I know that I’m not going to finish this level, but here I am getting ready to face the same dozen goons all over again. It didn’t end well for me last time, and it’s probably going to end in similar fashion this time. I know what they’re going to do – after all, I’ve done this about 20 times over the past hour – but I still worry that what I’ve learned to this point isn’t enough to push me through to the end. I stab and shoot make my way through most of the guards, and victory is in sight – until a dog is suddenly on top of me and I’m dead. It’s time to do it all over again.

Hotline Miami players know the frustration of being defeated so close to the end of a stage. In Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, that all-too-familiar feeling is amplified. Being tasked with emptying a room full of armed enemies in a game where every character – even yours – is killed in one hit is daunting. However, overcoming these trials grants a strong feeling of fulfillment to those who have the patience to earn it.

Hotline Miami 2 lives up to the series’ violent pedigree, delivering a brutally graphic and action-packed experience that does little to stray from the trail blazed by its predecessor. The sequel delivers more levels within its enjoyable story, as well as more playable characters with their own abilities and loadouts. The new abilities give a fresh take to the gameplay, and bring a more diverse overall experience. 

These new abilities, which are selectable based on the level in the story, also give different ways to approach a level. Many times, I found myself stuck, only to restart with a different ability and beat it more efficiently. For example, one loadout lets you dual-wield machine guns, but when that wasn’t getting the job done for me, I switched to a one that gave me the ability to roll dodge underneath enemy fire.

Hotline Miami 2 is a frustratingly difficult game, but it’s also one that is undeniably fair. The vast majority of deaths are the fault of the player alone, though the endearing retro graphics sometimes act as a hindrance by making enemies hard to discern among the pile of dead laid out before you. In addition, doorways have the potential to glitch foes, making them invincible as they’re stuck in a particular position between rooms. Even though these issues can shake the foundation, they don’t cause it to crumble. Though frustration often takes hold due to lost progress following a death, the process for applying these lessons substantially eases the sharp difficulty curve in future attempts.

Applying these lessons is where Hotline Miami 2 is at its most rewarding. With no telling who or what lurks just out of sight, trial-and-error plays a major role, giving gameplay a puzzle-like feel within the framework of a challenging and fast-paced top-down action shooter. On one level in particular, several failed attempts to start off clearing out the right side prompted me to try my luck on the left side. After realizing that the left side had easier corners to lure enemies to, it was just a matter of figuring out the patrol paths and taking them out one-by-one. Each death adds to mounting frustration, but each completed level transmutes that frustration into a sense of accomplishment.

Another area that will not let down fans is the soundtrack, as the music of Hotline Miami 2 is a highlight of the experience. The electronic music fits the adrenaline-pumping feeling of working your way through an enemy-infested area, just as the calming music following a completed level complements the relieved breath I let out each time I succeed in my mission.

The unrivaled sense of relief that comes from completing an area is a testament to how well-designed each level is. Though it is not for the faint of heart, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number provides thrills at the occasional and momentary cost of your sanity. Though you’ll likely find yourself screaming at your screen on a regular basis, you’re equally as likely to find yourself eagerly loading the next level.