Hotline Miami is an aggressive, cynical statement that at its core is a lot of fun, and that’s what ultimately makes it so worth playing.
“I’m here to tell you how to kill people.” No cutscene. No title card. No credits. Straight from the menu screen, this amusingly perverse tutorial’s first line is what greets you. In many ways this is the perfect first impression of Hotline Miami, a blood-and-neon-soaked indie shoot-em-up that sneaks in more than a little contemplation on video game violence.
On its most fundamental level, Hotline Miami is a top-down shooter which casts you as a masked vigilante, busting down doors (many times literally) on the mobsters and drug dealers of 1989 Miami. While you enter each establishment empty-handed, you’re quickly encouraged to change that by picking up weapons either from the environment or slain enemies, and each has its own unique features. On a macro level, melee weapons can silently take down your opposition while guns will alert foes in adjacent rooms, but there are many micro level differences that may influence your decision between a knife and a pool cue.
You’re scored on many factors of your assault, being rewarded for combo kills, variation and speed, although the ruthless enemies- all one-hit-kills against our hero- make for a much more delicate balance between slow and fast-paced gameplay. You also collect different animal masks as you progress through the game, each with its own passive stat buff as long as you’re wearing it. Some will let you take a bullet without dying, while others will stop dogs from attacking or turn out all the lights in an entire building. The masks can completely change your approach to a stage, encouraging you to go back to earlier chapters after you have a more respectable collection.
Moving through these environments can be simultaneously easy on the eyes and headache-inducing. Hotline‘s visuals are a striking blend of 8-bit pixel art and psychadelic hallucination, all pulsing to the beat of a consistently catchy soundtrack comprised of several talented artists. The world outside your current objective exists only as a sea of shifting neon colors, and the environments themselves sway and tilt with your character’s movements, lending an uneasiness to the action. In an interesting piece of deadpan game design humor, finding the game’s collectible off-brand Scrabble pieces is a literal pixel hunt throughout each of the stages. While I thoroughly enjoyed the look and feel, it’s easy to see how someone a bit more photosensitive might have a hard time.
Each level is preceded by an intro section in which story is conveyed. As our hero roams his apartment and reads newspaper clippings of his latest exploits, he consistently finds veiled messages on his answering machine instructing him of his next victims. It’s suggested that you are being blackmailed into completing these missions, although the game allows you to decide for yourself about our hero’s motivation. As we travel further down the rabbit hole, the game itself begins tearing at the seams, acting equal parts David Lynch and Hideo Kojima in its abstractness and absurdity.
Hotline Miami‘s story goes surprisingly deep and, perhaps more surprising, makes some extremely aggressive and poignant statements about the video games industry. The second the last enemy in a stage is killed, the game’s thumping soundtrack comes to an abrupt halt, leaving you with a wall of white noise as you traverse back through your Jackson Pollock-esque creation of blood and corpses to your getaway car. Hotline knows how to build you up just to intentionally leave you hanging right when you may be expecting some sort of reward or closure. A masked character in one of the game’s unexplained surreal sequences puts it best when he asks, “Do you like hurting other people?” We as players may be just as conditioned to kill in video games as our reluctant hero, doing so without even batting an eye.
Hotline‘s campaign lasts longer than it may seem from a cursory glance at its list of stages- it took me about six hours to complete, though much of this time was taken up with “Super Meat Boy” amounts of trial and error. Your mileage may very depending on skill level, but considering how fresh many of this game’s concepts are, it isn’t likely you’ll breeze through it. In addition, there are the aforementioned puzzle pieces to collect, and new unlockable weapons will appear in subsequent playthroughs thanks to the game’s persistent score tracking. Though most weapons are randomly generated in a level, the chance of finding a super-powerful samurai sword or machete can make all the difference for score-focused runs.
As much as I enjoyed Hotline Miami‘s wild ride, I’d be remiss not to mention some of the game’s unfortunate issues. The biggest problem is with stability: it’s so pervasive that the game asks whether you’d like to enable Steamworks features (achievements, in-game Steam menus, etc.) each time you launch. I have had several issues with flatout crashes and have had reports of severe video/audio glitches when choosing to stick with Steamworks. In addition, it can be very difficult to understand how the systems in the game are working. Many times a guard will spot me through solid walls or empty an entire machine gun clip directly into me without effect. While it’s true there is a random aspect to enemy behaviors in the game, I doubt these outcomes were intentional. Also, despite the game itemizing every single method you use to rack up points, it can be frustratingly unclear how to score highly on certain levels. I have gone through stages with extremely fast and varied approaches only to be scored a C, while slow and repetitive runs will net an A+. This sort of inconsistency can really discourage from attempts at going back and mastering levels.
These blemishes don’t stop Hotline from being one of the most inventive, stark and compelling indie titles this year, however. With the lightning-fast checkpoint system, cheap glitches won’t bother you more than a few seconds in the middle of a playthrough, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another game this year so brutal and exciting with a brain to back it up. Similar to another American Psycho’s thoughts on a great album, Hotline Miami is an aggressive, cynical statement that at its core is a lot of fun, and that’s what ultimately makes it so worth playing.
Nick Hawryluk is the senior producer, director and editor of Press Play the Webseries. He also runs and contributes articles to the Press Play website.
* This review was conducted on a retail Steam code provided by Devolver Digital.