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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Get weirdly relaxed while vacuuming up blood in Serial Cleaners

Video games can surprise you.

VGG found its current footing after Immortals: Fenyx Rising surprised us with its powerful story.

I found my love for gaming when my dad surprised me with his hand-me-down NES.

And Serial Cleaners surprised us by providing one of the most satisfying and weirdly relaxing gaming experiences of the year by having us... vacuum up blood?

From a top-down perspective, you see a man standing at the window of a high-rise. The remnants of a party stand in the office behind him. There's a VHS overlay that reads: 7:34 PM Apr. 07, 1983. The man says: "Well... It's cleaning time... I suppose."

Just the Facts

Developer: Draw Distance

Publisher: 505 Games

Platform(s): PC*, PS4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S & X, Nintendo Switch

Price: $24.99

Release Date: Sept. 22, 2022

Review key provided by Stride PR.

Five years and three games after their debut release, Draw Distance has returned to their roots to bring us a sequel to the incredibly unique stealth cleaning game, Serial Cleaner. They took some stops into the realms of vampires and demons along the way, but returned to where it started: back at the literal and proverbial crime scene.

The original Serial Cleaner is a top-down 2D stealth game that placed players in the shoes of Bob C. Leaner, a "fixer," or "guy who cleans up crime scenes for mob bosses so the cops don't get 'em." You had to dodge the eyes of the police as you dealt with blood, bodies, and more. It was a simple affair but it showed loads of potential.

In its sequel, Serial Cleaners, the developers added a third dimension, used the storytelling abilities they tuned during their time working on the Vampire the Masquerade series to elevate the story, and added a few new proteges for Bob... hence the pluralization of the game's name.

Is it a worthy sequel? Is it the next big indie cleaning game ready to take over the world? Let's dive in.

An animated gif depicts one of Serial Cleaner's cleaning mechanics as a character vacuums up a pool of blood. As she does, spinning around in circles, there's an overlay of an illustration of a character.

Serial Cleaners establishes its uniqueness from the outset. Taking place at the turn of the century and kicking off its story on New Year's Eve in 1999, Y2K hysteria is in the air as a group of friends and coworkers gather to reminisce about the last decade of crime scene cleaning. The operation has grown quite a bit since the first game, and the crew has found a home in New York City.

There's Bob C. Leaner, the wistful veteran that brought them together. There's Lati, the artist with an innate knack for cleaning up crime scenes. Psycho, a not-so-gentle giant who likes to make a bit of a mess with his chainsaw before cleaning it. And Vip3r, a '90s hacker whose cleaning goes digital at times, and who talks exactly like you'd expect.

Over the course of their New Years' Eve party, the group reminisces over jobs they pulled throughout the '90s, taking breaks to have moments of self-reflection and flashbacks to their own personal highlights (and lowlights) of years past.

What follows is a familiar story of regret and acceptance. A darkly funny and somewhat casual crime drama plays out as you learn how each of these oddballs got pulled into this life of crime, against their will or otherwise. Story is just one of the things that takes a huge step up in the sequel over the original Serial Cleaner, with dialogue choices — that secretly might be guiding you towards one of the game's different endings — and intercut story moments, both in gameplay and out, that help to flesh out these four cleaners and their motivations for doing this "dirty job." (Mike Rowe, eat your heart out.)

It's far from the greatest story ever told, but when I wrapped up my 10 to 12 hours with Serial Cleaners, I had grown incredibly fond of this weird little chosen crime family. Nothing better than a group of fuck-ups doing crime together... but like, in a healing way.

A man stands in a cabin with a chainsaw in his hands. Blood and bodies are scattered around the area. A prompt in the upper right reads: "Cut them into pieces."

Serial Cleaners' incredible style is one of the things that draws you into its world. The '90s were a grimy era. We were on the brink of a tech revolution, crime ran wild, and grunge was constantly spilling out into the streets. Serial Cleaners embraces its '90s New York vibe in every facet: from the PSX-reminiscent character models with their static expressions to the occasional VHS filters and graffiti overlays that pop up over your screen as you tidy up bloody messes at each of the varied and detailed crime scenes (the arcade was a personal favorite).

Then the soundtrack comes in and elevates the aesthetics to a whole new level. When you control old-school Bob, it's all jazz all the time. When you're wielding a chainsaw as Psycho, it's just pure adrenaline-pumping '90s rock. As you drop a "Fuck the Police" tag on the ground as Lati, some classic hip hop beats accompany you. And of course, as Vip3r, some '90s electronica keeps you on your toes. Each track feels like a fantastic, decade-specific representation of its genre that lends something unique to the characters. It all coalesces into this beautiful melting pot of pure '90s vibes that made the cleaning process that much better in the end.

Which really helps... because the stealth cleaning action in Serial Cleaners might've needed the extra hand.

Four characters stand on a balcony overlooking a graveyard. A picnic table is littered with party remains. One of the characters has an arrow pointing at them that reads: LATI.

