Hotline Miami released back in 2012, and brought a whole lot of corpses and bloodshed to a striking '80s world full of animal masks and trippy music. One thing that people rarely consider in these fictional worlds though, is who's going to clean up all that mess? While Hotline Miami required a little thought and plenty of careful movements, it was largely about equipping an arsenal of weapons and brute forcing your way through each level, blowing heads off as you progressed. Serial Cleaner bears so many resemblances that it could have worked nicely as a sequel: Hotline Miami: Serial Cleaner.
Set in the '70s, Serial Cleaner follows the life of a man called Bobby, a 30-something fella who lives with his mother. His job title is 'professional cleaner', but that doesn't quite do his role justice. He receives phone calls from mysterious clients, namely one guy in particular who is working alongside a man known as the 'Echo Killer'. You never meet the people who cause the mess you're tasked with cleaning up, but you learn about their ways through reports of the murders through the television and radio in your house where you begin each level, along with the daily newspaper that you find lying on your porch.
If you've played Hotline Miami, those are the vibes you get right from the get go. From the ringing phone at the start of each level telling you where you're going and what to expect, to the car you jump in outside of your house to drive to the job, to the methodical patrols made by the police officers at the crime scene; everything can be likened to Hotline Miami, but here you're equipped with a vacuum and a body bag rather than a shotgun and an assault rifle.
The vacuum cleaner is actually one of our first major gripes with the game; the whole point is to be stealthy and avoid the cops while cleaning up the evidence, blood, and corpses. Sound plays a huge role, as you make noise with every action you take, including footsteps, which is visualised by an emanating diamond shape from beneath your character's feet. If a police officer is within range of the noise you're making, they become alerted to your presence. While not as quick, a mop would've made much more sense thematically.
The action becomes quite repetitive after just a few missions. New mechanics, such as the ability to take shortcuts or trigger sound distractions, are gradually introduced as you progress, but the gist of things always remains the same; dispose of all the bodies, collect all the evidence, and remove most of the blood, all while not being caught by the rozzers. The vision cones for all guards are permanently visible, while some patrol different areas and some stick to one spot. Different types of officers are introduced down the line too, such as the officer that blows his whistle if he sees you and alerts all nearby colleagues, or the one dressed in all black that moves considerably faster than his navy-attired counterparts.
What's utterly baffling about the capability of these police officers though, is how incapable they are of finding you once you've jumped into a hiding spot. And I don't mean you can run away from them and hide when you're out of sight, you can literally slide behind a tall bush or jump into a dumpster while the officer is stood right next to you, supposedly in pursuit. But when you're supposedly in cover, the guard stands there for a while looking bewildered, before going back to his patrol and thinking nothing more of it. The AI is without a doubt the poorest element of Serial Cleaner, and it could do with some serious re-working.
On the other hand, the art style is unique and appropriate. From the outfits Bobby can don to the vast splatters of blood across the floor and the asymmetrical handwritten text, everything appears very polished and stylish. The only issue on some levels is it's not obvious where walls are compared to sections you can walk through. The different colours and textures make it difficult to tell, and there will likely be times a guard walks straight through an area you assumed was solid.
It quickly becomes apparent that Serial Cleaner doesn't take itself too seriously. Every time he dumps a body or picks up a piece of evidence, Bobby mutters a witty quip, and interacting with mom at home before each level brings some light humour to what's an otherwise rather morbid game when you think about it. A special mention needs to go to Bobby's mom too, as she's undoubtedly the MVP of the whole game. Baking treats, inviting him to her bridge sessions, and even talking to the men after the money that Bobby owes them when he isn't home, assuming they're talking about cinema tickets since she is completely in the dark to what her son does for a living.
Around the levels there are new outfits to collect, along with film reels that unlock bonus levels and extra contracts. Each of them is themed after various movies such as A Clockwork Orange, Alien, and Star Wars. There's also one based around Pulp Fiction, which is appropriate seeing as though your role is essentially the same as Winston Wolfe. There are some levels that are also based on real-life murder scenes, though we didn't recognise any given that our knowledge of real murder scenes is limited at best. There's also a feature that uses your systems time data to modify the levels: If you're playing at night in real-life, then it'll also be night time in the game. Footsteps are supposedly louder at night, but it makes little to no difference.
Viscera Cleanup Detail was the first title of note to introduce the concept of cleaning up after murder scenes, but while that was a relaxing and therapeutic experience to enjoy with some music on, Serial Cleaner takes the concept and makes a deeper game out of it. It's not particularly long, with 25 contracts overall, including the bonus ones. There are a series of gameplay modifiers that you can enable for each contract such as removing enemy vision cones, getting rid of the 'cleaner vision' that allows you to see the entire level and everything you can interact with, or removing all hiding spots, but it's still not quite enough to make it a complete experience. A level editor wouldn't have gone amiss, along with a hard mode to give players a reason to replay the small number of levels. Serial Cleaner is sound mechanically (aside from the incompetent AI), but it does get repetitive as each level is essentially the same. It's a unique take on the stealth genre, but it also got stale a little too quickly. It needs more variety to keep players engaged beyond completing the story levels, because as it stands, it's a short experience that leaves you wanting more, in terms of level design and the mechanics that are introduced.