Hotline Miami Review

HM

Hotline Miami is a top-down 2D action game developed by Dennaton Games, a two man team comprised of Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin. It was published by Devolver Digital on October 23rd 2012 and is available via digital distribution on PC and is in development for PS3 and Vita, although there is no solid release date yet.

Hotline Miami puts you in the role of an anonymous protagonist, he is never named in the game, although fans have taken to calling him ‘Jacket’. Jacket is constantly receiving strange messages on his answerphone instructing       him via euphemism to kill people. As you progress through the story, Jacket’s mental state starts to unravel, with events making less and less sense, although I won’t spoil and tell you what happens.

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Something which feels frustrating in Hotline Miami is that while you’re running around confused at what the game is trying to get across, the plot doesn’t provide you with a character you can latch on to. Whilst you play as Jacket, he doesn’t have a name, you don’t really learn anything about him.

At the beginning of each stage, you choose an animal mask to wear, each one giving you different benefits. For example, one mask may grant you a knife as a starting weapon, whilst another may cause doors to become lethal to opponents, rather than just knocking them down. At the end of each level, Hotline Miami scores you on aspects of your gameplay and unlocks any new weapons and masks.

Hotline Miami is certainly a very odd game. As mentioned above, it’s a top-down 2D action game, and it combines aspects of stealth gameplay, as well as being ultra-violent almost to the point of absurdity.

It feels reminiscent of the old Grand Theft Autos, but lacking the comic approach which made GTA fun for LAN parties. Hotline Miami employs a certain black humour, helped by the extremely surreal storytelling employed through a combination of the confusing phone messages, and the meetings with strange men, also wearing animal masks, who seem to know more than is possible.

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The absurdity of the game world is reinforced by the stylised retro graphics, obviously taking inspiration from pixel art as well as old games.

The plot will leave you with far more questions than answers, and it’s unclear how much of this is intentional to confuse the audience and how much is leaving the audience with unanswered questions because there just aren’t any answers.

The mechanics in Hotline Miami are simple, but provide a surprising amount of depth, with every attempt at a stage working out slightly differently. Move with WASD, left click to attack, right click to pick up or throw weapons and space bar to jump on downed enemies where you can execute them with your fists or whatever comes to hand.

The sheer variety of the number of weapons in the game is impressive, from your fists through knives, pans of boiling water, baseball bats, iron bars, swords, machetes, handguns, shotguns, assault rifles, well, you get the idea.

Despite the number of ways to kill your enemies, the game has a punishingly steep learning curve which, combined with the speed at which both the protagonist and the enemies move, means that you’re going to die. A lot. However, death isn’t a problem in Hotline Miami, it’s an obstacle to be overcome. A press of the R key instantly resets the part of the stage you’re on.

Instant is an important concept in Hotline Miami. Whilst the game is relentlessly killing you, over and over, on every stage, you start to refine your approach to each mission. Each death guiding you closer to optimum. Each attempt over so fast that you don’t have any opportunity to do anything other than follow your plan. You find yourself talking yourself, saying things like, ‘Right, this time, I’ll knock that guy over by shoving the door into him, pick up his bat and throw it at the guy on the other side of the room before he has a chance to shoot, then I can kill them both silently and get the gun.’

And then you kick open the door and all hell breaks loose.

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The sheer amount of violence in Hotline Miami is almost obscene in and of itself. The gameplay is so intense, and so fast, that you don’t have time to think about your actions. But at the end of each level, you must walk back out of the building, past all the mutilated bodies of your victims. Past the guy who’s head you caved in on the floor, past the guy who you sliced in two with the samurai sword, and past the guys you shredded with shotgun shells as they rounded the corner.

In an industry with such a changeable attitude to violence, it’s pleasant to find a game which challenges players and makes them feel uncomfortable. But like some other aspects of the game, it raises these questions of violence in games, but it doesn’t actually provide any answers, the best you could say is that it makes you think, and that’s no bad thing.

That said, all of the pieces of the game fit together very cohesively, from the visual style and  electro soundtrack to the mystifying plot narration and non-characters.

Overall, Hotline Miami is a great game, it’s fun, fast paced, with well-designed mechanics a great soundtrack, and it looks pretty. But despite its good design, some of the choices felt a little deliberately ambiguous. As though the questions were left unanswered more through lack of answers than to provide the player with a better experience.

The Good:

  • Gameplay is compelling.
  • Very intense.
  • Great aesthetic.
  • Great soundtrack.

The Bad:

  • Plot is completely impenetrable. Even after unlock of secret ending.
  • Characters are unlikable (though this is probably intentional).

About Ed Prosser

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