Thanks to the most recent Humble Bundle, I got myself a copy (license?) of Hotline Miami, the “neon-soaked”, super-violent, overhead action dervish that’s engendered some praise with the public and critics alike. It’s definitely a return to the old-school, twitch-style play style that a lot of games in the nascent days of arcades and home consoles defaulted to: just shoot everything, all which can move really fast if they see you, and, oh, also, everything can kill you instantly.
Much like a cousin of Super Meat Boy, you will die a lot in this game, but the restart time is near-instant (you have to press a key on the keyboard), so you’re never frustrated by death. Instead, each level is an exercise in strategy perfection as you scope out all the baddies and try your best to maliciously execute each and every one of them by separating their blood from their body and depositing it onto the floor. Your malevolence never “blinks” away, either, so your carnage-fueled trek can be remembered upon exit.
The gist of the story, as much as I can gather, is that you’re a dude living in Miami who gets phone calls telling you to go places for various reasons. Every now and then you talk to people wearing weird masks who say a lot of confusing, vague things. These masks become “powerups” for you as you unlock them by playing the game. It’s all kind of open-ended about who you actually are, and why you’re doing what you do, and I’m fine with that. It feels like a pastiche of drug-hazed, underground criminal tropes told in an intentionally odd way that just adds to the overall mystique.
The reasons are fairly immaterial, though, as your main focus is “room filled with men with weapons bent on your destruction”. Your job is to kill them all and advance to the next place to do it all over again. You can use anything from a bat, to a shotgun, to a pan full of boiling water to take them out, and the game’s point system seems to reward variation, precision, and speed. Occasionally, there are boss-like encounters that take a bit more thinking, but each level is largely the same, increasing in complexity of layout or frequency of enemies.
I found it a blast to play, even as I died for the 45345636546th time. Finally getting through a level, streamlining my strategy, all the while knowing one slip up would ruin the whole thing, was very engaging. There were some controller-throwing moments, though, as you’d kill all but one random foe who pops out from a part of the level you thought you’d already swept up, ending your life, and making you do it all over again.
All of that being said, it’s the design of the whole thing that sets this apart from the pack. The graphical style is sprite-based and unique, and the menus, levels, and cutscenes all seem like they’re being seen through an LSD-spiked fever dream. Playing it puts you in a weird mood of sorts, and the music, oh, the music!
Each track supports the gameplay, storyline, and overall feel of the game so well. It feels a little spare at times listened to out of context, but be sure to know that inside the game a complex alchemy occurs and the visuals and aurals fuse together perfectly. I was surprised to learn that each track comes from a different artist, despite most of them sounding like they were made with the same mad genius at the helm.
Truly a special little twisted gem, Hotline Miami is not to be missed. It’s gruesome, off-putting, and intense, so be warned that if something like Pulp Fiction makes you squirm, it may not be for you. Also, it can be damned hard at times, but very rewarding.
Also also, the music!