I sit here, wanting to type words about Hotline Miami, but I almost can’t. It’s not because I don’t want to, neither is it because I can’t accurately describe the game on paper. Rather, it’s because I just want to go back to playing it. Two playthroughs later, and I still have questions raised in my head as to what the game is actually trying to tell me, and why the developers think that this particular method of getting whatever message it is across is effective.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because by the third or fourth chapter, any general plot or story goes right out the window because the gameplay is just that much fun. It fancies itself a bit of a smelting of other games: Grand Theft Auto 1’s top-down presentation, with a smattering of gameplay not too far off games like Williams’ arcade classic Smash TV, and Interplay cult classic Loaded. It’s a ridiculously violent, over-the-top twin stick shooter that’s drenched in the silver-screen pallette of late-‘80s Miami. It has synth and electronic music that, coupled with the 8-bit-esque visuals, evokes memories of ‘80s gaming, a multitude of pastel hues, with a hefty smattering of blood to wash it all down. And boy is there plenty of that to go around.
The game follows your character through a torrid few months of his life as he gets strange messages on his answering machine. Messages that somehow convince him to go out on killing sprees. That’s about the only constant I can come up with, as over the course of reading other people’s opinions, and playing through the game myself, there seems to be plenty more interpretations of what exactly happens in the events that follow. I won’t ruin the game for you, as whatever happens beyond that would fall into heavy spoiler territory, but understanding what’s going on between rampages does require a hefty amount of thought in order for it all to sink in.
The game itself also requires a lot of thought, but more of the “think on your toes” variety. You start levels completely unarmed, with only your choice of animal mask as help. Weapons are all procured on-site, mostly from the first goon that happens to be standing next to the door, but a vast array are there to be unlocked too. These then randomly spawn throughout the levels, both in the natural story progression, and as you can go back to replay levels. Masks are also to be collected, with each one giving you a different buff upon starting a mission. Some of these grant you a starter weapon before you enter, one lets you kill people on the other side of doors, one lets you survive one bullet, and so on. That one is probably the most important, because like your enemies, you can also be killed in a single hit. This makes being swift in your movements all the more important, because one false move can set you back to the beginning of the floor you were at. Get accustomed to this — it’ll happen a lot.
Different approaches to some levels are easier than others. For example, firing off a shotgun into the back of an enemy that doesn’t see you while he’s standing right by a room that has 3 other armed guards in it isn’t the greatest of ideas. They’ll hear the gunshot, come out and kill you without a moment’s hesitation. However, you can use this to your advantage by setting off a warning shot to attract them out of the room, hide around a corner before peeking out and mowing them all down with an assault rifle. Failing that, you could approach with a melee weapon, take the hallway guard out silently, wait until one of the room guards patrols pass the door, burst through knocking him out, swing for the guy standing in the middle of the room, then throw the bat at the third man running for you, go back to choke out the guy the door hit, pick up the bat again, and cave in the third guy’s head. Incidentally, this sentence takes longer to read than pulling this all off in-game. Both will take a hefty amount of good timing and dexterity to pull off, but the feeling of accomplishment you get when you see “Stage Clear” flash up after wiping out a challenging floor is immensely rewarding.
It’s indeed a very eerie game. Not so much in that the sheer level of brutality would certainly have conservatives up in arms, but in the way the story of the game tells itself. You have no idea what’s going on at the very best of times, only that you have to slaughter everyone, and as you find yourself pressing “R” to restart the stage every 30 seconds or so, you’re probably a bit thankful for that.
Another thing that Hotline Miami has done really well is the game’s soundtrack (which you can listen to in its entirety here). The developers have done an excellent job in picking out music that fits the game perfectly, with ‘80s synth and disco-like music punctuating the high-tempo action on screen, as well as great background tracks to set the mood for cutscenes. A design choice I love about the game is when you kill the final enemy on a stage and “Chapter Clear” appears, the in-game music cuts out entirely, leaving almost an awkward silence behind it. It really helps to set in the gravity of your actions as you walk back to your car, past the carnage you’ve caused. It’s almost as if the music is there to hammer home the “it’s all fun and games” aspect of it, but it gets ripped away when you’ve completed your task and you finally have time to process what just happened.
These issues aside, however, Hotline Miami is probably the most genuine fun I’ve had playing video games all year. The game plays up the power fantasy of being able to walk into a building and mercilessly end any and every life within, all the while having a storyline that starts to make you question exactly why you’re doing it. It still has its issues, however — the game doesn’t currently support gamepads, and the Steam Overlay is disabled also — but Dennaton Games have done an impressive job of quickly tidying up most of the bugs it had since the game launched.