The first thing you need to know when talking about Serial Cleaners, with its stealth-focused cleaning missions, is that it's a video game ass video game. You've got missions, clear objectives, guards and cops who patrol on very particular routes, and special abilities that change the feel of each of the playable characters. It's easy to see the bits of code operating this machine. And that's weirdly comforting.

Every mission is just about the same. You'll start in a giant space, with pools of blood, bodies, and pieces of evidence littered about. It's your job to clean the scene as much as possible, vacuuming up blood and getting rid of the bodies however you see fit. The only thing in your way are the police officers who are already on the scene or arrive soon after you begin. Once you've eliminated anything incriminating, you make your getaway. You can use fun movement abilities, like sliding across blood pools for quick movement, and your "Cleaner Sense," an ability that gives you a pulled-out overview of the area to scout for potential danger and things that need cleaning nearby.

Each of the four "Serial Cleaners" has their own distinct play style, which makes for the biggest variety in gameplay across the game's 20 or so missions.

Bob's the most straightforward cleaner, with no stand-out special ability but all the basics covered. Psycho is all aggression, sporting the ability to knock out guards temporarily with thrown objects — including the limbs he can hack off with his chainsaw. Lati is an escape artist with a free-running ability allowing her to dive over obstacles. And Vip3r is all hacking, using her abilities to trigger distractions in the environment remotely. Each comes with a downside (like Vip3r being unable to carry bodies and only drag them, making removal much harder), but none feels much weaker than the others.

Only toward the end does the game finally start to make use of its unique multi-protagonist set-up, with levels that allow you to utilize multiple cleaners and both sets of abilities to succeed. But it's kind of too little too late by then.

I kept waiting for a grand multi-stage clean job that had me switching from one cleaner to the next until all four were out of there without a trace — and it never came. (Also, this game is BEGGING for a multiplayer option.) Missed opportunities define a lot of the action here, in fact.

For a good chunk of the proceedings, you kind of don't need to use your cleaner's special abilities. Lati's abilities were probably the most helpful of the bunch, and even then, I used them mostly out of convenience. You only really need to use them when missions get more complicated and involved late in the game. This brings us to our next issue.

An animated gif depicting one of the cleaners throwing a "big evidence" out into the street from on top of a parking garage. Briefly, the character enters "Cleaner Sense" which allows you to see the area from above.

Serial Cleaners is an easy game. It can take a few missions to find the rhythm that Draw Distance wants you to operate at, but once you do it's easy to handle anything the game throws at you.

It's easy for a lot of reasons (the ability to save regularly keeps any progress lost negligible, doing the most basic cleaning actions feels like more than enough to win, etc.), but the biggest reason is probably a lot of people's biggest complaint with this apparently stealth-focused release.

The AI... is kinda dumb. But also kinda smart? They are extremely easy to exploit, but simultaneously can pick up on things you wouldn't expect. On one hand, if you start to get detected by a guard, just breaking line of sight will have them continue on their merry way. On the other, if you leave a door open that once wasn't, or vice versa, they'll commit to a full investigation in the area.

This makes for a mildly frustrating experience in the early game: You're constantly moving your AI Expectation goalposts back and forth trying to understand the game's rules. But again, this is a video game ass video game, and eventually, you reach mind-meld status with the game and those complaints start to fall away.

Sure, the AI is kinda dumb. But once you understand it — once you're able to comprehend exactly what's expected of you — you can fall into a comfortable rhythm. It becomes... weirdly relaxing.

The cleaning is satisfying, particularly when sucking up all the blood with your handy vacuum. It unsurprisingly brings to mind the calming satisfaction of games like PowerWash Simulator, where you get to watch all that nasty grime wash away thanks to your hard work. (Sidenote: a crossover between the two games would be brilliant.) The aforementioned familiarity plus the satisfying and calming nature make it a game you can easily sink into.

I completely understand the dissatisfaction with the AI, but with all of the positives, I'm inclined to let it slide. If you aren't just looking for a pure, hardcore stealth experience and instead want something a bit more fun and stealth-lite, you'll find a lot to love here. Otherwise, back away from the yellow tape and move along.

Serial Cleaners is a unique game, one that asks you to clean up the kinds of messes you'd usually leave behind in some other violent game. It pushes forth a stylish story with compelling characters, wrapped up in a package that some may be understandably disappointed by and others might be surprised (and relaxed) by. With its easy-to-dupe AI, the need to be perfect in your work fades away, and instead a calming, weird sense of comfort lures you in. And in this world, sometimes "weirdly comforting" is all you can ask for in your pastimes.

video games are good and Serial Cleaners is . . . GOOD. (7/10)

+ darkly relaxing cleaning gameplay, a charismatic set of gritty '90s crime dramedy characters, and a generally stylish experience bleeds (pun intended) into nearly all aspects of its design

- really easy to game the AI, frustrating inconsistencies with some of the mechanics, falls into a same-y rhythm at times, and feels like there are tons of missed opportunities

A man is getting into a station wagon, after finishing a cleaning job. It's a rainy night. Dialogue reads: "Control... yourself... Deep breaths. Can't... mess it up..."

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