The promise has been made.
One thing I try to avoid when describing games is saying “It’s really good, but.” That’s something I’ve had to do a lot with Mr. Shifty. Directly inspired by the Hotline Miami series, Mr. Shifty manages to take the fast, frenetic style of combat of those games and crafts it into an experience uniquely its own. It mixes the satisfying feeling of clearing out rooms full of enemies with a light-hearted tone and sense of humor. Without a doubt, when it’s banging on all cylinders, Mr. Shifty hits, if not exceeds, the same high points you’d find in Hotline Miami. At its best moments, Mr. Shifty is one of the funnest and funniest games that I’ve played in recent memory. At its worst, it’s an absolutely dreadful game that I wanted shot out of a cannon through one sun, into a different sun, and then finally settling on a planet made entirely of shit.
Mr. Shifty is a top-down action puzzle game where you travel between the floors of an imposingly tall office building to beat up a bunch of nameless baddies and try your best not to get killed. You’re given open floor plans with lots of cover to avoid detection to set up your plan of attack, which is crucial, since you die in one hit. Dying and trying again are core tenants of this style of game, as a retry button allows you to immediately start from the room you died in to give you one more crack at it.
Where Mr. Shifty differs from its inspiration starts in its gameplay, adding a phase-shift mechanic that allows you to quickly dart around to other areas in combat and pass through walls. It’s very snappy and responsive, and just feels good to do. You’re limited to five consecutive uses though, requiring you to think about how to use your shifts in moment to moment gameplay. It also recharges quickly, so you never feel like you should be conserving your shifts. You’ll eventually wind up developing a nice rhythm to your shifts so that you never need to stop moving. There’s also a bullet time mechanic, which you get from a meter that fills as you beat enemies, and activates whenever you’re about to get hit by a bullet. You still can get hit by said bullet if you’re not careful, but it provides you with a free mistake to make and get away from. It encourages faster and more active play as opposed to hiding around corners and waiting, and grants the player with a tangible in game reward, compared to Hotline Miami’s score multipliers, for being less careful.
Graphically, the game’s vaguely cartoony style doesn’t really stand out. Mr. Shifty himself is designed almost exactly like Aiden Pierce from Watch Dogs, with an edgy long trench coat and baseball cap. He’s a faceless cypher for the player character with no dialogue at all, and yet still manages to be a more likable character than Aiden will ever be. The other named characters, Nyx and Chairman Stone, are pretty generic interpretations of a corporate hacker confidant and an evil, untouchable capitalist. They’re genuinely funny and likeable characters with great dialogue, but aesthetically they leave something to be desired.
The game’s soundtrack consists of only a handful of songs that are about as generic as the character designs. There’s only seven songs in the whole game, and a majority of the missions have you running around to the same stock-soundy rock track. The music does, however, manage to fit the tone and the feel of the game quite well. Beating up a bunch of dudes to some well paced 90s action movie rock can feel really good, even if it does wind up feeling samey after a while.
Mr. Shifty has a very light-hearted PG-13 tone that’s super endearing. The game starts off with you right in the middle of a major heist, playing as an anti-hero with inextricable superpowers. You work for a… government??? Crime syndicate??? That’s never really explained, but with good reason. Mr. Shifty doesn’t care about answering those questions. It wants you to know you’re on a heist, and heist you will. You must infiltrate Chairman Stone’s ultra secure skyscraper to steal his mega plutonium for some reason. It sounds important, so you MUST have it. This simple style of writing where ideas are only loosely explained fits the game perfectly. It feels like it’s written by a five year old, but that five year old’s dad, who’s kind of a funny dude, decided to punch it up for him and make a game out of it. There’s a line right at the beginning where your confidant Nyx calls Chairman Stone “an evil asshole” who’s “wanted for a bajillion criminal offences.” It was right then that I knew this game’s sense of humor was really gonna land for me. It didn’t fail, either, as throughout the game I got treated to really silly one-liners that I couldn’t stop cracking up over.
Mr. Shifty, however, has a lot of obvious failings. First and foremost, the thin story is a fun thematic conceit, but it feels like most of it is loaded into the first 10 levels of an 18 level game. With the climax occuring roughly halfway through the game, the latter half feels like it plods along until the inevitable conclusion. There are even a couple of levels where you’re not sure why you’re still playing, until the simple story returns from being just plain non-existent. What would make these levels a little more tolerable is more motivation for you to continue, or putting the game’s biggest climax a little later. In between levels you get an indicator of where you currently are in the tower, and after the climax hit and I saw that I was only halfway through, it set poor expectations for the rest of the game.
Secondly, while the room to room encounters are a pretty good time, the rest of Mr. Shifty’s level design is bad more often than not. There are a few neat ideas like chase sequences and very light stealth sections, but the puzzle rooms and timing challenges found all throughout the game are easily the weakest parts of it. I found myself getting caught in too many small rooms where I had to shift past a pattern of lasers in order to progress. These sections break up the fast, frenetic pace of the game to its detriment. Where clearing out a room of enemies feels satisfying, banging your head against a timing puzzle isn’t anywhere near as rewarding. It doesn’t feel like you gain anything out of it as a player.
Similarly annoying are the forced combat sections. Instead of placing you in a room with a set of enemies, there will occasionally be rooms that spawn waves of enemies instead, hypothetically being an interesting challenge to get to the next level. However, the one-hit death and instant retry doesn’t lend itself well to these encounters. I found myself going through pointless easy waves that I had no problem with before to get to harder ones where I would die and restart several times over. It’s a massive slog that should have felt satisfying when I finished it, but instead it felt hollow, and I was just glad it was over. There’s one particularly egregious example late in the game that was so extremely long that it felt like a genuine chore. At one point, I hit restart and my game crashed, so I had to replay the entire level again to get to a part I didn’t enjoy in the first place.
Mr. Shifty is a fun time that’s extremely hard to recommend. It may only really appeal to the types of gamers who are into really precision combat and timing puzzles. This is a game I personally cannot wait to watch speedruns of, which, by the time this review is published, I’m sure there are plenty of already. The beauty of a game like Hotline Miami is that while it had precision combat that high level players would be into, completing it didn’t feel like a massive chore to more casual players. Mr. Shifty makes some positive advancements to the formula it’s based off of, but know that if you wanna play more of this style of game, it’s gonna come with some pretty big caveats.