Remember that opening scene in the second X-Men movie where Nightcrawler teleports his way through the White House, knocking out armed guards left and right as he swiftly punctures the barriers between public spaces and the president of the United States? Mr. Shifty is a lot like that. The title character even maintains Kurt Wagner’s trademark colour scheme, sashaying around in a blue trenchcoat while a red baseball cap draws the eye to his noggin.
The similarities are staggering, yet we live in a world where we’ve not had a great Nightcrawler game, so you can’t hold it against developer Team Shifty for beating Marvel to the punch. And what a beating it is! In terms of gaming inspirations, Mr. Shifty is a clear spiritual successor to Hotline Miami, yet it’s the rare imitator that brings enough of its own ideas that the final product feels fresh.
Like Hotline Miami, Mr. Shifty is a top-down action game about an assassin breaking into a series of organised crime lairs where you eliminate throngs of goons before they know what hit them. Where Mr. Shifty differentiates itself from Dennaton’s cult classic is with its super powers and dynamic environments. The ability to instantaneously teleport a few feet away is enough to make every other game’s “evade” button green with envy, as you reappear behind an unsuspecting foe or apparate behind cover.
Cover matters a lot in Mr. Shifty. To combat the titular hero’s powers, the developer throws copious amounts of criminals at you, discouraging you from staying still for longer than a couple of seconds. Adding further challenge is the fact that the level layouts shift organically as confused clusters of adversaries scramble about, destroying the scenery with rocket launchers, grenades, shotguns and more.
It quickly becomes apparent that turning foes against each other is a major component of Mr. Shifty’s strategy. Where most action games prioritise eliminating the biggest threats first, Mr. Shifty gradually teaches you how to to use these dangers to your advantage. Sure you could knock out the guy with the rocket launcher in the beginning of a battle, but it’s generally more effective (and exciting) to keep him alive and lure a cluster of foes into his line of fire.
It’s thrilling stuff as you get used to apparating about, in a constant flux between chaos and comfort. There’s plenty of room for off-the-cuff improvisation – triggering a proximity mine, snatching it, warping into a room, dropping it, then disappearing again as your frazzled targets explode in a panicked flurry.
Mr. Shifty’s difficulty curve is immaculately balanced, too, with the more challenging hazards offering greater opportunities for retaliation. Traps like lasers, mines and explosive barrels can be used in your favour, and defeating furious ninjas makes them drop a sword that offers one-hit kills for a few swings before breaking. Your actual armaments may be slim pickings, but Mr. Shifty’s teleportation is one of those Superhot or Portal-esque ideas that manages to get a lot of mileage out of a simple mechanic.
In a nonsensical but welcome turn, Mr. Shifty takes the comic book hero approach to crime-fighting by not using guns. This doesn’t exactly make sense given how mercilessly he slaughters his foes, but a well-justified narrative is far from Mr Shifty’s focus. Firearms would make things too easy, too banal, too basic. Where’s the artistry in that?
Still, while Team Shifty nails its hero’s combat potential, the overarching tale could do with a bit more intimacy and personality. There’s a light-hearted story of a cackling kingpin up to no good, but it merely exists as a ricepaper wrapper for Mr. Shifty’s mechanics-driven mayhem.
More damning is that Mr. Shifty’s aesthetic stylings are never much more than functional. The art direction is crisp and clean but largely uninspired, and while the retro chiptune soundtrack is competent, it fails to get the blood pumping like Hotline Miami’s electric fever dream of a score.
That’s not to say Mr. Shifty’s action feels sterile. There’s a very strong sense of oomph when you knock out an enemy or narrowly escape an explosion. Part of this is due to the finesse of the Joy-Con’s rumble functionality, while the sound effects and animation really sell the physicality of Shifty’s fighting style. Mr. Shifty is a game about feeling powerful after all, so it’s vital that its sensory feedback is on point, and Team Shifty does not disappoint.
While some of Mr. Shifty’s peripheral elements are forgettable the developer does everything in its power to keep you locked onto its strengths. It isn’t necessarily the longest or deepest experience, with its few hour campaign encompassing just 18 linear stages, but it makes the most of what it is. This is a game about trimming the fat, and its sheer momentum ensures the dopamine rush overrides any nitpicks I could level at it.
Mr. Shifty’s interlocking systems are exceptionally clever, which goes a long way in setting it apart from competitors. If Hotline Miami was a game about planning and executing the perfect heist, Mr. Shifty is about reacting on the fly to everything going wrong while simultaneously being graced with super powers. Having completed the story, I’m still not sure if Mr. Shifty is supposed to be a straight up superhero or more of a troubled antihero, but does it matter? He provides us with a rousing round of action setpieces and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s making the world a better place. There’s nothing shifty about it.