Here’s the deal. You go in, you grab the goods, you take down anyone in your path. No hanging around, no funny-business. Got it?
That’s quite possibly how this might’ve opened had it been on TV. Casting an ambiguous cat-burglar with superhuman abilities and heist throughout high-security vaults, Mr. Shifty’s three-hour campaign sounds like an initial concept for Netflix’s newest, brooding vigilante series. But alas, interactivity takes the hilt, and blending quickfire-action with a bold, comic-book aesthetic, Mr. Shifty swaps out the brow-furrowing calculation of similar top-down titles for three hours of pacy, superheroic action. And the funny-business? There’s plenty.
Developer: Team Shifty
Reviewed on: PC
Also Available On: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: Out Now
You play as the eponymous ‘Mr. Shifty’: a baseball-capped master-thief with hefty hulk-hands and a proclivity for phasing through walls. Guided by self-professed genius hacker Nyx, you find yourself plunked into the abode of Chairman Stone; a belligerent, big-time crime lord with a bajillion offences to his name and a mind for nuclear devastation. Worse still, he’s purloined a volatile material known as ‘Mega Plutonium’ and – marvellous wall-conqueror you are, it’s your job to infiltrate his agent-riddled skyscraper to ensure it’s removed from his grasp.
It’s delightfully comic-book fare, and the cell-shaded visuals embellish it well. While it’s noticeably X-Men in its bold, ka-blam style combat animations and exaggerated melee-strikes (not to mention the Nightcrawler vibe overlaying Shifty’s abilities), it isn’t a world away from the work of Platinum games. If you loved the Saturday-morning-toon vibe that emanated from Transformers: Devastation, Shifty’s accentuated look might prove similarly appealing, though it’s distinctly darker in palette; its dull teal carpets and clinically-tiled receptions don’t quite pop in the ways Devastation, Hotline Miami or even Mutants in Manhattan (say what you like about TMNT’s gameplay, it was gorgeous to look at) do, and after a few levels it becomes plain there isn’t much to spruce things up.
Stages follow a similar structure to Hotline Miami. You’re given a destination, show up at a building and turn it upside-down, murdering all armed and unarmed parties you encounter. Once the slugfest is complete and you’ve the intel you need, you exit through the elevator you came through and move on to the next floor. Thankfully, the game’s quick to voice its idiosyncrasies, as the opening tutorial sees Shifty promptly phasing through walls and gunfire to subdue opposing agents. The mechanic’s noticeably empowering; as is melee combat. Unlike Hotline’s assortment of melee, ranged and one-off pickups, you’re pretty much resigned to your fists when it comes to quashing enemies. Rather than adding a challenging vulnerability to the gameplay, however, you’re the teleporting equivalent of the hulk, with most enemies sent head-first through the nearest potted-fern with barely more than three hits.
Thankfully, you’re not completely untouchable. You can only shift a total of five times in close succession, so you’ll need to keep reasonably aware of your surroundings to avoid maxing out early and getting shot. After your five shifts are up, you’re rendered temporarily-tangible until your powers regenerate; something that doesn’t take all that long – but then again, neither does getting shot. Controls are simple; movement’s graciously swift; something that only made it easier to feel I was emulating a trendily-capped Nightcrawler. And boy, did it feel awesome.
Enemy encounters feel like what Hotline Miami would’ve been if you reversed the power balance. Whereas Dennaton’s 2012 slashfest had me cowering in a seedily-lit bathroom from guys that could rip me in two (in my defence, it makes for a terrific games-room), Mr. Shifty’s hulk-handed hero can quash enemies with two quick melee jabs. If you’re missing the pulsy, high-risk combat of earlier games, you’ll likely find Shifty’s brutes disappointing softies, but if you found yourself just wanting to go nuts and rain mutant-chaos upon a selection of gun-toting bad-guys, Mr. Shifty’ll see you do it with stylish, cell-shaded flair.
Ironically, the brutality of Mr. Shifty isn’t quite so…hard hitting. On the contrary, there’s an exaggerated sort of comedy to it that really aids the melodramatic action. It’s right at home with the vivid, comic-book style; you’ll send agents rocketing through windows with but a brief one-two, fizzling through laser-walls while your poor foes fry to death. While the blood-spattered scenes of Hotline Miami were deliberately shocking, the veritable lack of it here pulled my experience further toward plain fun than re-evaluating my morals. From its light-hearted ‘pow’ animations accompanying your melee strikes, to the ironically mundane muzack that plays as you ride the elevator to your next pummel-fest, Shifty’s overpowered combat evokes a playful silliness that makes its levels – if not quite so thrilling as its influencers – rather quite fun nevertheless.
Yet, Shifty’s fast-paced brawls stale some after a while. While Hotline Miami kept things interesting by combining diverse weapon-types and abilities with overpowered, trigger-happy enemies, Shifty’s strike/phase MO leaves errs more on the side of repetition. Sure, melting through blazing gunfire like an urban ninja is gratifying at first, but there needs to be at least some method for the madness to feel worth it. Granted, there are a few segments that require a little more thought: high-security vaults require you to measure your shifts accurately to navigate rotating lasers, and the occasional chase sequence saw me tensely-scrabbling over exploding-barrels praying my shifts replenished before reinforcements arrived. That was a thrill, but it’s nowhere near as involving as Hotline Miami; combined with Shifty’s superhuman traits, the game’s largely repetitive encounters can quickly retire into tedium.
That said, there’s still amusement to be had: the ever-quipping Nyx offsets Shifty’s taciturn nature nicely, and tutorial segments take the form of smirking, physical gags that play on Shifty’s ludicrous strength. A particularly memorable moment arose in an early tutorial, in which the game’s prompting me to ‘knock’ on a hotel door resulted in blowing it clean out of its frame to clobber the shmuck behind. That the campaign barely touches four hours is a positive in that levels are over before that silliness dies. I just expected the variety to elevate as Shifty did through the complex; more often – unfortunately – I was stuck with average-muzack. And mundanity’s less ‘ironic’ in the gameplay.
Enemies are also far less responsive here. In Mr. Shifty, it’s not uncommon for agents to give you a couple nanoseconds to gain the upper-hand. And often, that’s all that’s needed, and with the added-advantage of wall-phasing, I often felt too powerful for many encounters to feel satisfying. The fact that enemies tend to slowly enter rooms in single file certainly didn’t help things. This clears up somewhat as you progress, and the vibrant pow-strikes and simple, smooth phasing controls nevertheless make for a fun, mutant-infused romp, but after a few levels of throwing guys through windows, I just wished they’d stop being so shy with those desert eagles and shoot me already.
If you just want to go nuts and feel awesome for a short while, Mr. Shifty’ll likely offer the mutant-mentaldom to accommodate. But if you come expecting the thrill-ride offered by Hotline Miami’s strategized murder-sprees, you’ll likely find yourself underwhelmed. But as a brief, comic-book-style romp, it’s nevertheless amusing, and laced with a tendency toward melodrama that – refreshingly – doesn’t take itself too seriously.
For more information on Mr. Shifty, you can check out the game’s official website here, or follow developer Team Shifty on Twitter. Alternatively, you can follow tinyBuild here to stay up to date with the publisher’s latest ventures.