Dead Before They Know It
HIGH Slo-mo limb-severing explosions.
LOW Replaying the same five minutes ad nauseum.
WTF How big is this dance club?
There are moments in The Cleaner that are magnificently brutal — like when the player’s slow-time ability allows them to weave through a cloud of bullets before shooting three people in two seconds, and then watching all the bodies collapse at once. It looks and feels incredible in those brief moments of balletic viciousness, and if it could find a way to make those moments the meat of gameplay, it would be an incredible accomplishment.
A first-person shooter in the Hotline Miami try-and-die mold, The Cleaner has players controlling an assassin sent to kill a child trafficker in his nightclub office. But is that what’s really going on? The world is much stranger than it first appears, with many locations that make no logical sense. One second I was blasting my way through a well-appointed library, and the next I was jumping from pipe to pipe in a dingy sewer built over an abyss.
So what is going on? I’m afraid I can’t weigh in on that because, despite its solid core mechanic and fascinating level design, The Cleaner botches its difficulty level so badly that I was unable to make it through the game.
The Cleaner‘s biggest problem is that its levels are just too long. A core quality of try-and-die games is their staggering level of difficulty — to learn a level well enough to beat it, players are generally expected to fling themselves against a seemingly impossible challenge a dozen times or more. This naturally leads to extreme frustration, and one way level designers generally mitigate this is by making stages short and sweet. In the genre’s best outings (like Super Meat Boy) it’s rare to see levels last more than a minute.
The Cleaner goes a very different way, offering levels between five and ten minutes long that are full of labyrinthine, ambush-filled passages and ill-conceived platforming sequences. A single bullet will kill the player, just like many others in this genre, which means that at any moment they can find themselves losing several minutes of work — sometimes without even having an idea why they died.
The one tool that evens the odds is a three-second timestop, during which the world grinds to a halt while the player is free to roam at full speed, killing at-will. Using this is always a pleasure, and getting a glimpse of a room’s layout before ducking for cover, engaging the timestop and charging into battle works perfectly. It’s even better when players have run through a level a few times and know exactly where the enemies are located. At this point they can optimize their path until every stage becomes a speedrun.
At first this feels like an engaging challenge, but as the levels drag on, it begins to feel as if the player is the victim of a prank — rather than being a challenge, it comes off more like some other difficult game’s challenge mode since The Cleaner is essentially asking players to play a perfect six minutes over and over again, and I find it to be the absolute nadir of sadistic game design.
If my biggest problem with The Cleaner was just the length of its levels, there is a chance that this would still be a positive review, but the miserable platforming shatters any chance of that.
First-person platforming is iffy at the best of times, with even the best of the genre like Dying Light and Mirror’s Edge being filled with moments where players have literally no idea why they plummeted from the sky — and sadly, The Cleaner‘s platforming is nowhere near the top of the genre.
Jumps are floaty and hard to control and platform edges are ridiculously difficult to gauge, often leading to my character frequently stopping dead in mid-air before falling to my death. Jumping from pipe to pipe is a nightmare, and trying to hop between tables and chairs floating in electrified water is an unacceptable slog that will easily erase the six minutes of work it took to get there. Extended try-and-die gameplay can only work if the player is in total control at all times, and that’s just not the case here, even remotely.
When The Cleaner sticks to gunfighting and slow-mo sequences, it’s a winner, but the platforming and overly-long levels destroy everything it gets right. I want to adore this game and I was more than willing to meet it on its own terms, but it’s just asking for far too much — it’s frustrating to see how badly its flaws undercut the rest.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Dystopia Corp. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed.
Parents: This game was not reviewed by the ESRB, but it contains Blood and Gore, Violence. Most of The Cleaner‘s gameplay revolves around shooting people to death — and those people’s arms and legs can be blasted off with almost no effort. Keep kids far from this one.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I attempted to play it without sound and found it prohibitively difficult. Because any injury kills the player instantly, it’s vitally important to know when enemies are firing their weapons. Without being able to hear enemies moving and shooting, the game will be functionally impossible to play. The is no dialogue or in-game text. This game is not accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, the game’s controls are remappable.