‘Serial Cleaners’ review: a flawed gem

A clean getaway

Serial Cleaners is an innovative stealth game filled with ’90s references, hard as nails sneaking challenges and some weird aesthetic choices that mark the game out as one of the more interesting skulk-’em-ups you’ll see this year.

Stealth is done a little differently here, and the clue is in the name. Instead of dropping bodies, you’re sweeping in to clean up the evidence, hauling corpses and evidence around crime scenes to make sure the real killers don’t get caught. However, if you get caught by the multitude of guards, security cameras and other security systems kicking about the place, you’ll be the one going to jail.

As a sequel to 2017’s Serial Cleaner, Cleaners builds on that approach by dropping the action into a ’90s setting and expanding the cast. There are now four characters, and each have a different skillset that offers up a slightly different mechanical experience when you’re playing.

Serial Cleaners. Credit: Draw Distance.
Serial Cleaners. Credit: Draw Distance.

Bob, the returning character from Cleaner, can bag up bodies to stop them leaking blood everywhere. Meanwhile Lati can only drag bodies, but has fantastic mobility otherwise, able to hop over shortcuts and weave through obstacles to get away from the chasing police. Vip3r has the ability to hack electronics from different computers and can scuffle through vents, while the cleaner named Hal seems to have fallen straight from making bodies himself into cleaning them up.

Hal is worth mentioning because his playstyle is so aggressive: you can chop up the dead bodies with a chainsaw to turn them into a pile of limbs: any guards that see this will pass out, but you can also pick up the limbs and toss them at enemies to take them out of the action too. This’ll buy you a few seconds of unconsciousness, and if you chuck them into a “pig lockup” you’ll take them out for the rest of the level.

I liked playing as all four of the characters, but the key thing is that thanks to their very distinct abilities, it feels like you’re genuinely playing someone different each time you switch between them.

Serial Cleaners makes the most of its ’90s setting to really amp up the amount of cinematic references. You’re introduced to the blonde-haired Hal in a Fargo-esque hellscape where all you have is snow, bodies, wood chippers and… a chainsaw. You make do, until you’re left with less bodies, and a whole lot of blood. Blood you have to clean up. Hal looks like Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud from Fargo, too. I refuse to believe it’s not done on purpose.

Serial Cleaners. Credit: Draw Distance.
Serial Cleaners. Credit: Draw Distance.

Most of the levels seem to have a touchstone. An early arcade channels Hackers while a murder at a combination video rental place and convenience store is decorated with Clerks references, including the obvious “I assure you we’re open” sign.

The stealth in Serial Cleaners is fascinating because you’re not just trying to sneak in but you’re also trying to get back out, often multiple times in a mission. The usual loop involves getting into the building, looking for the bodies and evidence everywhere, and then trying to work out how to pull all of that viscera out of the crime scene and back into your waiting disposal vehicle. Along the way you’ll poke and prod at the different systems in the levels. In one level you might be looking for a car key to move a truck, in another you’re opening cell doors to let prisoners out to fight guards. Sometimes, you’ll just toss bodies off of the side of a boat for the sharks below.

Serial Cleaners. Credit: Draw Distance.
Serial Cleaners. Credit: Draw Distance.

There’s a lot of ideas here. Unfortunately, the execution is largely mired in bugs when I played on the PC version. Twice the game has hoovered up my save file and as a result I haven’t managed to actually finish Serial Cleaners. I have gotten really really good at smuggling corpses out of a prison – at least, when those corpses aren’t falling through the floor to force a restart.

Also, while I adore the way different characters have motifs that are daubed across the screen, it breaks the cardinal rule of stealth games: taking away the player’s information feels savage, and failing a level because I got twatted by a baton while leet speak nonsense filled the screen really chafed.

Still, with a few patches I have no doubt that Serial Cleaners will bring something exciting to the table. It’s just that the game isn’t quite there yet.

Serial Cleaners launches on September 22 for PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch and PC.

The Verdict

Serial Cleaners is a game full of fascinating ideas, but sadly it’s a flawed gem. Still, it should be applauded for taking big swings and presenting things in a way that’s simple to understand. Serial Cleaners has some significant mechanical complexity but presents it so cleanly anyone can pick it up without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately, along the way it seems to have lost the sense of tension that’s essential for a good stealth game.

Pros

  • Easy to grasp stealth mechanics
  • A good mix of characters
  • Interesting setting

Cons

  • A lack of tension
  • Several bugs
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