When I first heard about Hotline Miami, I didn’t quite understand the attraction. My assumption was that it was just a gruesome beat-em-up with the old-fashioned pixellated visual style so common in indie games these days. I just wasn’t that interested in a game that appeared to involve nothing more than bashing in the heads of an endless number of goons. However, when I had a chance to pick it up on sale over the holidays for $2.50, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Hotline Miami is stranger and far more challenging that I was originally expecting, and I knew within a few hours of gameplay that it was worthy of a place on my personal top ten games of the year.
Things get strange as soon as you start playing. The tutorial consists entirely of a disembodied head teaching you “how to kill”, and then your character wakes up to find three men wearing animal masks waiting for him in his living room. Or is he still dreaming? One of the conceits throughout the game is that it’s never entirely clear what is and isn’t real, and that, among other things, gives it an exceedingly creepy tone throughout.
The year is 1989, and the protagonist of Hotline Miami is a hired killer who receives orders via strange coded messages left on his answering machine. He goes where he’s told and kills everyone he finds in as brutal and bloody a fashion as possible. Interspersed with these massacres are short scenes where he talks to a series of bartenders, video clerks and cashiers who all look like a man you kill during the very first mission. Much of the story is told in asides through these short one-sided conversations and papers left lying on the table in your living room.
Ultimately the story doesn’t quite hold together at the end, but the overall effect is still one of creeping unease that amps up the tension every time you go on a mission. I found myself wanting to know more about this strange little world and the adventures of its anti-hero killer. I also think it’s a fair comparison to say that Hotline Miami feels a bit like an underground adaptation of the movie Drive, so if you liked that movie you’ll probably enjoy Hotline Miami.
Gameplay is where I think Hotline Miami has the most surprises. The first thing you need to know is that every single enemy in the game can kill you with one hit. If a guy with a gun sees you and has a shot, he’ll take it without hesitation and you will die. You’ll oftentimes also die at the hands of a man with a baseball bat or knife who was a split-second quicker on the draw. There’s actually an achievement for dying 1000 times, and I easily reached that point about 2/3rds of the way through my play-through. If you’ve ever played Super Meat Boy, you’ll be familiar with this feeling of constant repeated death. Thankfully the game doesn’t have any post-death loading screens, so it’s easy to pick yourself up and die again a dozen more times in under a minute.
This hair-trigger response time from enemies means that you can’t just barrel into a room without a plan. Instead, you need to take careful measure of sight-lines, weapon types and enemy paths before you launch an attack. You also need to keep in mind that melee weapons are silent but firing a gun will most likely bring other enemies to investigate. In fact, in a lot of ways Hotline Miami is actually a stealth game, but one with a unique enough approach that I didn’t find myself losing patience. Once you start getting the hang of enemy movements and reactions, it actually does become possible run through a half-dozen rooms killing enemies and racking up combo points, and the feeling of clearing out half a level in one go is truly thrilling.
Another big aspect of the game are the animal masks you wear on missions. You’ll get a new mask after completing every chapter, and you can also find masks hidden throughout the levels. Each mask grants a unique power, such as the ability to take one bullet without dying or to fire guns silently. Once you’ve played through the levels a few times, it starts becoming clear that the only way to ace particular levels is with the right kind of mask. This gives the game a decent amount of replay value, and I’ve already found myself replaying the early chapters hunting for secrets and a better score.
Hotline Miami joins a growing list of excellent indie games with mind-blowing soundtracks. The music is intense, pulsing and largely electronic, and I often found myself bouncing my head along to the tracks even as my character died a hundred times in a row. As soon as you play the game you’ll probably want to get your hands on the soundtrack, so thankfully the developers have put the entire mix up on Soundcloud as a free stream.
Most of the music comes from small and independent electronic artists, and although it isn’t currently possible to buy it all at once, it will be available on Steam soon. Until then, most of the musicians have Bandcamp pages where you can pick up their music for a few dollars. My personal favorite tracks include Daisuke by El Huervo and Hydrogen by M|O|O|N, but the whole thing is worth a listen.
Hotline Miami is highly addictive and quickly became one of my favorite games of the year, in a year when excellent downloadable games have been popping up all over. Although I got the game on sale, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend buying it at its full price of $10. Apparently it sold well enough that the developers are already planning a sequel and a Mac port, which is music to my ears!
One caveat: a number of users have reporting experiencing serious game-breaking bugs that the developer is still working on patching. At one point I experienced a bizarre bug that only went away after I disabled my print spooler (!), which is apparently a fairly common issue. Your mileage may vary.
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