, but the way in which the story jumps around did prove confusing. There’s a dramatic moment that happens about two thirds of the way through that felt like it came out of nowhere, and I’m still unsure about whether I’d just missed something or if it just wasn’t set up properly.
Aside from this, the band of ill-fitting criminals are charismatic and have their fair share of heartfelt moments which carry the narrative well. Exploring the seedy underbelly of the 90s is constantly compelling and Serial Cleaners takes advantage of this exceptionally well.
Cut My Life Into Pieces
Split into multiple acts, you’ll embark on a flashback memory for each character per act. The team are here to do a job: make bodies disappear, inexplicably hoover up blood and avoid the fuzz at all costs. Each cleaner has their own style of doing so, providing an element of variety to each mission.
Hal, for example, is wildly erratic and violent, giving him the means to dismember bodies. Not just for gruesome effect, it can also be a tool to shock any nearby law enforcement into passing out, allowing him to remove them from the mission area.
Vip3r can interact with various computers to hack objects which provide distraction opportunities or knock-out options, while Lati vaults walls, dashes over gaps and creates shortcuts by moving objects. While it doesn’t differentiate the gameplay dramatically, each character has their own abilities which’ll make you assess your route to success just that bit more.
The core gameplay loop remains from the 2017 original, whereby you’re dropped into a location, with various bodies strewn about, blood trails plastered all over the floor and evidence that needs to be removed, pronto. To this end, each cleaner can hoover blood, carry or drag corpses and can sneak around through the environment with the Police prowling about.
Cleanup on Aisle Everywhere
There’s a lot of missions in Serial Cleaners, which makes it all the more impressive but how distinct each one feels. Levels set out in the open like an overpass featuring a rave gone wrong or a luxury boat hosting a cocaine fuelled rampage are compelling in their own right, and present different challenges.
One level had me infiltrating a prison block, providing dynamic options of setting loose prisoners to take out a couple of cops. Meanwhile, the aforementioned boat level has you tripping during your cleanup work, having guards disappear at random, affecting your ability to predict their patrols.
As you progress through the story, the environments become multi-layered, featuring a number of floors or different areas, as well as more obstacles to overcome. Instead of just throwing more guards at you, there may be bodies placed in areas that require a lot of footwork to get them to a disposable area, putting you at more risk of detection.
Cameras will be a persistent nuisance or long-ranged officers may have further line-of-sight, that kind of thing. It felt like an organic difficulty gradient as your skills and understanding develop, particularly when you get to grips with using hiding spots, hidden pathways (like vents) and the various distraction tools you have available.
You Missed a Spot
Over my 7 hours playthrough, the gameplay held up excellently and I had a great time. It felt satisfying to finally get rid of that troublesome piece of evidence or outwit that inconveniently patrolling guard, while the missions were just long enough to be challenging without becoming mundane.
There were a couple of gripes that I noticed after some time of playing it however, like those stains you’ve managed to mostly get out but just leave a tinge of discolouring you can’t help but notice. Enemies’ lines-of-sight are quite abusable once you get to grips with how they work, for instance.
On some levels, I could pretty much run around the entire environment and as long as I was quick enough round a corner or into a vent, they were powerless to stop me. Additionally, your hoover can inadvertently break their ability to guard effectively, as you can use the sound to draw them completely away from a necessary area, even though it’s meant to be a deterrent for your progress.
I had one issue where 2 specific bodies on a later-game level didn’t spawn, requiring me to restart the whole mission again, which was frustrating. Additionally, throughout every cutscene there would be these annoying delays where a character would finish their dialogue but it wouldn’t move on to the next piece, causing you to just stare blankly at the screen until it decided to move things along.
It’s pretty sound mechanically for the most part, but I found it a bit too easy to skip through some sections at pace and the niggling little issues were noticeable while playing.
You Scrub Up Well
Graphics wise, Serial Cleaners seems like a big step up from its predecessor in its environments and level of detail. The pulp aesthetic works superbly in most levels, providing a sense of classy 90s lifestyle mixed with the insidious dirty dealings of the era.
There’s, expectedly, a lot of bloodshed on show and the game never really deviates from showing this off. You can’t kill anyone else while playing, as you’re limited to throwing a limb or sprinting into guards to knock them over, so the brutality is more passive. Plus, you’re the one cleaning it up, so really the cops should be thanking you.
Character models in the in-game cutscenes can appear a bit lifeless and lacking in texture or detail, especially as they aren’t really animated – they tend to stand static still. However, the pre-rendered cutscenes have immense style and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the creative talent that’s evidently flowed into each of the concepts for these levels.
Moreover, added effects like bloodsoaked chainsaws appearing on-screen or the pop-up of a flashing golden vinyl help sell the overall appeal. The soundtrack adds a fantastic bit of depth as you navigate these hazardous environments, with some great tunes thrown in to keep you focused.
There’s a lot to appreciate about Serial Cleaners’ presentation and style, which does a lot of the heavy lifting for the immersion in its criminal world.
A Job Well Done
To finish up, it’s easy to recommend Serial Cleaners. From what I’ve seen of the original, it seems to improve on a host of systems in a significant way. The style and finesse of the environments, the challenge of its gameplay, the supremely competent selection of music, it all adds up to a surprisingly great cleaning job.
I wish real life cleaning was this fun. You know, minus the bodies, limbs and buckets of blood, but you can’t have everything in life. There are some issues, like the exploitable AI in certain sections and the small technical bugs which leave a rather stale stain on the carpet, but the rug itself is a decoration to be appreciated.
Top-down stealth is a hard genre to get right but Serial Cleaners makes an earnest effort that deserves applause. Get your mop out, there’s plenty of corpses and nefarious pieces of evidence you’ll be wanting to clean up.
A glorious pulp style mixed with engaging stealth gameplay makes Serial Cleaners a compelling 90s narcotic to sink your time into. The trip may be a little bumpy on account of the bugs and inconsistent AI, but you’ll be left feeling fulfilled and ultimately satisfied, which is more than Scarface or Vincent from Pulp Fiction can attest.
Serial Cleaners is launching on PC (review platform) Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS, Xbox Series X and Series S & PlayStation 5 on September 22nd, 2022.
Developer: Draw Distance
Publisher: 505 Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.