Often unable to adorn their creations with the glitzy trappings or intricate design allowed by larger budgets, indie development teams may put all their eggs in one gameplay basket, relying on whatever mechanics they’ve concocted to be both unique and functional enough to ultimately win players over. Mr. Shifty, the debut title from Australian four-man group Team Shifty, hopes that the simple act of warping around a series of rooms while punching a boatload of nameless goons will compensate for the lack of polished visuals and variety of content. Fortunately for both them and us, because of tight controls and satisfying impact feedback, it mostly does.
The concept of Mr. Shifty involves a setup so basic and implausible that it’s not unlike some of the best action movies of the last few decades (and was actually inspired by many of them): some dude in a cool trenchcoat is on a mission to steal some plutonium/MacGuffin from the depths of a heavily guarded skyscraper owned by an evil rich asshole. To achieve this he must pass through each floor, overcoming whatever obstacles stand in the way, assisted by his own Maria Hill communicating objectives and bad puns in his ear. Instead of sneaking his way through by stealth, however, Shifty opts for beating the bejesus out of anyone and anything in his path – without a single gun to help. Cocky? Sure, but when you can teleport like Nightcrawler in X2, playing gleeful hide and seek around corners before appearing behind a shotgun-wielding thug and knocking him out the window, Hans Gruber-style, maybe that boldness is justified.
Awesomeness is an intangible quality, but the gratifying feel of the barebones combat in Mr. Shifty has enough of it to carry the rest, even without some of the other clever bits that are sprinkled throughout the game’s 18 stages and 100+ levels. Like the best beat ’em-ups, the simple act of putting one’s fist into an opponent’s face or spine just feels right, registering a resounding thump that may induce a gleeful grin, but it’s the ability to quickly leap through space that keeps things fast-paced and interesting for the 4-5 hours it takes to ascend the tower. While nearly everyone in the building is bigger, stronger, and armed with enough firepower to take over the city, setting sights on an enemy who can appear both in front and behind them in a split second is no easy task. Mr. Shifty has the upper hand, and the number of ways the gameplay allows him to exploit this opens up the melee chaos to unexpected depth and impish experimentation.
Though most stages require simply moving from one cubicle area to the next cubicle area, mopping the floor with any number of trigger-happy office workers (watch out for the accounting department) and clueless security patrols, there is a tremendous amount of freedom in how to overcome each challenge. A straightforward rush usually will result in a quick, bullet-ridden death (one hit is all it takes), but it’s certainly doable for skilled players. Usually, however, a more considered approach is desirable, warping through walls and around enemies in an almost taunting dance, until finally singling one poor bastard out for his pummeling. Mr. Shifty’s power truly translates, and the more one gets comfortable with the limitations of distance and speed, the sooner the games can begin.
Often I found myself laughing at small discoveries, like the first time I was surrounded by a group of machine gunners, only to warp out before they blasted away at the newly-vacated space, resulting in a circle of corpses. Pinning multiple victims to a wall with a trident, distracting guards with a pillow to the face, or throwing a grenadier’s explosive projectile right back at him are just some of the many ways players can interact with Mr. Shifty‘s world, and though early levels do convey basic concepts of exploring the destructible environments to uncover staffs and deadly coffee mugs, much comes from experimentation. Punch doors into unwitting foes, trip proximity mines and toss them into a crowd, use the tower’s own missile defenses against those meant to be protected; happy accidents help broaden tactics, making the player more aware of positioning and the environment in general, and the sometimes surprising results foster a playful approach to any situation that makes the seemingly monotonous flood of enemies seem fresh nearly every time.
Occasionally there are short breathers from the head-clobbering action, usually involving sections that disable the warp mechanic and force new strategies, or a series of laser fences that must quickly be navigated. These puzzle-light breaks are quite welcome, even if they do get a bit insane toward the end. Still, no matter how many times one dies (and the game will keep track, just to remind you how inadequate you are), forgiving checkpoints eliminate the need for irritating backtracking—though beware, if you turn the game off before completing an entire stage, it will annoyingly reset back to the beginning of that floor. This keeps Mr. Shifty fairly accessible, even with a few cheap deaths, and when later levels will demand more veteran patience and skill.
A few things do hold the game back, however. While the visceral, over-the-top combat will be enough reason for many to play (those with a Switch will also get to feel each hit, with the HD rumble providing different vibrations for different objects), those looking for variety in visuals or design won’t find much here. This is a brawler, albeit one with a bit more tactical depth, so expect to use two buttons the majority of the time; no new abilities are acquired, and only very few objectives change things up from the primitive slugfest. Also expect to be seeing the same brown/grey walls, same office desks and useless potted plant vases, and same enemy types. Mr. Shifty looks retro cool-ish for a while, but seeing the same assets over and over gets monotonous pretty quickly. Add to that an issue with some frame drops when too many moving parts are on screen, and the possibility of frustrating deaths may surface. These slowdowns never affected my own measured playthrough with an unwarranted restart, but it certainly could happen for those who like to punch first and ask questions later.
Sure, there’s not a lot of nuance in Mr.Shifty, not a lot of story, not a lot of graphical glamour, and at times even the warp mechanic feels under-exploited, as if there was so much possibility that was lost due to low funding, but Team Shifty wanted to make players feel badass, and in that goal they’ve largely succeeded. 100+ levels later I could have continued punching bad guys through windows, bashing them in the back with desktop keyboards, and laying traps that create friendly-fire havoc, and still remained highly entertained. Sometimes a game just feels good to play, and with Mr. Shifty, that’s enough.