Imagine my horror when, trying to think of a way to describe Mr Shifty, I hit upon, “it’s like Hotline Miami, but with ‘blink’ from Dishonored.”
There are few things as irritating as ‘marketing speak.’ At work the other day I heard someone say that LinkedIn was like “Facebook in suits.” I nearly had claw marks on my desk trying to restrain myself from attacking them. Imagine my horror when, trying to think of a way to describe Mr Shifty, I hit upon, “it’s like Hotline Miami, but with ‘blink’ from Dishonored.”
But that is what you have here. You’re given a plain-looking canvas with which to paint your masterpiece: a transient, solo fandango of fists, bullets, chipped plaster, limp bodies, and wisps of silky, black smoke – the signature flourish of our hero’s eponymous power. And he is shifty as well – his red cap and dark blue trench coat are at once the calling cards of a manic exhibitionist, exposing himself to people by the side of the M25, or at the very least the kind of chap that pulls the coat open to reveal a cache of weapons or other illegal substances. ‘What are you buying?’
He’s less of a creep and more a comic-book anti-hero: there’s a throwaway line at the beginning of the game, coming by way of ear-piece ally Nyx, about him being a thief. But then, he’s stealing from Chairman Stone, or as Nyx describes him “Chairman Asshole,” and you’re going after some plutonium, so you’re at least a likable thief. The game pokes fun at superhero clichés left, right, and centre, along with humble dollops of self-referential humour. Crucially, it doesn’t overplay these, and the exposition is kept clipped, blown-through and breezy. Just like the levels.
Though the art-style is kept sparse and plain, there is economy in the way the game expresses itself. Being completely silent, Mr Shifty’s garb gives him just the signatures he needs to carve a distinct caricature, if not a character in his own right. His bright, red cap and flapping coat call to mind Taito’s underrated Exit for the PSP – its own hero sporting an expressive, flapping red scarf and a stylish, brown fedora. This economy is prevalent in the game’s overall approach too.
Progression in games can be a rich endeavour: those creeping XP gauges marking our upwards trajectory, our inventories filling with ever more powerful knick-knacks, opening avenues of strategy previously unforeseeable. Sometimes though, these check boxes can feel like the Monday morning commute, and there’s something so freeing about letting it all go. It’s exhilarating when a game gives you every tool you need at the outset. It reminds me of George Clooney’s caramel-meets-gravel-voiced speech in Up in the Air, where he extolls the virtue of setting fire to life’s backpack. Mr Shifty gives you your fists, and the power to teleport through top-down levels intercut with walls and obstacles, neither of which can slow you down. That’s it. Play.
With fewer tools at your disposal, you have to be creative with what you have, and Mr Shifty handsomely rewards creativity. Why not shift into a room, clobber some poor bastard from behind, shift back out again to avoid the rifle-fire from his buddy, and then make a less subtle re-entrance by booting the door clean off its hinges and into the other fella? Or, let’s see, activate that naughty land mine, pick it up, shift into the room, lob it between the two of them and shift back out again away from the blast. Hell, you could just punch that Poseidon statue into rubble, take up the golden trident it held, and hurl it at both of them, pinning them to the wall like a macabre art installation.
These strategies will fuse to your brain and playing Mr Shifty sometimes means entering that rare flow-state that some games push you into. It exists between agency and the unconscious, and manifests in games like Devil May Cry, where you’ll masterfully stitch together a sequence of blows, dodges, and combinations, all the while unsure if you meant to, or if it was sheer fluke. In that flow-state the two are often inextricable – and besides, what does it matter?
Unfortunately, despite the lack of bloat elsewhere, the game does out stay its welcome by a sizeable chunk. It could happily have done without three or four missions toward the back-end, especially given that their difficulty is cheaply derived. All the usual suspects show up: a game revolving completely around one mechanic? Let’s do a bit where it’s taken away. Let’s do a bit where the enemies have that power as well, and another bit where the difficulty isn’t heightened, so much as the number of goons is. While catchy, the thrashing ‘90s cartoon soundtrack does want for a little variety – the Hotline Miami comparison cuts deep in this department, its eclectic electric synth soothing your anger at each gory death/restart.
It’s the very definition of cheap thrills, then, cutting away the fat and taking time to indulge in a cracking central mechanic. The shifting itself is glorious: a rippling clap of instant motion, suturing spacious rooms together into a taut piece of action theatre. Its flow is almost completely uninterrupted as well, with only slight frame rate dips during very explosive segments, minimal load times before levels, and instant restarts upon shifting off your mortal coil.
You’ll have a cathartic blast with Mr Shifty, but your adrenal gland will have been worn out before you see the credits roll, and just like its titular hero, it doesn’t stay with you for long.