You’d be excused for wanting to write off Mr. Shifty as a Hotline Miami clone, but that’d be a mistake. Though both games share the same top-down perspective and even a number of gameplay mechanics, they play very differently. Whereas Hotline Miami is a meticulously choreographed bullet ballet, Mr. Shifty is an unsanctioned fight in the basement of an abandoned warehouse. And it’s a brutally fun fight at that.
The game’s differentiating mechanic is Shifty’s ability to warp through space in five-foot increments. Shifty can phase through walls, lasers, and even enemies to avoid attacks, surprise guards, and seek cover. It’s a good thing that Shifty can well… shift, because odds are stacked against him. The goons he’s facing not only use assault rifles, shotguns, and flamethrowers, they’re deadly accurate and quick on the trigger. Warping from room to room and angling for an opening is Shifty’s only chance to even the odds and make it out alive.
Though he can’t use traditional firearms, Shifty has a mean right hook and has no reservations about pummeling enemies into unconsciousness. When bare knuckles just don't cut it, melee weapons like swords, bats, and paddles can do some damage. The melee weapons can only be used a few times before breaking, but they’re devastating for taking out large groups of enemies. The focus on close-range combat not only heightens the sense of danger and urgency, it separates Mr. Shifty from the competition. The game benefits greatly as a result.
Mr. Shifty is clearly built and developed with careful, strategic gameplay in mind. Melee weapons are situated in key places, rooms are arranged to provide cover, and enemies spawn in manageable chunks. However, I still found myself eschewing strategy for a reckless, but ultimately more fun approach.
While that may sound like a criticism, it’s not. The ultra quick, beat-em-up gameplay feels incredible, with responsive controls and fluid movement. When things are moving lightning fast and you’re forced to make split-second decisions, Mr. Shifty comes alive. Darting between enemies, warping to a different area to avoid attacks, and landing devastating blows while shifting through walls is thrilling. Still, I felt as though I was playing the game wrong, even though my completion time and death total were better than using a careful, measured approach.
Much of my strategic instinct was curbed by ineffective enemy AI. Enemies always seemed to know my location, regardless of my sneaking abilities. Running around a corner, warping into a windowless room, and darting into another should be enough to confuse the string of enemies following me, but it rarely was. Instead of going room to room, the line of enemies walked straight to my door, knocked it down, and opened fire.
Another problem is that Mr. Shifty is just too powerful for the first half of the game. It wasn’t until the last portion of the game that I had to do some critical thinking and problem solving, trying to overcome new gameplay mechanics like trip-mines and laser beams.
For as electric and exciting as the gameplay is, it’s only natural to assume Mr. Shifty’s story would bring the same energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
The plot in Mr. Shifty is drab, boring, and forgettable. Mr. Shifty and his associate/handler break into one of the world’s most secure buildings to steal an certain object. They run afoul of Chairman Stone, a scarred, one-eyed, suit-wearing maniac. Truth be told, halfway through the game, I forget why I was needlessly killing hoarded of enemies. Mr. Shifty also relies on lazy narrative drivers that include far too many “the-princess-is-in-a-different-castle” tricks, which quickly become exhausting and bothersome.
Compounding the issue is that almost every character in the game has the emotional depth of a pancake. Characters lack motivation and backstory and seem dropped into the game free of context. Even the game’s titular character remains a mystery. By the time the credits rolled, most of my questions remained unanswered.
Likewise, level design lacks character. Apart from a few distinct scenery changes, things are more or less the same for the first two-thirds of the game. I found myself growing bored with the endless offices and conference rooms, hoping for an injection of diversity.
For as bland as some of the initial stages feel, the game's final levels up the ante in almost every possible way. Instead of the environment feeling like a hollow shell in which to operate, later stages feel like tools, which when used carefully, become a staple of Shifty's inventory. Handling live trip mines, using strategic laser placement, and even using certain enemy types to take out others is nothing short of exhilarating. Combined with a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach, these levels thoroughly test your on-the-spot improvisation abilities.
I had a blast during Mr. Shifty’s 5-hour journey through the bowels of the world’s most secure skyscraper. The strength of the core gameplay elevates the experience well beyond its problems. While I would have appreciated a better story, more effective enemy AI, and better level design, the core of Mr. Shifty is so strong, it really doesn’t matter.