Fans of Jonatan Soderstrom (Cactus) will immediately notice his signature art style at every turn; outrageous pixelated neon colors, cartoon-grit, and always somewhat disturbed looking characters adorn every level, making for a unique viewing experience that sets the tone perfectly.
The music showcased here is also top-notch, with 80s inspired electronica and pumping beats throughout, it gives everything a cool B-movie vibe reminiscent of GTA Vice City.
The narrative is intentionally cryptic, and it manages to keep you guessing as the story moves along between action sequences through newspaper clippings, messages on your answering machine, changes to your apartment, and strange encounters. Everyone seems to be watching you.
Each chapter gives you a new level to clear of enemies by any means necessary, and this is the meat of the game. You can pick up any gun or melee weapon that's lying around, or knock a weapon from an unsuspecting enemy's hands and finish him off. From there, you can quickly and quietly knock them over the head one by one, loudly pump them full of lead, or knock them flat on their backs with a well-thrown weapon. Any enemy that becomes aware of your presence will immediately try to put you down, so your level of discretion plays a big part in the strategy needed to clear each room without being hunted down by the rest of the building's occupants. You can only survive being hit once, and dying will put you back at the beginning of the current floor, so staying out of harm's way quickly becomes priority number one (although the game will rank you a "coward" if you take too long!) In order to temper the fast pace of the action, you are also given the ability to lock on to any enemy within viewing range. This makes for an effective system of quickly popping in and out of cover without needing to readjust your aim. It's not perfect though - the lock-on, while effective, could use a function for switching between enemies rather than having to manually target them first. The game "lets go" of the auto-targeting after an enemy is killed, so in a situation with multiple enemies in a room, locking on can get you killed as you fumble to adjust from auto-targeting to free aiming. The enemy AI is also pretty flawed, and can sometimes be exploited, but it all works well enough to maintain a good level of challenge and unpredictability.
Secrets abound in Hotline Miami, and their affect on the outcome of the game isn't immediately made clear, but given the track record of this game developer, all avenues are likely well worth exploring. Let's just say I don't want to spoil any surprises you might stumble across.
Overall, this game is polished, addictive, mysterious, and just plain enthralling. Cactus has promised to update and patch the game as well, so any minor glitches should be smoothed over soon enough.
This reviewer played until his hands hurt. Bravo.