Review for Hotline Miami (PC)
1-player action/puzzle, Developed by Dennaton Games
There's something to be said for the kind of game that can truly get its hooks into you. From the very title screen of Hotline Miami, its rubbing your skin preparing to pierce - the psychedelic colours, the dreamy soundscape, the utterly captivating bobbing Russian title text, and the bizarre 16-bit-esque pixel aesthetic. Less than ten seconds in, you hit "start game," and Hotline Miami has its rusty, bloody hooks in your arms. All it has to do now is to pull firmly and gently. You now belong to the Hotline Miami.
The tutorial is adequate as a way of teaching you the basic controls, but what it does better is to establish the tone of this dark, unbelievably violent videogame. An unseen man barks instructions at you as you smash men's skulls in with a baseball bat, the surroundings - a dimly lit, murky basement - concealed of their true terror though the captivating, and often times trippy, faux-16-bit art style. The background flashes slowly through several gradients of gaudy colours, the screen wobbles back and forth like you're drunk (or high), and there's a very subtle film-grain effect that creates the illusion that you're viewing the whole thing through a busted VHS player. In other words - its the 80s, baby, viewed through the murky rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, but recreated from memory, resulting in a setting that is both wholly authentic and unsettlingly off.
The air is getting slippery
I'm instantly reminded of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The loading screen in particular conjures up those peculiar images that Rockstar pulled from Miami Vice, Magnum P.I.; fluro-pink sunsets, palm trees by the shoreline, and music that is on the fringes of both disco and electronica. The difference between Hotline Miami and Vice City, at least tonally, is that Vice City was, despite being overtly violent, light and playful, while Hotline Miami has all the brilliant depravity of a Michael Mann movie. It has all the brightness and charm of a boop-filled 80s videogame, but underneath it is a pervasive sense of tension - underlying darkness and grit.
Actually, if pressed, I'd say the most impressive thing by far about Hotline Miami is its atmosphere of intense foreboding. This is a game all about unrepentant murder, a game in which knives slit throats and arterial spray coats the walls, where faces are smashed apart by bricks and where men are strangled to death mercilessly with thumbs jammed in their eyes at the same time; its all hidden under a pixel art aesthetic which makes it seem relatively harmless, but there's just enough reality and lack of sureness that you will likely, at one point, feel terribly uncomfortable at some point in play. If its not the fact that these horribly violent and planned murders have (seemingly) a lack of motive; hell, if not for the fact that the flashing colours and bobbing motion of the levels may have you start to feel slightly motion sick, it'll be because the story folds out in such a way that will have you unwittingly questioning your actions all the time.
You're confronted, right out the gate, with three men wearing animal masks, sitting in your apartment. With absolutely no context, they tell you that you have done awful things, speaking in nightmarish rhetoric, and, after judging you relentlessly for a few brief moments, they kick you out, and - with music in the background that sounds like only the most disturbed of The Residents' back catalogue - you wake up out of your bed as if it was all a dream. Then your character answers the phone, is told to go and kill some people. Not names or occupations, just a location and the instruction to kill the people in said location.
Cool and Unusual Punishment
The atmosphere is truly impressive, make no mistake, but a game without gameplay is like a book without words. Hotline Miami merges the foreboding, the sinister, and the unsure feeling with gameplay that is utterly brutal, and unbelievably fast. In essence, it is a game where you have to enter a floor of a building, and kill everybody on that floor. Most all opponents can be taken down in one hit. The catch - so can you.
It becomes the kind of bastard son of a puzzle game, a rhythm game, a stealth game and an action game. Enemies are predictable, and you view all the action from top-down, so its easy to root a path through a particular place and have decent knowledge that everything will be in exactly the same place at the same time. The difficulty comes in the fact that you have to remain unseen and unheard, or the enemies will come for you - and they are quick.
The game is legitimately punishing under one circumstance - that you're slow, and unsure. If you waltz into the building, think "oh yeah I'm going to hit this man with a baseball bat," smack him down, and then stand over his corpse thinking, "hmm, what next?" Chances are someone will get a bead on you and a bullet will fly through your squishy head before your thought has even fully formed. Its a lightning pace, but the game can actually be a breeze provided you can match and maintain that pace yourself. ...simpler said than done, but once you're in "the zone," it's a trance-like state where you'll probably feel like you're one step ahead of yourself at all times, and the game will seem easy. Not easy as in its not difficult - oh no, there is a great challenge indeed - but easy as in you will meet those challenges head on and, usually, win. Not unscathed, not without dying and reading the dreaded "R TO RESTART," but your victory will feel utterly decisive.
Its a dreadfully satisfying experience, too. Your heart racing, on the edge of your seat, sweat on your mouse hand... you'll truly feel like a winner when you finish a level of Hotline Miami. Stalking the room, identifying enemy locations, and then, quicker than you could have believed you could go, eliminating quickly and cleanly all your foes before they know you were even there? That's a good feeling. The AI isn't intelligent - in fact, it can be as thick as two bricks - but they are relentless, and cruel, and they'll punish any and all indecisiveness. One wrong move and you're dead - the trick is to not letting yourself make that wrong move, and once you're there, once that Hotline Miami headspace is achieved, you will be unstoppable. You will die, countless times, make no doubt of that, but once you're in control, you will be in control.
