The lights are on
Hotline Miami is a game all about juxtaposition. The game is styled as a retro, top down 8-bit beat ‘em up, but the incredibly violent gameplay surrounding it is not something you would have seen during the NES era (at least not without any large amount of controversy). The music and color palette is upbeat and cheerful, but underneath is a dark and surreal game where acts of brutality are the only kinds of actions available for you to take. It’s also one of the most addicting and clever titles I’ve come across.
At the start of the game, players learn the basics of combat, finishing off enemies, and picking up weapons. Gameplay is simple, but surprisingly challenging and becomes varied as you continue through new enemy types, weapons and environments, along with some stylish boss battles. The gameplay is best described as a mashup of Hitman and Manhunt in 8 bit, with players having to be careful and pick their targets off individually, but the stealth (if you can call it that) basically consists of rushing enemies and finishing them off before their buddies can arrive, swinging your weapons before they can and trying to hide if a group of tough enemies are rushing your last known location.
Despite the simplicity of the controls and combat, there is a surprising amount of strategy and planning involved. Simply going in and trying to smash your way through enemies will more often than not end with you dying immediately and starting all over again. This is reinforced by the top down view allowing you to see enemies before they can spot you and letting you look ahead, with an open approach to levels letting you pick how you go about finishing them off. The levels are broken up by floors in buildings that you must clear of enemies, sometimes there is a second objective, but always you must kill every single enemy, and once you’ve finished you move to a new floor and get a new checkpoint to start from if you die. Of course, even though enemies are quick to end your life, the point system in play adds incentives for boldness, with multipliers for quickly stringing along kills and taking out enemies in unique ways, adding even more juxtaposition to the gameplay that stresses caution, but rewards recklessness. Despite the fun, the controls are a bit wonky, and as of this writing there wasn’t any gamepad support, so players have to make do with the keyboard controls that don’t quite give you the control you might want, especially since the accuracy of your throws and gunshots is questionable at best and often left me restarting when I missed a close up throw on a final enemy. But it’s not a game breaking issue and it’s easy to adjust to.
The story is also an interesting part of the game, with an incredibly surreal style that has you asking questions that may not be answered until the end. The basic premise as that your protagonist (who is unnamed) is receiving phone calls by a mysterious cabal of masked persons who you often meet in their dirty lair. The phone calls instruct you to violently kill various Russians mobsters and complete other objectives for these people. It’s hinted that your character is doing this against his will, but not much is explained about your character and you only express yourself through violence for the most part. The game does add a bit of characterization, with the player often ending up at his apartment between missions or going out for a late night snack after missions (with another mysterious character who calls you his “friend” often giving you free pizzas or snacks “on the house”). The moments and touches really doesn’t allow you to do anything or learn anything else about your character, but they do a good job of building up the mystery and offering more disturbing and surreal imagery and moments as the game goes on and it appears your character is beginning to lose his grip on his sanity. It’s very intriguing and serves to justify some of the incredible violence going on.
The game also offers quite a bit of replay value through secrets and hidden masks with different abilities, from turning out the lights, to making dogs friendlier. These abilities can come in handy, though some simply serve to make things a little harder or weirder (such as a mask that reverses controls and another that translates everything to French). The actual game itself is rather short to go through (I was able to beat it in one day), but the allure of different masks and secrets adds to the replayability, while different tactics and attempts at a higher score can make it last for a while until you begin to get bored of it.
Overall, Hotline Miami is a fun downloadable title that tries to be different and ends up being a very memorable experience. Despite the minor flaws on display, it is easy to jump into and easy to play for long periods of time, with both fun gameplay and intriguing narrative to pull the player forward.
Wow, an actual review in the review section! A good one too. I applaud you. This game is definitely intriguing by the sounds of it, and I'd love to check it out.