Hotline Miami was not a game I was initially excited for. While the praise was staggering when it released last year, the promised difficulty and the top-down 2D art-style did not make this an entirely appealing indie game, and I ended up skipping the release. Now, with the Vita and PlayStation 3 versions released, I finally played it. And I finally beat it. And I finally loved it.
The game, divided into a series of chapters, tells the story of two characters and how they become involved in a situation that tasks them with murdering hundreds of Russian mobsters and more. While the story is an interesting mystery of finding out what is going on and putting the events (presented OUT of chronological order) the game gives you into sequence, though to be fair the story takes a significant back-seat to the gameplay.
In each chapter, the protagonist (nicknamed “Jacket” by fans for his signature jacket) wakes up in his apartment and listens to a series of cryptic messages on his answering machine that gives him a location and an arbitrary task; the task that they are given is, consistently, a metaphor for killing every single person at that location. Once Jacket gets there, he is tasked with selecting a series of unlockable masks (that offer buffs like being harder to spot or walking faster) and entering a building to start the Chapter.
Each chapter takes place in a single building where Jacket must murder every single man, woman, and animal brutally before moving on to the next floor (each floor is also considered to be a different stage, so the second stage of the chapter is on the second floor and so on). Because of the game’s brutal nature and top-down perspective, the obvious comparison to make is Smash TV (it even plays like Smash TV), with a series of melee weapons and guns at your disposal. Every attack except punches is a one hit kill on every non-boss in the game, including you (with the exception of dogs and some bigger mooks). The melee attacks are straightforward, but the guns are unique in that they have a longer range but are significantly more difficult to control with the right stick. That said, guns can lock on to targets (the Vita version allows you to tap on enemies to lock on), which make them valuable for sniping other gun wielders out before they see you.
While the game sounds simple enough (kill, and move on), it actually feels way more like a Hitman game in execution than Smash TV. With each floor divided into rooms and walls with different enemies within, and Jacket being able to die in one hit, every attempt at a floor of enemies needs to be deliberate and without hesitation. You have to play the game a bit like chess, trying to figure out what the simple AI is going to do if you move to a certain place or shoot at a certain enemy. Melee weapons are silent but offer a close range that leaves you more exposed to enemies swarming you, while guns have a longer range, they alert enemies to your location. So ultimately, you find yourself in situations where you have to make on-the-spot decisions as to whether you act slowly but surely, or go in guns blazing. More importantly, if you hesitate and fail to trust your instincts for even one moment, it’s GAME OVER.
This makes for an extremely fair-but-difficult game and even for all of the times you fail a floor, the checkpoints are so quick (Bit.Trip Runner quick — you just start the floor over as soon as you fail it) that the game subtly prods you to keep trying until you get that oh-so-sweet perfect run. Every part of this gameplay is tight, addictive, and fun, and the fact that I am able to play this for a few hours at a time without being aware of a clock is testament enough to its practical perfection in my eyes. It appeals to people wanting good action, it appeals to those wanting a good puzzle, and it appeals to anyone who wouldn’t mind playing a game that’s a bit like Hitman while offering its own unique flavor.
After beating one of the twentyish chapters, you get a score and a grade based on that performance, and based on your performance, you can unlock either new masks to get new boosts, or new weapons that can be found while playing levels. Despite the (mostly) linear narrative, these upgrades make levels very replayable, and further elevate the game’s arcade like experience while combining this with the in-game online leaderboards (though I never personally cared about my score at the end of each level).
With all of the praises I’m lavishing on the gameplay, I also adore the absolute style the game has. I’m not much for retro-style graphics in indie games, but Hotline Miami is a notable exception simply for the fact that it can make deaths look so gruesome while still using a pixelated art-style. Seeing a dog get its brains bashed in is one thing, but seeing someone bite the dust so graphically after begging for their life and saying that “it can’t end here” is strangely affecting, and by extension, indicative of the gleeful violence this game offers the player while somehow acting as commentary at the same time. The sound is marvelous in itself, with tunes that offer high production value, sound terrifying when they need to be, exciting when they need to be, soothing when they need to be, and nightmarish all of the time.
Honestly, I have no complaints. With most games, I could have one complaint about how the story isn’t all there or the AI needs a bit of work, but with Hotline Miami, I only feel joy. Over the several hours I spent playing and beating it, I realized that any start of a complaint I might have had about how I don’t understand the story entirely or the scoring system isn’t compelling was immediately drowned out by proclamations of “This is more fun than anything I played in 2012.” And after thinking about it and letting me sit on those feelings from a more reasonable, journalist-y perspective, I realize that those feelings of joy are really all that matters to me, and nothing else. Hotline Miami is wonderful.