Popular culture permeates our everyday lives, cropping up in all aspects of our existence whether we want it to or not. Team Shifty’s Mr. Shifty wears its pop culture influence on its sleeve. An amalgam of Dennation Games’ Hotline Miami and X-Men’s Nightcrawler, it’s a top-down, isometric brawler where teleporting might just save your life. Or get you killed. And though Mr. Shifty makes its influences unabashedly apparent, it blends the two so cleverly that is both tantalizing and addictive in a weird, perverse, lemme-punch-one-more-guy-out-the-window kind of way.The result feeds upon our instinctual desire for rabid, frenetic violence.
Taking control of the eponymous Mr. Shifty, you are tasked with infiltrating the most secure building in the world, attempting to steal Mega Plutonium from Mr. Stone, a man the size of a boulder. (The naming conventions are reminiscent of early comic books and videogames; think Superman or Sonic the Hedgehog.) Really, though, you’re there to teleport around, punch dudes in the face, and raid the complex a la Gareth Evans’s pencak silat flick The Raid: Redemption. This narrative is rather bromidic and facile; it only serves the purpose of framing the violence and establishing Mr. Shifty as a thief. The lack of narrative depth is forgivable, as the game itself blatantly prioritizes its gameplay loop over its storytelling.
You dash through 18 levels (or floors, since the game takes place in a single skyscraper), punching, shifting, grabbing and throwing weapons, and slowing down time to reach Mr. Stone and the mega plutonium he is hoarding for himself because he’s an evil villain and that’s what evil villains do. What could become a rather insipid concept is actually exhilarating and extreme: enemies take two to three hits to drop while you, frail as a glass menagerie, need only one hit before your body is sprawled on the floor. The juxtaposition between the resilience of the enemies and the fragility of the titular character create thrilling moments of intense, intoxicating badassery. There is no penalty for the deaths you accrue, so challenging yourself to clear a floor with no deaths is both electrifying and frantic, as you teleport and punch your way through hoards of enemies to ascend and descend the skyscraper.
Unfortunately, not every moment is high-octane action: For some inexplicable reason, Mr. Shifty slows down to a crawl, forcing you to solve rudimentary puzzles in order to progress to the next section of a floor. These puzzles—many of which are incredibly easy—are uninspired and only halt the otherwise kinetic action. Though they do offer a sort of respite from the balls-to-the-wall commotion, the simplicity of the puzzles clashes with the fast-paced action Mr. Shifty promises; even though this is another case of silent protagonist syndrome, Mr. Shifty himself can’t help but show an exceedingly vehement lack of enthusiasm when introduced to a puzzle.
But make no mistake, Mr. Shifty is a discernible action game designed to entrance us into feeling capable of taking down hundreds of goons with the same primordial instinct of Kill Bill’s The Bride. While this is the case, once you understand enemy patterns, you slowly stumble from this catalepsy into an unfortunate realization: enemies are too vapid to make you feel like true, bona fide thieves adept at such excellent kickassery. Enemy stupidity could be attributed to their almost animalistic intuition to hunt and kill Mr. Shifty, and this characteristic shows in their willingness to shoot their partners if they believe they have an accurate shot on you. This is where exploitation comes into play, allowing you to use enemies as literal human sponges to soak up bullets as you teleport behind them and shove your fist into their face.
And so you punch and teleport and punch and teleport some more through hoards and more hoards of enemies until you reach the top of the skyscraper and confront Mr. Stone. In quintessential evil villain fashion, what awaits you is a face-off to see who will be the only one to survive. Soon the credits roll, the overflowing confidence and braggadocio rapidly disperse, and you’re left with an overwhelming disappointment that you’re not actually as powerful as Mr. Shifty. And you never will be. But at least you had fun pretending to be.
Mr. Shifty was developed by Team Shifty and published by TinyBuild Games. Our review is based on the Switch version. It is also available for PC and Linux.
Jeremy Winslow is a Californian critic and essayist with big glasses who furiously types into WordPress and yells into the ether. He’s written for Feminist Frequency, GameSpot and more, and co-launched the small entertainment website Ground Punch. Listen to him yell on Twitter. Or don’t. That’s fine.