Alongside the arsenal of weapons found in the levels - melee weapons, which are instant and silent kills when they connect properly, and guns, which are very loud, and, despite a robust lock-on system, rather unwieldly, but in the right hands can clear entire rooms - are masks. Animal masks, to be precise, worn by the the player character as a disguise, I suppose. There are about thirty of them, ranging from chicken masks to dog and horse heads to chameleon masks, and each has their own unique name and power. For example, if you equip the horse, Don Juan, it makes it so knocking a door into an enemy instantly kills them (instead of merely knocking them out for a brief few seconds). If you equip Paul, the unicorn, it makes guns silent. ...though actually, this could be where the game starts to fall apart.
The game is, for the most part, tough but fair. If you fuck up, its reasonably certain it was all your fault, and while the controls entail some elements of sloppiness, they aren't difficult to master by any stretch, so when you get leaped at and mauled to death by a dog off-screen that you didn't see, while frustrating if it's, say, your fiftieth retry, you'll feel happy in admitting the fault lies with you. Its when that dog ignores you and instead, for example, fades through a wall and out of the level barrier and keeps going... that you start to feel a bit cheated. Or when you set up a scenario where, as Don Juan, you can lure enemies over to a door, stand behind it, and repeatedly kill guards as they run to kill you... your victory doesn't feel satisfying, it feels cheap.
It's a Bughunt
You can set up kill rooms, and because the AI doesn't react to corpses of its fallen comrades, you eventually realize that there are maybe twenty or so bodies stacked on top of each other that the patrolmen will completely ignore. So its a buggy game, and one whose systems can be abused to the detriment of the game's carefully tweaked balance. Its not the biggest problem in the world, but I ended up pushing myself to play back through any levels I had "cheated" on, because I felt cheated myself that I could do such things as continually hide behind walls and wait for guards to just blunder past. It becomes harder to set up these sort of scenarios as the game progresses, but that I could at all made me feel sort of guilty. Looking at my unreasonably high scores, the corpses laying on the floor... I had cheated myself out of aforementioned satisfying victory, and that wasn't a very nice feeling at all.
Its also not very fun when, for whatever reason, the AI stops walking along its patrol path and heads through a door that it wasn't meant to go through, comes face to face with you, and blasts you. The AI is usually predictable, but there's like one in one hundred situations where it breaks it path, or something snaps in their heads like a wafer, and your well-laid plans are rendered fruitless because you didn't account for something or another happening in the wrong order or what have you. And while thinking on the spot when faced with melee-equipped foes running at you is viable, once a man with a shotgun gets a bead on you, you're dead. Also, while we're on slight annoyances... this is anecdotal, but the game seems to suffer from performance issues on some machines. The developers are working pretty close with the community to iron out issues, but don't expect it to be completely smooth sailing. The game crashed on me several times, but luckily they were just crashes to the desktop without any loss of saves. Its a rarity, but the game is a bit buggy, and moreso unstable; luckily, not so much that its to the game's detriment.
Anyway. What will likely happen is, you'll be playing the game - you'll have gotten into a groove, you'll be loving every second, the atmosphere soaking in ...truly appreciating everything it does. Then there's a twist in the story. A twist that suits the rather more dark and foreboding nature of the game. Then there's a few more levels. ...and then its over. You'll flick through the twenty levels you've just finished - you'll find a neat bonus level, and play it, but you'll still leave thinking... is that all? And its not the bad kind of "is that all" - the game is about six or seven hours long, a decent length for a game that sells for less than a tenner. And the "real ending" of the game takes some effort to unlock - the collectibles required to achieve such an ending are literally pixels! But even after that, you'll want more. You'll blink at the menu a few times, convinced there's more buried underneath. The game got its hooks into you, but even after sitting through two credits, its hard to get them out again.
There's a decent amount of bonus content to work your way through - thirty or so achievements to unlock, challenges to face, high scoreboards to post to, bonus masks to find. Even deciphering the true meaning behind the narrative will keep you occupied - thinking about who these characters are and what they're doing, its not a game that will leave you easily. And at the end of the day, its atmosphere - the kind that can make you question why you're enjoying such relentless bloodletting - is absolutely superb, in the kind of player-involving way I haven't really seen since Bioshock. Every asset is crafted beautifully, every song on the soundtrack is amazing - honestly, this game has the best soundtrack of the year from where I'm sitting, and that's no small feat - even the credits screen(s) are entrancing! This game is a masterstroke, there's absolutely no doubt. So its no question why one of the biggest complains I can muster about this game is that there isn't more of it.
Recommendation: Hotline Miami has it all, with the notable exception of more Hotline Miami. And let's get this straight: I demand more Hotline Miami. If you appreciate clever design, intense gameplay, and can stomach a hell of a challenge, dive into it, ASAP. In all honesty, this is probably my favourite game so far this year.