When it comes to sequel naming conventions, one of my favourites is pluralisation. It’s rarely used, but when you see it, you know what you’re getting: more. Serial Cleaners is that kind of sequel, jumping from having just one protagonist to four, and while it’s still a single player action-stealth crime scene cleaner, there’s now a greater focus on story and a darker tone to the crime drama running through it.
Five years on from the release of Serial Cleaner and the sequel comes with a new tone and style. Where the original had a pulpy 70’s art direction, somewhat reminiscent of cartoons and comics, the sequel leaps forward to the 90s. Now it’s all lower polycount characters, simplistic 3D character animation and relatively flat lighting and effects. It’s obviously been built in a modern Unity engine and there are areas that show this, but it’s deceptively retro looking. There’s plenty of touches, like character portrait pop-ups having that distinctive PS1 wiggle, to a character that clearly takes inspiration from the look of Max Payne, a light Metal Gear Solid homage, and it’s all been blended together with a griminess that 90s New York was known for.
Bookending cutscenes to the chapters that do a nice job of adding a grunge and graffiti aesthetic to more atmospheric shots of the locations you’ve just played through. On top of that, there’s a distinct soundtrack for each of the four characters that shifts through different genres to accentuate the tone of the scenarios they face.
As Bob returns to his crime cleaning game in the early 90s, he builds a crew of similarly talented cleaners around himself. Vip3r is a typical 90s hacker – l33t speak, raving and all – who’s tracked Bob down and eagerly proves herself as a capable accomplice, Lati is an athletic performer who finds a lucrative new trade in a moment of desperation, and Psycho…. well, let’s just say he goes very Fargo in his introduction and Bob gives him a way out.
Each of the four has a personal story that’s told through their episodes, and you have a little leeway to choose the order in which you revisit each character within a chapter, remembering a particular highlight from the previous decade. These are interspersed with more personal moments, showing Bob’s relationship with his ageing mother and how he went honest in the 80s before breaking bad once again, as one example. There’s a tenderness to their characterisation, despite their grisly line of work, and their stories build up across the chapters, leading to a classic crime film twist. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, partly because of the retro stylings, but it’s an enjoyable homage to the era of movies and games it depicts.
Each one also has a specific skill or two atop the standard cleaner kit – it’s just the vacuum cleaner, let’s be honest here. Lati is able to clamber over certain obstacles and whip out a spray can to daub the floor with an attention-grabbing ‘F*(£ the Police’, while Vip3r can access computers and remotely trigger light switches and noise-makers for a period of time. Psycho’s action also makes quite a lot of noise: it’s a chainsaw that he can use to hack up bodies into parts, which can then be thrown to knock out police, who can then be picked up and stashed in a handful of large cupboards and lockers to get them out of the way.
There’s some great variety through the different levels, each one dropping you into a sticky situation that’s built around each character’s strengths – a couple of levels also give you the option of swapping between two cleaners. The goal always remains the same – clean up blood, drag or pick up and get bodies back to your car, and to grab any evidence left behind – but the levels tie in with different abilities. Vip3r’s levels see her invade police stations, hacker dens and the like with plenty of computers to interact with.
Stylistically you could feel the game taking a few steps toward the more flexible form of stealth action seen in the recent Hitman trilogy, but that’s just not backed up by the gameplay itself. The biggest change is that the vision cones of the police are no longer shown, instead a line being drawn toward you and the patrolling copper magnetically being drawn toward you. Duck back into cover and they’ll swerve back to their original patrol route in an unnatural fashion.
It’s a similar tale with distractions you trigger and differences, from lights being on to bodies being bagged up or a key piece of evidence disappearing. They’ll just wander over to have a look, then amble back to their patrol path and continue on. You can end up with two or three cops coming to have a quick look, then going back and forth a few times as that’s the same path of their patrol. It’s a little tiresome. Predictability is important in a stealth-action game to maintain the fun, but it’s just too rigid and simplistic here – great for the campy fun of the original, but not quite matching the new tone.
Still, there’s some daft shenanigans to be had here. Throw evidence (or body parts if you’re Psycho) at cops and it’ll knock them down for a few moments. Alternatively, you can slide across slicks of blood and bowl them over like a human pinball, before turning a corner and ducking under a table to wait for them to calm down.