I usually find it unkind to compare a game to a classic during a review, but in the case of Mr. Shifty, I feel it is adequate. After all “It’s Hotline Miami but with teleportation” is all but its tag line. Like the game it takes its inspiration from, Mr. Shifty is an isometric action title where you are put in charge of one man in a building with the mission of fighting his way through it. The camera looks a bit like a floor plan, and enemies are armed, usually with firearms. Mr. Shifty is fragile, and dies after one hit. Death comes quickly after making a mistake. But he can also teleport to even the odds. Despite the interesting twist on a successful game concept, Mr. Shifty still ends up falling that uncomfortable territory of merely being a good game.
You are Mr. Shifty, a super-powered thief that has two talents: teleportation and punching people really, really hard. He is infiltrating the building of a criminal master mind known as Stone, who has stolen Super Plutonium (apparently regular Plutonium isn’t deadly enough) and plans to use it for something obviously nefarious. There isn’t much more of a story, and there are few characters in the game. Aside from the hordes of goons you will mostly punch into submission, the other characters are the villain, Stone, which is presented early enough and features prominently enough that that it makes a pretty good villain, and a support communications woman who seems to be a parody on support characters from other games, both in how useless she is and how this is played for laughs in the game.
Mr. Shifty is a great example of how aesthetics and story can elevate a game to be more than the sum of its parts. Not because it has great aesthetics or directions, but because it does not. It lacks the the style its inspiration oozed, and is missing the heart-pounding music that drove a lot of the game’s intensity. In a way, Mr. Shifty looks better than Hotline Miami. The graphics are cleaner,the models are bigger, and the game looks crisper. The music is… It has it. It has music. Bland, inoffensive music that isn’t annoying but is also not memorable. But the presentation lacks style, and that keeps the game from reaching the pulse-pounding levels of intensity that Hotline Miami reached, and in turn that means that the moments of quiet that worked so well in its inspirational work, have next to no impact in Mr. Shifty. This makes the game feel like a nice distraction rather than a fuller experience.
The average level of Mr. Shifty starts with a small story excuse with some banter, then its off to fight some enemies. There are weapons, which usually comes from the destruction of enemy weapons or Shifty’s teleportation due to objects in the level. Most weapons are thrown: A key board, a mug, a vase. All can be thrown at enemies to make quick work of them. There are some melee weapons, but they break after a few uses. Mr. Shifty is really about Shifty’s own fists of fury. Most enemies do take more than one hit to bring down, and all but two classes of enemies have ranged attacks. This means that in order to be successful at all, you will need to use the teleportation power to navigate, and separate them, or even trick them into shooting each other. Enemies don’t go down immediately. They take usually a three-hit combo to bring down, so planning for that is crucial to success. The game knows this and likes to flood the floor with enemies that either teleport in or come out of doors, particularly at the ending of levels.
Mr. Shifty also likes traps. The tower you are invading is filled with lasers, flame throwers, exploding canisters, and machines that block your teleportation.They bring some variety to the game, but they can also be used without warning, often in ways that give the player very little chance to react unless they know it is coming. The game can be fairly generous with check points, at least initially so it might not be a big deal then, but as you continue with the game and the checkpoints are placed further apart it can feel very cheap to suddenly be killed by a trap that was not telegraphed. The game does eventually start mixing up these traps with enemies, which can result in some glorious gameplay moments where you can use the traps to kill a group of enemies for you. But it also means that a player could get through a complicated series of battles only to get killed by a sudden trap and have to play through it again.
Mr. Shifty is a short game, but the last two levels probably took me about the same time to complete as the rest of the game. They are not to long in terms of the size of map, but the game throws so many enemy hordes and traps in such short spans of time, with checkpoints that while not considered draconian are still feel like they could have been more forgiving, that the levels feel a lot more longer than they are, and a lot more frustrating when you lose. The last few hours turned into a slog for me that I could not wait to end. And yet, for all that complaining Mr. Shifty lasted me for about 8 hours. Having only 18 levels, the game does keep a great track of your performance. It times you, and counts deaths and kills with the intention of having the player go through levels several time, finding ways to speed run it, or to try to score no death runs. But for that kind of repetition to be appealing, the core game itself has to be very engaging, and Mr. Shifty is not that game.
The game also has strange performance issues. It is built in the Unity engine, and so it carries with it some of the problems expected from the engine. There are slowdonws in the game. While in the later levels when the game throws several iterations of every enemy at you at the same time that you are trying to avoid several traps that are all going off simultaneously, Mr. Shifty will drop frames. But it will also drop frames at strange times, like walking down a hallway, or sometimes when the speech bubbles of characters come in. It is not game breaking by any means, but it feels sloppy on a game that is not a technical marvel by any means. It evidences that it needed perhaps a little more time to be optimized.
Mr. Shifty is not a bad game. It can be very fun, especially when you can connect teleports and punches using the environment to take on a overwhelming force out can feel great. But it does get annoying at the end, confusing length with challenge. And while the developers clearly intend to have the game be played over and over to try to master it and beat your own scores, it simply isn’t interesting enough for that. It will do for fun while you are playing it, but it doesn’t have enough style or substance to be memorable. You will forget about it within a few days. For the asking price as of this writing, around $15, there are much better games you can get, but if you find it on sale in the future, and want something to kill 8 hours or so, Mr. Shifty will do OK.