Every once in a while, a game comes along that makes us forget we’re a Journey-loving pacifist; a game that makes us so giddy at the sight of violence that we revert back to our 10-year-old self (the age we were when the original GTA was released). Hopefully, that 10-year-old will not be writing this review, but if we end up saying things like, “and then his head exploded like BOOM and the blood went HISS and I was like WHOA”, it’s only because we’re so in love with this game.
Hotline Miami takes place in 1989 in (believe it or not) Miami. You are an unnamed hit man who receives a phone call to tell you where your next job is. You hop into your DeLorean, drive to your destination, put on an animal mask, and proceed to hack, slash, shoot, and thoroughly obliterate every person in the building before heading home to await another phone call. And that’s it. Well, okay; there’s also some Lynch-ian nightmare stuff going on, with a load of masked people appearing at random and speaking in vague sentences and creating an oppressive atmosphere. But that’s not the stuff that’ll keep you playing after you’ve finished.
Instead, you’ll be hooked by the neon glow of every level, the pulsing 80s synth soundtrack, and the violent explosions of gore, which always end with a burst of points rising from the corpses of your foes. Not only that, but this game presents a stiff challenge. Death isn’t just something that happens to your victims – it happens to you, a lot. There is no button to reload your gun; instead, there’s a button to reload the level after you get killed. You’ll be hitting that button as often as you reload a gun in Call Of Duty.
The camera is, by default, hovering above your character, leaving them at the center of the screen. Holding the shift button, however, allows you to see further ahead at the expense of seeing less of what’s behind you. At the start of each level, you are (relatively) safe behind a door or at the edge of a corridor, allowing you to survey the immediate environment. Three guys ahead, one with a shotgun, the other two with baseball bats. The shooter approaches the door you’re behind before you have time to really weigh your options, so you burst through, knocking him to the ground and grabbing his shotgun to blast the other two. The sound of the shots alert other enemies, who come through the door in front of you. No problem: you have enough ammo for them. But the man whose shotgun you are now using has regained consciousness and has grabbed a bat. THUMP! “Press ‘r’ to restart”. The ease with which you can die makes it easier to call this a puzzle game than a top-down shooter: examine the area, pre-plan your killfest, and give it a go. Didn’t work? Re-plan and try again. Trial-and-error gameplay, certainly, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun and disturbingly addictive.
The mouse control for aiming is just a little too imprecise to be used for twitch responses, so it’s best if you learn how enemies react and be prepared for anyone who might try to surprise you. Early on you will learn that melee weapons are silent but require precise timing to take down melee fighters before they whack you. Openly attacking a gun-toting enemy with a melee weapon is certain suicide, but if you’re quick enough you can spring on them from behind a door or the corner of a hallway.
As the game progresses, melee weapons become increasingly rare and every enemy is armed with shotguns or assault rifles. Firing a shot will lead to nearby enemies bursting through every entrance. Not the brightest bunch, but when you have a shotgun with 6 rounds and 10 enemies arrive on the scene, you have to quickly examine your choices. If you’re quick, maybe you can fire off the rounds and kill 8 or 9 of them with the shotgun’s spread. Maybe the door will flap as you shoot, knocking some of them to the ground, dropping their weapons. Maybe you can throw your unloaded weapon to knock an enemy down, grab his gun and kill his friends, then kneel on his chest and beat him to death before he can get up. However you handle the situation, multi-kills and a bit of variety will lead to higher scores and a better rating at the end of the level.
The game does give you a bit of a fighting chance against your increasingly low odds of survival, however. At the beginning of each level you can select a different animal mask, each offering a different ability. The horse mask causes doors to be fatal if you smash them into enemies, the frog offers an increased combo window for high scores, and the giraffe allows for a wider field of view. These are just a few of the masks you collect throughout the game, either by finding them in the level or achieving a good rating. Ratings also unlock a variety of weapons, which will be placed at random in the levels. These range from katanas to magnum revolvers.
Seeing these weapons for the first time makes you extremely excited, but there isn’t much cause for this joy: the new weapons don’t have unique stats, and they have the same effect as any other in the game. But you are overwhelmingly anxious to see if they create a new death animation; one you haven’t seen. Such is the power of the simple yet effective artwork. Seeing a man’s head explode when you crack his skull creates the kind of cerebral reaction that you don’t get from games with simple mists of blood. In this game, there are a ridiculous number of visual responses to your kills: knives slice through enemies, creating a spray of blood from veins; shot enemies clutch their gunshot wounds; using a sword cuts enemies in half, literally. The joy these cartoon visuals create only serves to make you take a long, hard look in the mirror as the game progresses.
The pixel art is stylish throughout, with everything conjuring up a late 80s chic. Chunky televisions, tiger-skin rugs, even a NES in your apartment; it all gives the feeling of being in a nasty 80s cult film, the kind that gets regular midnight screenings and has a loyal fan base. The soundtrack really wraps up this feeling. Crunchy bass and enthusiastic synths fill every level, driving you to kill faster and more viciously, although the tone of the music alters as the game becomes darker and more brooding. We can already see it being discussed as “soundtrack of the year”, and we’d find it hard to disagree.
If anything lets the game down it’s when the narrative, previously allotted to the beginning and end of a mission, becomes part of the action. A stealth sequence towards the end of the game is incredibly frustrating and the final boss battle is a challenge of patience more than gameplay. That being said, we fought through these sequences and the rest of the game in one sitting. The game is brief and entertaining enough to warrant this kind of playthrough, and it’s by doing this that the seedy story creates its greatest resonance. Regardless of how you play, this is one of the most unique and entertaining games of the year.
This review is based off of a review copy of the PC version of Hotline: Miami by Dennaton Games, distributed by Devolver Digital
- Great Soundtrack
- Responsive Gameplay
- Visceral Atmosphere
- The Narrative as a Whole
- Steep Difficulty Curve