Mr. Shifty’s potential is evident the first time you teleport through a wall and punch a man out of a window. The satisfying bamf of a brief teleportation followed by the delectable smack of a lethal punch proceeded by a gratuitous, graceful defenestration. This is the first thing you do in Mr. Shifty and it is awesome.
From there it’s a downward slopping curve toward resignation. Not a sharp curve, mind you, but rather one that drops about eight degrees off of center by the time Mr. Shifty rolls to a close. The top-down, room-clearing carnage of Hotline Miami combined with the quick-reset of Super Meat Boy and infused with Nightcrawler’s trademark teleportation ability should have been cool. What happened?
It’s not hard to see where Mr. Shifty starts turning south. Its introduction is spirited; the titular Mr. Shifty is some kind of operative, sent to ascend a tower and chuck away its nefarious leader, Chairman Stone. Your support, Nyx, back the (presumed) base is in your ear all the time, providing equal parts directive and tutorial. And that’s it. Mr. Shifty is and wants to be a game about teleporting around and punching people and, other than occasional peppy banter or diabolical taunting, it’s tons of game and minimal narrative.
Mr. Shifty can teleport about five feet in any direction and deliver a one-two punch with his fists. He can pick up some objects—keyboards, brooms, miscellaneous staff-based items—and get one or two instant-killing punches out of them before they disappear. Many of the henchmen and henchwomen populating the tower will have guns, but Mr. Shifty does not use guns. It’s never explained why (other than the obvious point of it would break the game), but it’s fine. Fists are good. Projectile operation would push Mr. Shifty even closer to Hotline Miami, a sun we already flew too close to with Hotline Miami 2.
There are natural limits to the teleport mechanic. Mr. Shifty can go five times in a row before it has to cool down and reset. Only doing three or four ‘ports (saving one for emergencies) was my go-to strategy. There’s also a meter that builds as Mr. Shifty enforces justice across waves of henchmen, and when it’s full the next bullet Mr. Shifty narrowly dodged will enact a few seconds of slow motion and infinite teleportation. Rampantly clearing out a room is a benefit of earning this maneuver.
Avoiding gunfire is your primary objective. The first floor is loaded with purple-suited gentlemen sporting pistols. In this world their gun has to make a brief charging sound, like the flash on an old disposable camera, before it can fire. This is an excellent warning noise, one that’s instantly used to great effect to gauge the present level of danger. One hit and Mr. Shifty is dead and the present room must be restarted. Most levels have around ten rooms, and can last anywhere from ten to thirty minutes depending on skill and/or patience.
Increasing opposition is Mr. Shifty’s first order of business. Purple suited guys give way to burly melee-focused assholes with slightly more health. They’re proceeded by yellow-suited henchmen with automatic rifles. Quick ninjas with katanas, dual-pistol wielding foes with a ping-pong ability, red ladies with auto-shotguns, and green rocket launching brutes help round out the cast of carnage-obsessed lackeys. They’re rarely in short supply, which is a problem we’ll address shortly.
The tower, while technically not sporting the fatalistic death wish of its henchmen, is another opponent. It’s armed with well-timed lasers that require challenging fits of teleportation. There’s almost top-down platforming element, too, in times when Mr. Shifty has to puzzle through different walls to escape impending doom. “Running away from death,” is another trick, usually where Mr. Shifty has to barrel down a hallway and either beat down a wall you didn’t know you could beat down or find an open room cleverly tucked away on the other side of a wall. The tower is cruel, but, in some way or another, always fair.
Transforming curious accidents into strategic operations compose the best parts of Mr. Shifty. Enemies can hurt each other, and they do with reckless abandon. Stuffing a room with some grenade guys and explosion-ready flamethrower dudes is a recipe for chaos. Simply teleporting Mr. Shifty straight through it always takes out someone, but failing and retrying eventually shapes a testable hypothesis. Suddenly Mr. Shifty is a performance, a ballet of murder orchestrated by equal parts frustration and courage. Why waste time killing bad guys when they can all kill each other instead?
That was fine when it worked, but more often than not I was running around and resorting the same old tactics. Improvisation was rarely necessary, and when it was it always amounted to getting panicky and teleporting behind the closest available wall. Mr. Shifty doesn’t feel elegantly designed in most places. Rooms have some structural variation, but fail to encourage a shift in tactics. I’m going to do what I always do, and, unless you’re speed running the game or trying to get a better time than a friend, there’s no reason try anything else.
Mr. Shifty’s problems are best illustrated by its length. Eighteen levels are present, but you’ve seen all there is to see after about fourteen or fifteen of them. It’s here when Mr. Shifty stops coming up with new henchmen and starts unloading them in furious quantities. Chairmain Stone actually starts pulling guys out of thin air, which might as well be a tacit admission of creative bankruptcy. Here, have some more guys you’ve killed a thousand times already, I don’t know. Escalation is the only observable tactic.
The last few levels are challenging without being interesting. Luck was more of a determining factor than skill and I began playing Mr. Shifty to get through it rather than have fun with it. Other than a sequence in level 17—which separated different configurations of henchmen into successive rooms—there’s nothing more to see. Mr. Shifty, the game with the amazing premise and the feels-good-as-hell teleport mechanic, was now boring.
Mr. Shifty begins in the same place it ends; by punching a man through a window. Defenestration is appealing, especially when it’s preceded by short form teleportation, but the first instance is more gratifying than the last. Mr. Shifty deals in scale, quantity, and strategy in the wrong order, assuring its sharp edge dulls after an auspicious opening.