Hotline Miami Review
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
RRP: €7.99 (PSN, Windows, MAC)
I have a confession to make; I don’t generally like retro games (GASP!). It’s not that I think they’re bad, and I have fond memories of my Mega Drive days. With all the advancements in gaming visuals and design, I find that very few of them have a timelessness that makes them worth playing over something newer. It’s for the same reason that I’m not too fond of old black and white movies (DOUBLE GASP!), and find the old fashioned acting techniques more distracting than immersive.
So, it was with admitted ignorance that, after glimpsing some screenshots, I initially wrote off Hotline Miami as a shooty throwback to the pre-3D GTA titles and decided it probably wasn’t for me, and almost missed out on one of the most exciting and unique games released in the last year. Thus, this review is a little late, but you guys need to know about this game, which asks a deceptively simple question: “Do you like hurting other people?”
A puzzler with an equal emphasis on stealth and reflexes, sort of like Manhunt meets Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami is an incredibly stylish indie title unlike anything you’ve ever played before.
It’s Miami, the summer of 1989. Your nameless character, known by fans as ‘Jacket’, starts off with a grizzled homeless man demonstrating how to kill people, right before you’re given the 3rd degree by shadowy figures bearing the faces of a rooster, an owl and a horse. Is this a dream? A hallucination? Then, you suddenly wake in your apartment and receive the first of many strange telephone calls that instruct you to go to a certain location and carry out a mission. Regardless of what fluffy euphemisms the mysterious caller uses, your task is almost always to kill every single person in a building, and escape.
The narrative begins with incredible promise, leaving the players instantly doubting whether what is happening is real or simply the product of a damaged mind, creating an atmosphere of distrust and hazy, neon-tinged paranoia that’s incredibly effective at hooking you in. Even if the ending is a little bit too ambiguous to feel wholly satisfying, Hotline Miami is an ambitious, Lynchian tumble down the rabbithole that offers plenty of intrigue and room for interpretation. Jacket’s world becomes increasingly unreliable as you make your way through the game, often juxtaposing the rampant murder with increasingly Kafkaesque downbeat moments.
Between the bookended mindfuckery, it’s time to don an animal mask and commit some ultraviolence. Gameplay is no less fevered than the narrative, and death comes swiftly and brutally as you try to kill your way through increasingly large locations. You are just as frail as your enemies, and it only takes a single bullet or well placed swing of a baseball bat to kill you. The only way you have the advantage is in your ability to see the top-down layout of each level, allowing for strategic planning in how to tackle your foes. You’re given access to a range of melee weapons and firearms to do this, and choosing between the two is a tactical decision, as guns will often bring any enemies within earshot rushing towards your position.
Careful planning, improvisation and reflexes are required to clear a level – and you’re given a lot of freedom in how you choose to balance those measures. You might knock opponent #1 down while opening a door, fling a pan of boiling water at opponent #2, quickly return to #1 to crack his head open against the concrete floor, steal his crowbar, and use it to split open the head of opponent #3 as he comes around the corner. On the other hand, you might grab a katana or shotgun and start charging wildly through the rooms, Anton Chigurh-style. Both methods have equal merit.
If all of this seems a little brutal – it is, and you’ll be almost be thankful that they chose to go with stylised graphics, which soften the blow only slightly. Hotline Miami’s greatest trick is to get you into a mindset something like that of a movie slasher or psychotic home invader, which runs parallel to the main character’s own dwindling grip on sanity. It’s only when the adrenaline-pumping music stops when the last enemy is downed, and you’re forced to walk back to your car (a DeLorean, of course) through the carnage that you realise just how fucked up what you’ve just done actually is.
That’s not to say that it isn’t tons of fun, though, and Hotline Miami is nothing if not incredibly addictive. You’ll die often when you tackle a level for the first time, forgetting to notice a certain window through which a sentry can spot you, or missing a guard dog just out of sight. It seldom becomes frustrating, as you restart in the blink of an eye for the umpteenth “one more go”. More often than not you’ll have new information as to why your previous strategy didn’t work. In fact, sometimes no strategy is the best strategy – and the game rewards insane, daredevil maneuvers just as much as coldly calculated plans. As mentioned before, equal measures of both will be required to get through the game’s 20-ish chapters, and the freedom offers a lot of replayability in what is already quite a robust 5+ hour campaign.
The game is incredibly fun as is, but you’ll also be given a rating at the end of each chapter based on your performance – which factors in killstreaks, combos, variation of methods and all-out-ballsiness. It’s very rewarding to return to a level on which you previously scored a C- and come away with a coveted A grade. For those of you who care, scores for each level are posted on a worldwide leaderboard. If topping said leaderboard isn’t your thing (and who could blame you?), some variety comes into play when given the choice of various animal masks to wear. Some are unlocked by playing through the game, while others are found throughout the levels. These mask offer buffs such as the ability to walk faster, start with a knife, avoid attack dogs etc. By earning high scores, you also unlock new weapons that will be randomly spawn throughout each location. Achievement hounds will also rejoice, as there are lots of insanely specific challenges to overcome on the way to 100% completion.
While the visuals come in the form of pixelated late 90’s era graphics, there is an undoubted flair in the presentation. Animation is a particular highlight, from the subtle little moments such as characters smoking, to the surprisingly sickening execution moves. You’ll be amazed how polished the game is for its lo-fi roots. Of particular note is the outstanding soundtrack, which references both classic 8-bit composition and the synth n’ reverb drenched hum of the 1980’s.
The ending isn’t perfect, the controls will take some getting used to, and the immaculate pacing does stumble somewhat in a well meaning but incredibly frustrating forced stealth level. Still, Hotline Miami is a stylish and fresh game with a uniquely perverse atmosphere, and it’s one of the most exciting games, indie or otherwise, to be released in the last year. For the asking price of less than ten bucks, you really couldn’t ask for much better – so drop the cash and get lost in the cocaine-fueled carnage of the 80’s as soon as you can.