Mr. Shifty sells itself as a mix between Hotline Miami and Nightcrawler, but as you never have to sell questionably legal news footage to anyone, I don’t think that works. It’s really more a mix of Hotline Miami and that all time classic of young adult fiction, Jumper. Questionable marketing aside, Mr. Shifty managed to give two incredibly enjoyable hours of gameplay. Then the game did something truly amazing; it took everything I was loving about the game and made me hate all of it. (Editor’s Note: What a twist!)
You play as the titular “Mr. Shifty” who’s been sent in to a highly secure building to steal the “Mega Plutonium” hidden inside before it can be weaponized. Who Mr Shifty is and who he works for is never brought up; nor is why it’s important to stop the game’s villain from turning the Mega Plutonium into a bomb in the first place. Maybe he was just a humble war profiteer. Won’t someone think of the poor billionaires exploiting human tragedy? The one thing that is apparent right from the start is that Mr Shifty is a pretty shit thief. The first thing you see in the game is a large group of armed goons waiting for him, then he literally has to have it explained to him how to use his own powers.
While Mr Shifty‘s story isn’t all that good, the narrative doesn’t takes itself too seriously, so it never becomes unbearable. The humor is a bit generic, but I found a certain charm to it. Ironic statements, like about how little resistance there should be before a particularly heavily guarded level, and self-deprecating mission titles like “Operation Certain Death” are pretty common, but they fit the game’s overall tone and land well enough not to feel too cliche. This, plus overly straightforward puzzle solutions, give the game an irreverent tone that should have been able to carry the game on it’s own, but I’ll get to that soon enough.
The one issue I have with the story is the ending. After being forced to play through two extraneous hours of the devs basically saying “we’ve run out of ideas but don’t want to end the game yet”, you’d think the ending would have had some form of pay off. Instead, you punch the bad guy a few times, and then the credits role. The second half of Mr Shifty was like my first time listening to Metallica’s Saint Anger. I spent nearly two hours getting pissed off, only for it to end with me not knowing why I sat through it all. Coincidentally, the first half was like Metallica’s previous album, Garage Inc; something I didn’t know I wanted until it was in my hands.
Gameplay-wise Mr Shifty wears it’s inspiration on its sleeve. The top-down perspective and overall feel of each level shows a clear love for Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami. I could have lived with the guys at Team Shifty not including the deaths from enemies off screen, but props to them for the dedication. The one way Mr Shifty differentiates itself from its predecessor is in the movement and combat. Instead of running around each level, shooting everything you see for even a slit second, Mr Shifty has the ability to teleport short distances and much prefers melee combat. It’s kind of like being Tracer from Overwatch if she got big into boxing.
And I know I keep saying this, but for the first half of the game, it’s damn near perfect.
Literally everything a game like this should do is done in that first half. New and visually distinct enemies are introduced regularly, keeping things fresh by bringing additional challenges every level or so. Plus, the enemy AI is tuned precisely to be fun to play around with, like finding ways to clear a level using only their own friendly fire to wipe out your opponents. New weapons with their own advantages and disadvantages are also brought in regularly as well, which stops the combat from becoming a monotonous grind of poofing behind enemies like a member of the X-Men and giving them the ol’ one-two punch. The game even finds interesting things to do when it strips you of the ability to teleport.
That is, until then the second half of the game roles around, and all of this stops being fun. And the odd thing is, most of my issues stem from the exact same systems I was enjoying before hand. For example, the AI. What was once dumb enough to have some fun with becomes frustrating as the total lack of self preservation means a character with a rocket launcher will shoot you at point blank range, killing you both instantly and forcing you to restart. This made it feel the game cared more about me failing than being entertaining, and not in the Dark Souls “death teaches you to get better” kind of way.
It also doesn’t help that checkpoints get increasingly sparse in the latter half of the game. While each level take place on a different floor, the game saves progress after each room. As the game drags on, the distance between checkpoints grows, as do the number and variety of enemies in your way. Some levels will put you against a host of these big burly guys that can kill you with one hit, but take at least three to take down. And because of that AI, they come out you like a tidal wave, forcing you into the middle of them to deal some damage of your own.
Other levels will pit you against an array of enemies with so many different firing capabilities that I found it nearly impossible to prioritize any one target, as there was almost always another foe there ready to counter me wherever I went. One level was so packed that I’m pretty sure it’s why the devs added in the ability for enemies to kill each other, as I only made it through because most of them ended up wiping themselves out. By the end of the game, my main tactic had turned into finding the guys that blew up shortly after dying and use them to take out everyone else. It rarely failed. The last few levels do bring back some of the original creativity, with the bad guy figuring out Mr Shifty’s power and using it to randomly bring in reinforcements and changing the level lay outs, but the gameplay issues persist and I was long since checked out by them.
The one thing I can say held up through out the game was the UI. There’s a clear counter telling you how often you can teleport, and an obvious white dot that stands out clearly against the game’s backgrounds to indicate exactly where you’ll end up. Unless you’re using a mouse, where there’s a second white dot for the cursors that made following the action a needless hassle. Take the game’s advice and play with a controller.
There are definitely games I hated more than Mr. Shifty, but it might be the game I am most disappointed with. Mr. Shifty didn’t fail to live up to its own hype, it failed to live up to itself and the promise its early levels show. If the game has ended halfway through, it would be my front runner for my Indie Game of the Year, but it didn’t. If there ever is a Mr. Shifty 2 (and I do hope there is one day), all I ask from Team Shifty – learn to end your game before it runs out of good ideas.
Mr. Shifty was developed by Team Shifty
Point of Sale – Steam, Nintendo Switch
$14.99; 15 bucks for two really good hours? Seems a bit shifty to me…
A Review Copy of Mr. Shifty was provided by tinyBuild