Mr Shifty is a tale of two different games. On the one hand, you have a smartly designed top-down brawler, which uses a single teleporting gameplay mechanic to open up its frantic action to new frontiers. On the other, you have a game that just doesn’t know when to quit. It invalidates its ideas the more you push on, padding the game out by simply multiplying the danger and rarely iterating on the core gameplay hooks. Mr Shifty might have you grinning from ear to ear when it starts, but it rarely pushes past the highs of its opening hours.
Mr Shifty’s premise is simple enough. You play as thief Mr Shifty, who has the distinct advantage of being able to teleport short distances. Just like X-Men’s Nightcrawler, you’re able to bamboozle enemies by phasing behind them, into different rooms and through their attacks, which gives the top-down action a new layer of fun. While similar games like Hotline Miami emphasised preparation and planning, Mr Shifty leans heavily into its core mechanic to create fast, reckless gameplay that immediately clicks.
It’s gameplay that accentuated by just how good it feels. Even playing with traditional controllers on Nintendo Switch, Mr Shifty always managed to interpret my moves correctly. Before long I was teleporting in and out of danger, making quick work of enemies with the equally satisfying and heavy melee combat. Level designed accommodates this sort of recklessness too, giving you ample space to really stretch and test the boundaries of your newfound power. It’s immediately gratifying, and the strongest part of the game by a mile.
Enemies too start off rather varied, and consistently keep you on your feet. The standard gun-wielding henchman will offer up little challenge in small numbers, but offer considerable issues in large groups. Guards then start carrying different weapons, with shotguns, automatic rifles and even katana forcing players to change up their tactics frequently. Being able to use weapons around the levels you’re tearing apart gives you new ways to deal with larger and more resilient foes – but combat always boils down to the use (or misuse) of the central teleportation mechanic.
The same goes for the game’s various puzzles, which help break up more combat heavy levels in initially interesting ways. Arrays of laser grids will test both your dexterity and knowledge of how your teleportation powers work, but never leave scratching your head over a solution. Other floors prohibit use of your powers, forcing you to approach both combat and puzzles with a more slow, cautious approach. They’re immediately welcome shifts in the balance of power, but quickly overused to their own detriment.
Mr Shifty starts running out of ideas about halfway through its four-hour length. As you continue climbing each floor of a skyscraper (each new level is a new floor, and the game can’t save your progress in individual rooms on each), it begins layering the many elements it has over one another. What that translates into practically are longer, more brutal levels packed to the brim with seemingly endless waves of enemies and traps. It’s made worse still when a single blow – since Shifty can only last one hit – can put you back to the start of a room that’s been ridiculously taxing for the sole reason if it being too long. it’s frustrating, and saps all the fun you might have been having in the preceding levels.
Mr Shifty then compounds this issues by starting to overstay its welcome for a good hour. The game fakes out of a would be ending only to remind you that there’s a lot more to come, but without ever evolving the formula you’ve now become comfortable with. Instead, it just keeps attempting to make things more exciting by just throwing more hazards you way. It quickly turns from a grin-inducing action game to a lesson in tedium, to the point where I simply didn’t care too much about the last few stages.
This would’ve been solved if Mr Shifty at least had an engrossing story. Titles like Hotline Miami thrived on their tales of violence and culture references, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything of worth in Mr Shifty’s two-dimensional tale. Shifty and his handler (the rarely hilarious Nyx) never shift from their task of needing to steal some super plutonium at the top of the skyscraper. Its writing tries to be humourous and over the top but it hardly lands on a note of entertainment, which makes the length just feel even longer than it is.
Mr Shifty also fails to live up to the task both visually and audibly. Music hardly changes from stage to stage and never gets your blood pumping in a way that contributes to the otherwise pulsating action. Flat colours and inviting visual changes on each floor are neat, but they’re undercut by the declining nature of Mr Shifty’s performance, especially on Switch. Later levels with more enemies brought the game to a standstill, locking the action for a few seconds before responding again. Some instances even crashed the game entirely, which only obliterated all progress on that floor.
It’s a real shame though, because Mr Shifty’s opening holds the promise of a game that could’ve been as fun to play at the end as it was in the beginning. It’s a game that just loses itself the more it carries on, never evolving its initially fantastic twist on top-down action and eventually driving into the ground in monotony. While the distraction might be fun at the outset, Mr Shifty is ultimately a game that shifts in and out of being fun far too often.