December 8, 2012 by solomonlutze
If you’re the sort of person who is easily disturbed by violence – and even if you’re not – you will more than likely cringe during Hotline Miami. The game is unabashedly cruel, and does not shy away from or candy-coat that cruelty. Disclaimer aside, Hotline Miami deals in extremes, and there’s plenty to love. Everything from the simplistic and precise combat to the weird and shady plot that unfolds, the game takes a lot of risks. How exactly do these risks pay off?
Hotline Miami places you in the role of an unnamed man who kills people. Begin the game speaking with three people, all three wearing animal masks, inside a room at an undisclosed location. The game only gets weirder from here. Start each chapter in an apartment, where you receive a message directing you to some location. Show up, pick a plastic animal mask to wear, and then go inside and kill everyone. After that, go to another spot, usually a store, and pick something up (presumably your reward for completing the job).
The sections between levels include conversations with secondary characters: all who are never properly introduced and always feel a little sinister. The ensuing acts, the blood and the violence throughout each level are incredibly unsettling. Despite all this, the interludes are still the most disturbing parts of the game. Without divulging spoilers, I wanted a little more from the end of the game because Hotline Miami raises some very serious and interesting questions. Like a lot of stories, it’s better at asking them than answering them. Any disappointment here is only because the game did such a great job of knocking down my defenses.
The top-down, pixel-heavy art of the game will remind you of a retro game/80’s blend, but unless you spend a lot of time on Newgrounds, you probably aren’t used to seeing gory art like this. Simple as they are, the visuals convey plenty. The little pixel-antihero will open throats, cut people in half, blow chunks out of torsos with a shotgun, bash heads in with a metal pipe. There will be blood all over the retro decorations in each locale. If this is too much for you, then you should probably sit this one out because it can be pretty gruesome. The violence feels violent, and combined with the kitschy palm tree backgrounds and neon flashes, it becomes pretty overwhelming. This is all to say that the game’s art is very successful; it’s a hot, dreamlike summer haze interspersed with graphic, nightmarish violence that never lets you relax.
An interesting complexity to the controls involves the masks you unlock. Pick one at the start of each level, and it gives you some perks throughout the level. One starts you out with a knife, or lets you see farther, and one even increases weapon drops. There’s also a fair amount of stealth play that might take some time to learn. The game rewards risky behavior and only once the levels get longer do the penalties start to weigh in.
Higher kill counts and a bigger score unlocks new weapons and masks, which drive the violence (and the gameplay). Catch on to which parts require brute strength or which parts require discretion, and the game becomes much easier. The game starts out difficult and finishes difficult as each level takes you further out of your comfort zone, both in challenge and in content.
The masks and weapons are themselves good reasons to try to execute your enemies with style, rewarding success on a lucky shot with a few more points. The game makes you face interesting risk versus reward scenarios, adding replay value to outshooting old scores on previous levels with new masks (unlocked after beating the game). Decent weapon selection through level progression also spices things up. Without giving anything away, there are plenty more subtle things to discover along the way if you have an eye for secrets.
The sound effects and music are every bit as jarring as the visuals. It has that same retro-arcade feel to the audio as the pixels, greatly contributing to both gameplay and story. The cracking noise of a mobster’s head hitting the floor over and over again is a constant companion, and the schizophrenic wailings in the protagonist’s apartment building perfectly accompany the strange, unraveling plot.
Presentation – The game looks great, and even its simple graphics are more than capable of communicating the gravity of the player’s actions.
Optimization – The gameplay and core mechanics are incredibly solid; Hotline Miami is a distilled essence of old-school beat ‘em ups taken to nightmarish extremes.
Innovation – The kind of all-or-nothing rampages the game lends itself to feel wholly new and unique.
Sound – An indispensable companion to the visual gore.
Entertainment - The sometimes-puzzle, sometimes-reflex, all-action feel of the game is more fun than it has any right to be with such simple mechanics.
When a story asks you to engage on such a primal, deep level, it opens you up, coercing you to be a little mentally vulnerable; react to what you’re seeing and reading. Hotline Miami promises a bit more than its story delivers, but its success in making the player open up is not only a significant accomplishment, but the hallmark of a great playable storyteller. The game would be praiseworthy for that alone, and is topped with nerve-wracking, exciting and addictive gameplay mechanics. These components elevate Hotline Miami to an incredibly fun and sublimely precise narrative experience.
GamerCheese Score: 4 out of 5