Hotline Miami with teleportation should just about sum up Mr. Shifty, and yet the two are fairly different.
Developer: Team Shifty
Release date: 13 Apr, 2017
I did not have a history with Top-Down Shooters (also known as Twin Stick Shooters) until Hotline Miami. Since then I have started to enjoy them more, especially with Nuclear Throne. I usually saw them as cheap little games that had very little to offer, but those aforementioned games and a few others (Enter The Gungeon) have put them back on the map. However, those heavy-hitters are already so good that one might find it difficult to break some new ground. And yet, Mr. Shifty comes and seduces with a mechanic that just feels perfectly at home with this viewpoint: a “blink” or “teleport” ability, that you might know from Dishonored’s Corvo, X-Men’s Nightcrawler or a few MOBAs that borrow it from WarCraft III’s Warden hero.
Empowering and beautiful; blinking from one bad guy to the other and punching them to death is exhilarating, thus Mr. Shifty is completely acing it in the gameplay department. There is a teleportation bar that empties upon each blink to prevent player from abusing it, but it recharges quickly enough to get in a quick rhythm without needing to ever stop. The necessity to abide to a rhythm pushes to enter the game’s flow, while leaving some room for extra quick manoeuvers. Marvelous. The enemies react very quickly, but teleporting confuses them just long enough to get behind them.
Unlike all the other Top-Down Shooters, Mr. Shifty is actually not a shooter. It is possible to throw some (lethal) items, however our protagonist only resorts to melee items (broom, staff, keyboards) and never picks up a firearm. The genre might thus drift closer to a Beat ‘em up, except that enemies thankfully die quickly. Without any item, the punches are powerful and give an excellent feedback to the player. So while Hotline Miami was an obvious comparison as it is a leviathan of the genre, both games play extremely different. And that might be where Mr. Shifty starts to break down a little bit: while Hotline Miami offered a variety of weapons that changed the approach to the game, Mr. Shifty’s formula of move-punch-move-punch eventually becomes repetitive.
Variety comes from the enemies and their little quirks: some can dash, some will blow up after dying, some have spread weapons, some can throw explosive, and so on. Furthermore, while Hotline Miami was focused on the combat, Mr. Shifty makes us of its protagonist’s ability to manoeuver at high speed by throwing tons of traps at the player. Lasers and homing rockets will offer different sort of challenges. And talking about challenge, while the beginning of the game is fairly easy, it gradually ramps up and the latter levels will require quick thinking and quick reflexes to surmount the odds.
There are dozens of goons to fight, and yet Mr. Shifty dies in a single bullet. Hitting many enemies in a short span of time will fill up a slow-motion bar, however it is sadly not delivered to the control of the player. A bullet close to the protagonist will active the slow-mo, and while this can sometimes allow for a last-second save, it can often be triggered by a grazing bullet that would have never have hit the player, and thus waste the precious ability that would have seen a better use in the next difficult room. The save system is fair, but sometimes stretches the number of fights to survive before the next checkpoint. Repeating fights can become tiresome, since you mostly have the same approach each time. Each green door loading a new area is a checkpoint, and each elevator is the beginning of the levels. Sadly, even though the levels can be quite long, quitting the game and coming back brings back to the latest elevator rather than door. There are about 15 levels, and the game can be finished in 5-7h with no incentive to come back. While I mentioned the slow-motion, I will add that semi-destructible environments (cool physics overall) and a big sequence of levels taking place in a single building reminded me of another game: F.E.A.R. The same criticism can be aimed at both games, seeing the same thing over and over becomes dull despite the amazing core gameplay. Only the last level managed to excite me again with its chaotic redesign of the levels.
Finally, while Hotline Miami had a well-paced mysterious and hypnotizing story enhanced with ground-breaking music, Mr. Shifty does not deliver on both accounts. A more memorable music with a strong identity would have also helped set the levels apart. Moving on to the technical aspect, the controls can be rebound and work perfectly fine both with controllers and keyboard & mouse. The clean style of the graphics easily conveys all the necessary information (and destructible walls and items gives a lot more punch to the punches!), however the framerate can sometimes tank really hard when a lot of explosion are taking place with many enemies on screen as well. It happened rarely enough not to be an issue, but the game does not succeed to maintain a high framerate all throughout its length.
In conclusion, Mr. Shifty suffers from the comparison to Hotline Miami. The envelope is far less attractive, and the restriction to not use firearms but only punches and thrown items ends up becoming more repetitive in the long run. Traps and many types of enemies manage to keep the interest up, however there is not enough variation in the visuals as most floors of the building to scale look the same. So while Mr. Shifty is a good game, it clearly lacks a lot to be considered a masterpiece. Still, the essential is that the core gameplay is a brilliant success, and definitely worth a recommendation. Quick successions of fast-paced high-skill manoeuvers to punch, teleport, then punch again feel amazing.