This is what happens when you can go anywhere and decide to go nowhere.
Mr. Shifty is an oddity for me, so much as that I wanted to like it a lot more than I ended up doing. The setup is so simple, as is the conceit of the gameplay, that I was driven to play more just to see what the trick was going to turn out to be. Surprise, surprise, there isn’t one. Shifty is exactly what it says on the box, and that hasn’t changed much since I previewed the alpha a few months back for this very site.
For what it’s worth, players take up the identity of the titular Mr. Shifty, a thief with the ability to teleport over short distances (think Nightcrawler of the X-Men), who may or may not have some personal beef with the rich company chairman you’re stealing nuclear material from. To achieve this, Shifty will need to clear floors of thugs, hired hands, security systems, and rocket turrets to storm a corporate tower and make it out alive. That’s pretty much it. Of the two characters that have any dialog in the game-Shifty himself does not speak-there’s talk of things being more detailed than that but such never happens.
Gameplay takes the form of a top view map crawl, with Mr. Shifty navigating from room to room, clearing obstacles and enemies to progress to the next floor. Shifty comes armed with only his hands and fists, but is able to get the upper hand thanks to his teleportation technique. The power is somewhat limited, it can only be used so many times in an interval, but is always recharging so it’s pretty easy to manage. You’ll need to be good at managing it too, because any sort of contact from a threat results in an instant death of Mr. Shifty. Outside of teleportation, death is the other thing players will be doing a bunch of in Mr. Shifty.
From the outset, Mr. Shifty has been billed as a game built in the footsteps of notable shock sensation Hotline Miami. Everything from the player viewpoint to the insta-death is pulled from this idea. What didn’t get picked up, however, was the subversive nature that made Hotline Miami stand out and grab people’s attention. It also didn’t even try to emulate the rocking soundtrack. I know it sounds unfair to dock a game for not being like another game, but Team Shifty are the ones who invited the comparison: Mr. Shifty often feels like Hotline Miami in the same way all those budget horror games on Steam felt like Slender.
Shifty clearly tries to reach for that level of quality, but always comes up short. Being regulated to mostly fisticuffs for enemy take-down mostly makes the game feel like a side scrolling brawler. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I’m a particular sucker for those kinds of old-school styles. But then the game remembers what it’s supposed to be aping, and tries to once again reach for that level of depth. That’s about the point where Mr. Shifty decides to try to complicate the gameplay, but it ends up boiling that complication down to taking away the one thing that makes the title character, well, anything. As you progress through the game, more and more you’ll walk into sections that completely remove the ability to teleport-and with little in the way to fight besides the power, it’s far more efficient to just avoid obstacles altogether-I was able to waltz through sections by simply hugging a far wall way more times than are okay, and sometimes the solution is to literally just punch through a wall.
Getting past those moments at least puts Shifty in a room where the game becomes a beat-em-up again, and it’s at least decently entertaining to beat on goons, since the game is careful to mix and match the types you’ll encounter as to encourage teleportation. There is also a stop time bonus that can occur if Shifty can land enough quick succession hits, and that’s pretty satisfying to bust out even if it’s only good in certain sections of the game but the game decides when to trigger it. All of this is great, but with the pacing constantly interrupted by a fabricated difficulty spike having nothing to do with combat, it is quickly forgotten how good it is.
There are some technical issues too; my PC isn’t anything special, but I did see the occasional graphical frame drop, and there’s a hiccup where pointing Shifty’s cursor to pass by a wall and will instead just hit the damn wall instead. The PC version does recommend a controller of some sort, and I really can only imagine how many more times I’d make imprecise warps with a keyboard. I’m also told that the Nintendo Switch version of the game is seeing some more significant issues that are still in the process of being addressed, though I’ve had this game longer than I have a Switch at this point, so I didn’t buy it and can’t really speak on that.
Even disregarding technical spats, there are some curious design choices. Shifty’s primary color is a dark blue, and all the rooms are also a fairly dark blue and grey, meaning that without his bright red hat (a really poor choice given the past year and a half), you wouldn’t even be able to keep him focused, even with the camera locked to him. Additionally, bumping literally anything around the repetitive room designs will cause it to fall or break, alerting every enemy to Mr. Shifty’s exact position, but there isn’t anything remotely like a stealth system. A lot of this could be forgiven if there was something redeeming underneath, but as I mentioned previously, Shifty himself basically does not speak, or really have any indicator of motivation; meaning that the game misses the last great part of Hotline Miami on top of everything else.
Mr. Shifty feels almost like an Icarus, a game that set itself for the sun, but its wings burned away as it got too close-but this one doesn’t get far off the ground. Had the game stayed firmly committed to what worked for it and grown that, as opposed to spending half of the time taking it away, there might have been something interesting, or at least more worth the asking price. Instead, what promise was here has itself vanished in its own poof of smoke.
Developer: Team Shifty
Platform: PC (reviewed), Switch
Released: April 13th, 2017
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