Hotline Miami is a drug in game form. It is bizarre, addicting, infectious, and it will leave you wanting more. Like a drug, when things go right, it’s exhilarating and makes you feel great. But it’s also a game that has its lows due to the nature of the gameplay. It is also a game that subtly carries with it a message about video game violence and the nature of murder.
When you first create a new game, you are placed in the shoes of a man in a jacket. He’s in a dark room with two gangsters and a homeless man that is “supposed to teach you how to kill.” You’re taught the basic ropes of combat. Punching enemies knocks them to the ground, where you can finish them off by bashing their head on the ground. Then you’re given a gun and told to aim and pull the trigger. All of this is shown from the top down perspective and with a heavily pixelated art style reminiscent of old NES games. This is coupled with a very bizarre, creepy song playing in the back ground.
Shortly thereafter, the man in the jacket is brought to a run down, filthy apartment where three people in masks are waiting for him. They talk to him about violence and then he is in his apartment with the phone ringing. Answering it reveals that he is to go to a certain location and kill everyone there. The story setup is indeed very surreal and strange, but it helps set the tone for the rest of the game. As the game goes on, more and more strange happenings occur. For instance, after each level the man in the jacket goes to one of several different locations. Sometimes it’s a convenience store to get a snack, sometimes it’s a bar to get a drink and sometimes it’s a VHS rental place to get some entertainment for the night. It becomes clear that something is wrong when the same hippie shows up at every location since h seemingly works there. The music, combined the with graphics, give the game an incredibly surreal tone that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch film and, like his movies, much of the game’s story is left open to interpretation. Some people may not like that some questions never get answered, but I think it’s a very effective method of storytelling to let the player come to their own conclusions.
The gameplay that accompanies the atmosphere is fairly straight forward. You answer a phone in your apartment and are told where to go. You get in the car, automatically go to that location and systematically slaughter everyone in the building. The levels range from apartment buildings to hotels to arcades. The variety in the visuals is nice, since the heavily pixelated look gives everything a very unique appearance, but the game moves so quickly that you’ll rarely have time to admire it. You see, the rules of the game are simple. It takes one hit from just about any weapon- baseball bats, crowbars, pistols, shotguns and much more- to kill an enemy. Seems simple, right? It is, but the catch is that it also takes one hit from anything to kill you. This gives the gameplay an incredibly urgent pace. Chances are that you’ll almost always be moving, since standing still is a pretty surefire way to die. Thankfully, death rarely feels too punishing. When you die, you simply hit the R key and you’re back at the beginning of whatever floor you were on.
This makes it so that failure never really feels like failure. Combat is fast, intense and exciting, so replaying a section almost never feels like punishment. The short nature of the levels helps with this, too. Most chapters can theoretically be beaten in under five minutes. The reason they may take longer is that you die so often and so frequently until you come up with an effective strategy to taking out a floor.
Even though combat sounds almost too simple for its own good, the game does a good job at keeping things interesting. For one thing, there are always multiple options in how to approach a situation. You could pick up a machine gun and kill one guy, wait in a room, and kill more enemies as they rush in and hope you don’t catch a stray bullet. You can also use the silent method, knocking a guy down by slamming open a door, grabbing his weapon and bashing his head with it, then proceed to take down enemies that way. Regardless of what way you do it, the levels will become drenched in the blood of your enemies. Even though the graphics are pixelated, the violence is still absolutely brutal. Slice a guy’s throat while he’s on the ground and his body will visibly wriggle in pain while his blood shoot out of his artery. Shoot a guy with a shotgun and watch as his limb flies off, spraying blood around the room. Hit a guy with a katana and observe his torso fly across the room. The visual payoff for defeating an enemy I pretty much always bloodier than most horror movies. The game never shies away from it, either. You always have a clean view of the action due to the top down perspective.
Another layer to the combat is with the masks. The man in the jacket always dons a rubber animal mask before he starts his bloody deeds, and each one (save the default one you have in the very beginning) gives some kind of perk or ability. For instance, the camel mask gives guns more bullets in a clip, which means you can shoot more. The wolf mask give you a knife to start with, which is useful because it is very quick and you can throw it with lethal results. Each mask has some kind of use, and it’s fun to try out different levels with different masks to see what play style gives the highest score. Plus, hunting them down in the game is addicting, too.
In all, the game has twenty two chapters to play through. Twenty for the main story and two bonus levels. As I said above, each chapter only takes minutes to complete if you play correctly. This makes Hotline Miami seem like a short game, but there are incentives to replay. For one, you can always aim for a high score. Playing haphazardly and taking risks is an easy way to score higher. There are also puzzle pieces hidden in every level. Collecting them all reveals the true ending (the original one doesn’t really explain too much in terms of plot). Put this on top of experimenting with different masks and you have a short but replayable package.
There are a few issues, though. For one, the AI is very inconsistent at times. Since death comes so easily, you’ll likely be restarting a lot. The thing is that enemies don’t always respawn in the same place, which means it’s very easy to get killed without even knowing an enemy is in killing range. Also, sometimes enemies with guns are too good. As in, you’ll walk into a room to stage a sneak attack, but almost immediately, you get shot. This doesn’t always happen, and isn’t terribly frustrating, but it’s still a small annoyance that I wouldn’t mind seeing fixed. Enemies with guns in general tend to be almost too good. It’s easy for you to miss your shots, but enemies almost never miss. Some of the masks you can get also have the same effect. For instance, there are two different masks that let you survive one bullet before dying. Finally, the endings are both somewhat unsatisfactory. The secret one does shed light on the events, but the explanation behind it still isn’t entirely satisfying since all it really does is set the game up for the sequel.
Still, those issues shouldn’t stop you from playing this fantastic beat ‘em up. The gameplay is fast paced, wildly addicting and a ton of fun. The atmosphere compliments the gameplay with its highly stylized graphics and great soundtrack, making for a game that may seem familiar, but manages to feel incredibly different and unique. It may not be the longest game ever, but it is worth playing and replaying, if only to murder the hell out of some bad guys. The game’s story may question video game violence in general, but that doesn’t stop the act of fast paced, arcade-y murder from being a bloody good time.