In the movies we often hear mobsters or burglars recall when a job “went bad”. The moment they refer to is the single instant they couldn’t anticipate, the moment when their carefully laid out plans were thrown out the window; Hotline Miami captures that moment, that singular feeling better than most games.
Let’s get this out of the way first, Hotline Miami is a straight-up murder simulator. You receive cryptic phone calls from your derelict apartment instructing you to go to an address. From there, you hop your Delorian-like ride to the scene and proceed to brutally kill anyone and everyone you encounter. Most of the time you don’t have a good idea who you’re killing or why, but there is the faintest glimmer of hope that they are at least “bad”, considering they’re all packing blunt instruments and heat.
Rendered in a faithful 8-bit aesthetic, the abstracted visuals allow developer Dennaton Games to depict a game where beating someone to death is commonplace, without having it be unplayable. At first, some of the ultra-violent animations illicit the same gee whiz factor you might have felt playing Mortal Kombat as a child. The brutality on display is striking, often startling, and totally unapologetic; if you don’t feel at least a shiver of unease or disgust playing it, well, you’re one twisted individual.
But, unlike other virtual bloodbaths, Hotline Miami‘s relentless onslaught reinforces its tweaked-out narrative. Few game protagonists are quite so lost, spiraling further and further away from reality. The wake of blood and entrails left behind is a reminder of how far you’ve fallen, and later, just how far you’re willing to go.
Stages play out in an electric, often breathless fashion, as reaction and reflexes are often the difference between victory and the contents of your skull repainting the linoleum. Enemies act as they might in most stealth games, patrolling areas via predetermined paths – though it’s worth noting they generally will not react to seeing a corpse. But what separates Hotline Miami is the visceral, immediate nature of enemy response: when someone sees you they run at you with a blood-lust not associated with the stealth genre. And if they get you before you get them, you’re dead: one hit, one kill.
Deciding who to kill and in what order is a large part of the strategy. Charting a course that draws the least amount of attention is generally advisable, using silent melee kills along the route to thin enemy ranks and find your preferred gun before exposing yourself to more volatile situations. However, plans don’t always pan out, and that’s where things get interesting.
Even with careful planning it’s commonplace for things to go bad, real fast. You failed to notice the glass window dividing your room with another; a German shepherd spotted you down the hallway off-screen; a thug you thought was dead is not and is on your ass. In Hotline Miami you feel like anything could go wrong at any given moment, and the vast majority of the time, whatever it is that happens will kill you. That feeling of tension makes each of the chapters a gripping affair, with every death teaching you a little more about how the enemies react before respawning you back at the present floor’s entry.
Where Hotline Miami stumbles is in the execution of its boss conflicts, which corner players in disadvantaged situations, breaking the established hallmarks of the game. Without getting into specifics, the boss battles frustrate because they possess none of the emergent gameplay that permeates the rest of the experience, and you should expect to retry each one of them several times to get the chain of events just right.
Layered on top of its mechanics a number of small touches flesh out the context and appeal of Hotline Miami. As hi-scores are accumulated new masks are unlocked, each of which injecting small gameplay variances, from quicker executions to silent gunfire. Beyond the obvious gameplay ramifications, the developer’s sense of humor and attention to detail are prevalent, as the chameleon mask makes you more difficult to see and the giraffe mask allows you to peer further off-screen.
In between stages Hotline Miami wisely takes the time to dial things back. Interludes provide small snippets of humanity for your faceless mass-murderer. And as you fall further, you see your world and friends evolve, or devolve in some cases, as time passes.
Though the game shares some superficial resemblance to the Nicolas Winding Refn film, Drive, Hotline Miami is its own beast with its own vibe, punctuated by a phenomenal soundtrack. The compositions embody the time and feeling of the game perfectly. Ambient tracks fill moments of uncertainty while synths flesh out the seedy underworld you’re rampaging through. Jasper Byrne’s “Miami” is one of the many highlights, and his track is a reflective piece that lets you bask in the afterglow of your mayhem; a fitting note for the experience as a whole.
Hotline Miami is the rare breed of game that feels as smart as it is bloody. It is unabashedly gratuitous, but there’s a context to its mayhem that escapes most ultra-violent operas. There’s really nothing quite like it: its unique blend of tactics, tension and a cracked-out fiction bleed together to form a coherent experience that is equal parts cool and disturbing.