Platforms: PC (Steam and GOG)
Release Date: 23/10/2012
Genre(s): Retro Top-Down Action, Stealth
Publisher(s): Devolver Digital
Developer: Dennaton Games
Video-games have had a long-standing relationship with violence which has often resulted in the industry finding itself at the center of flaring controversies in the past.Yet few games have dared to look introspectively at violence and make players question their own actions as boldly and with as much style as Hotline Miami, the latest indie-hit from the twisted minds of Jonatan Soderstrom and Dennis Wedin.
Hotline Miami casts players in the role of a mask-adorning psychotic maniac on a killing spree in the neon-lit Miami of the 80s. The entire game is divided into chapters which often begin with you receiving an anonymous message on the phone instructing you to go to the specified address and generally ends with you visiting a bar, a grocery or a VHS store, all having the same guy at the counter who always treats you for free. In terms of atmosphere, Hotline Miami pretty much nails the surreal retro vibe.
From a gameplay perspective, it might be best described as a raw, fast and brutally violent predatory stealth action where you’re put in a building full of lethal, armed enemies and you have to take all of them down. You’ll start each mission by wearing one of the many masks that you unlock, each giving you a unique ability. Essentially an arcade-styled score-attack, Hotline Miami also rates you with a grade on the basis of various parameters including recklessness, boldness in your attacks and how quick and creative you were with your killings.
The twist to all of this? Just like your enemies, you die in a single-hit. The idea of frequent deaths might sound like a frustrating ordeal, but the game counters it by allowing you to respawn in the same room in a flash at the touch of a button. In my entire playthrough, I never felt frustrated by either the frequent deaths I lived through or the trial-and-error aspect of the game. That is because the game presents itself as a reckless “puzzle” by smartly providing a twist to the traditional aspect of stealth games where you have to figure out the enemy’s positions, their AI pattern and time your own killing run to pitch perfection. A slightest mistake results in your death. Instead of that serving as a deterrent, it instead enthralls you into achieving that one perfect killing spree which is admittedly not that difficult. Hotline Miami is challenging but never impossibly so.
Unlike most games, the true nature of the beast that resides within Hotline Miami isn’t entirely apparent when you initially start playing it. Sure, it’s extremely fun. You rush to kill enemies, take them down, lay them up against the floor and bash their head with a golf club until the carpet is soaked with tiny details of pixel blood and bits of brain. The hyper-violence is unsettling at first but you eventually get accustomed to it. It becomes a part of your nature.
That is Hotline Miami’s charm.
Just like one of the many electro-pop tracks from the game’s background score beating to its rhythm, once you click with its catchy groove, Hotline Miami gets into your system like few games can. Psychedelic neon-lit pixel-art, fast and reckless violence, frequent deaths and respawning all build up to the feverish beats of the sick, catchy synthpop tunes reminiscent of the 80s. What was unsettling initially becomes a part of your being. Like an intravenous solution, like heroin, it slowly builds into your system to a feverish pitch, until you realize that every kill you make, every death you go through beats to the music’s rhythm and you have lost two hours in a process that can easily be broken down into simple trial-and-error a while.
That’s when you realize this game is up to something special.
That something can be credited partly to the game’s minimal but solidly effective storyline. Taking cues from last year’s neo-noir hit “Drive” (the director of the movie is even thanked in the end credits), it not only offers an enjoyable and stylish story but it also delivers a great reflection at the players’ own psyche when it’s all done. The story uses every noir trick in the book quite admirably and in the process despite having very few dialogues manages to tell much more than games with hours of dialogues have.
When you complete a mission, the game makes you walk back to the starting point by traversing through the dozens of mashed, battered and decapitated bodies you’ve caused on your path to senseless violence. Even the game’s catchy music abruptly stops at this point, resulting in a resounding din of silence as you walk past the bloody canvas that you painted across the walls and floor of the building. Every minute of the fun and entertainment you had as a result of the adrenaline rush that the game’s reckless violence gave you, only serves to question the silent guilt you feel during this “silent walk”.
Twisted events in the story will make you question whether the character you’re controlling is merely a masked vigilante or a psychotic killer. Hotline Miami makes you watch and question the motives of your jacketed protagonist as the story progresses and eventually shoots back the question at your own self.
As a game, it isn’t without its fair share of flaws though. Its grading system is often contradictory to the scoring system. You might score high across all parameters and still land a C+. The controls are loose which may be on purpose to drive the point of reckless combat through to the player, but it also detracts some of the fun if you try taking things too fast. There are occasional issues with hit-detection where a thrown weapon might fly through an enemy, or a gunshot might kill an enemy on the other side of the wall. It has a fair amount of replay value considering it is an arcade-styled score-attack game with numerous masks and weapons waiting to be unlocked.
Hotline Miami is an incredibly entertaining game if you have the stomach to handle the pixel brutality. It is also a very rich experience where every component of it is entirely essential. Think of it as a house of cards – every part of it is essential to the experience. Remove any one element – reckless combat, feverish music or its brutal depiction of pixel violence – and the game ceases to be the same. How much enjoyment you take from Hotline Miami depends entirely upon you. It is satisfying at the very least. But beyond that it is an equivalent of an experimental music track. It might beat to odd rhythms, but once you get into its groove all the essential elements click – its visual aesthetic, its catchy tunes and its recklessly fun gameplay, it’ll be hard getting this tune out of your mind.
Early on, the game asks a simple question to the player which rings like an echo throughout the game’s story, “Do you like hurting people?”
- Frantic and brutally fun stealth action centered on trial-and-error until you achieve the perfect kill-streak
- Raw pixel-art visuals and bright colours bring out the surreal aspect of its setting
- Catchy synth-pop tunes and resounding silence both serve as the backbone to its critical themes
- Minimal neo-noir story drive forth its introspective themes quite admirably
- Grading and Scoring system often contradict one another
- Hit-detection issues
- Gameplay Progression: 8/10
- Graphics: 7/10
- Sound: 9/10
- Unique Selling Proposition: 8/10
- illFactor: 9/10
Final Score: 8.3/10 — illLuminant