Before he was known for hocking insurance, Harvey Keitel’s turn as Winston Wolfe, a fixer helping hapless gangsters Vincent and Jules with their Marvin “problem” was one of many standout performances from Pulp Fiction’s brilliant ensemble cast. Serial Cleaner casts the player in a role similar to Wolfe’s – although the main character Bobby takes more of a hands-on approach – with cleaning up crime scenes, removing evidence and cadavers all whilst avoiding local law enforcement being an accepted part of his job.
The game is a 2D top down view set in the Seventies with more bushy moustaches, mutton chops and bell bottoms than you can shake a stick at. The colour palette is an aesthetically pleasing blend of pastel greens, reds and yellows that add to the nostalgic feel. Serial Cleaner’s plot involves a series of grisly murders set over twenty missions that Bobby must deal with in order to earn his crust and increase his credibility with the criminal underworld, receiving calls from an anonymous client in need of someone to discreetly deal with the aftermath of their crimes.
Unfortunately the local fuzz beat Bobby to the scene every time, forcing you to stealth it up and complete missions without alerting the old bill to Bobby’s presence. The game makes use of some well-established stealth tropes such as hidey-holes, patrol patterns and fields of vision to help Bobby to achieve his goal.
During gameplay only a small portion of the field of play visible. The aim of each mission is to recover bodies by placing them into the back of Bobby’s Station Wagon, collecting crucial evidence (which Bobby covets as keepsakes of his endeavours) and making sure the area is generally spick and span. You’re able to see each cop’s field of vision as they patrol the area, represented by a light red cone to better plan your route to each objective. If the long arm of the law is alerted to Bobby’s presence, the cone will turn an angry bright red and you’ll need to either break their line of sight or head for the nearest hiding place until they give up and return to their patrol. If you’re caught, the mission restarts, resetting all bodies, evidence and blood to their original state (although the game procedurally regenerates each object’s location).
Bobby is gifted with a type of intuition called Cleaner Vision to help you plan his route without being detected. When in Cleaner Vision the camera pans out to a view of the entire area – allowing you to better see the placement of hiding places, bodies and enemies. Cleaner Vision can be accessed at any time, for however long is required and doesn’t need any time to recharge. Cleaner Vision becomes an essential part of the game as the missions get progressively harder, with increased numbers of police and larger locations.
Later missions add movable objects which act as an obstruction to any enemy’s patrol pattern and vision. Bobby is also able to distract enemies by setting off a sound diversion, drawing any officer within earshot to the source to investigate, which allows Bobby a chance to sneak by an otherwise tightly guarded area. Further into the game shortcuts are introduced, allowing Bobby another route to his goal. Larger levels have body drops dotted around the environment, giving you an alternate means of disposing of bodies rather than having to run the gauntlet of guards to get back to Bobby’s car. Serial Cleaner also cleverly changes from day to night dependent on when you’re playing the game, which effects lighting and sound within the current location.
Upon completion of each mission, Bobby returns to his home which he shares with his elderly mother. There are a few objects dotted around Bobby’s home that are able to be interacted with, which offer up pop culture references such as the birth of home video gaming, as well as nods to real world events like the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal (although you do need to have a grounding in recent world history to appreciate some of these tongue-in-cheek references). The next call comes through and Bobby sets off to his next destination. Each of the locations are distinct and each have their own obstacles to overcome – a Studio 54 inspired nightclub has a wide open dance floor with very little cover, whilst a train yard has plenty of crates and porta cabins to hide behind.
Away from the story mode, Serial Cleaner offers the chance to modify levels, which make them harder. You’re able to inhibit Cleaner Vision, remove vision cones or add a countdown timer. Bonus missions can be unlocked by picking up movie reel-shaped objects within the main missions; which are based on well-known movies of the era like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Alien. There are also a number of movie-themed costumes should you get bored of Bobby’s bell bottoms and turtle neck combo.
Speech is almost non-existent aside from the grumbles of the police and the grunt Bobby makes as he hefts a body bag over his shoulder. All conversations come in speech bubbles, with the on-screen font easily readable from across the room. Music in-game is a looped seventies funk track that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Shaft movie, full of smooth bass guitars and drums. As with most looped tracks, there is a certain monotony to it that will either allow you to focus or will distract you from your task.
I’m sure you can tell by now that I’ve really enjoyed my time with Serial Cleaner. To be honest I wasn’t expecting too much as I’m not really a fan of top-down games. Prior to being offered the chance to review the game, I’d seen a trailer which I’ll admit didn’t really do the game justice. The game’s seventies vibe twinned with the simple game mechanics had me hooked from the word go, to the point where I’d promise myself one more go at completing a mission, only to look up at the clock a few missions later to find that I’d lost an hour or more. As long as you’re patient enough to work through periods of trial and error in order to figure out the patrol patterns and ideal infil and exfil routes, and you’re bored of playing as bald headed agents and one-eyed super soldiers, Serial Cleaner is well worth picking up.