There is no right way of trying to explain, and rationalise, Hotline Miami’s opening scenes, in which our valiant hero Jacket murders three random thugs because a homeless man yelled at him a little. While mashing their faces into viscera with a baseball bat, and your bare fists, you’ll likely notice that this gloriously stylised title does nothing by half measures.
Everything flows over the player at once. The psychedelic soundtrack, pulsing with gritty, bass driven overtones, erupts onto the screen as neon coated letters, looking like the signposts to Enter the Void, gently wave about the centre. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Overloading players with information or visual cues is not usually a brilliant idea, but this bloody mess is built off of it. Even the story, the very narrative, is kept far from view until the game has been beaten. Which is a definite bonus because it means you get to focus on killing hundreds of gangsters with an array of weapons, some brutal executions, supported by very colourful masks.
As a mechanic, the power ups that masks grant is nothing particularly new. Nintendo likely did it the best in Majora’s Mask, but Hotline Miami takes the abilities granted and then asks “how can we make this more evil?” To this end, some of the most fantastic abilities are unlocked as the player gets higher scores on each stage. Just one example of this is the “Peter” mask (a unicorn) whose shots are suppressed.
Before all that begins however: you receive a phone call. As a top down 2D shooter, Hotline Miami prides itself off tactics, planning and skill above all else. This isn’t the kind of shindig where running into a building, full of enemies, guns blazing will allow you to win. If anything, intelligent play is rewarded. Understanding what enemies are where, the weapons they’re using and how they react to Jacket suddenly bursting their bubble of safety, is crucial.
Because of these requirements, the difficulty naturally rises along with it. And because of how many skills and pieces of insight are required of the player, and as every level induces something new and evil, everything is harder than diamond tipped drill bits. While many people would complain about the extreme level of precision that’s needed to safety pass each stage without ending up as red patte smeared on a wall somewhere, it’s a feature that gives identity.
Without the difficulty that asks players to control Jacket with fluidity and lethal efficiency, the payoff would be nowhere near as profoundly rewarding. The addition of the over-the-top violence is merely a bonus when you somehow manage to clear a stage you’ve been stuck on, or set a new high score. That being said, Hotline Miami does have its, very awkward, faults from time to time.
Throwing things over any range using Jacket is risky at best, unless you’re wearing “Jake” (who allows any thrown item to kill instantly), because at longer distances the item can, and does, spiral awkwardly and miss. Even if it hits, there’s a chance the affected enemy will get stuck in the wall, making an execution impossible. Little gameplay flaws like that make all the difference when surrounded by heavily armed Russian mafia members.
Stupid ticks considered, Hotline Miami is one of the best PC indie title to be released over the past decade. It offers fast paced action that is, almost, entirely based on your own competence and understanding of the mechanics. Even if the narrative goes over the heads of most players, the soundtrack and art style will grab your attention like nothing else because of their vibrance, brutality and unique nature.
Hotline Miami – 10/10