Hotline Miami Review
Developer: Devolver Digital
Genre: Action, Puzzle
You check your shotgun. Through the holes in your horse shaped mask you see only one shot left. It’ll have to do.
A reckless boot to the door sends an unsuspecting goon to the ground, his head a bloody pile of bad decisions. A man in the corner reacts, baseball bat in hand. He catches your last shell like a line drive. A man on the couch reacts , standing and reaching for his pistol. Without hesitation you hurl your gun at him, the force of its collision with his face brings him to the floor as well.
You lift the catchers bat before you make to the last man to finish the job. He crawls away desperately; clawing for a safety and security he will never find. You stand over his body, and your downswing becomes his last memory.
The magic of Hotline Miami is the fact that it can create a visceral and violent experience – videogames and violence are like peas and carrots. The real charm is that Devolver Digital found a way to create smart and savvy action game that looks and sounds dated, but feels fresh and inventive, without big budgets and the latest in 3D technology.
Merciless killing is the chief task in this game. A faceless caller will give you obscure directions, outlining the general details of your targets, and you proceed with sending them all to their makers. Levels are usually multi-floor buildings, crawling with thugs and other targets, who all need to be dealt with. Running in guns blazing isn’t always a great idea, as gunshots attract attention, and bullets are severely limited. Guards also regularly change up patrols, making apprehension on the players part a dangerous deal. One must be quick, certain, and efficient to progress, and such a thing can be much easier said than done.
There are a plethora of weapons at your disposal when orchestrating your murderous symphony. Melee weapons like golf clubs and samurai swords can be a silent alternative to things that go “BANG” in the night, as well as swinging doors and your bare hands. All weapons can also be thrown, which adds another sphere of tactical options when these items initial uses no longer apply. These weapons are all attainable by the enemies as well, and one bullet or solid bat swing is all it takes to send you back to the beginning of the level.
Masks are also equipment you’ll acquire by achieving high scores or finding secrets in levels. They grant you special abilities, ranging from starting with a weapon or being able to take multiple bullets before dying. Choosing these are a gamble sometimes, though, as you may find yourself choosing a mask that is useless to your needs (i.e. The Wolf mask that makes dogs not attack you in a level without dogs).
Smart survival is the name of the game, and planning your way across a level, kill by kill, adds an unexpected level of strategy and puzzle elements to the title. On your first playthrough, the amount in which you are outmatched is sometimes laughably dire, which demands a sort of improvisation on the fly that is one of the most intriguing experiences in an action game in a very long time. Having to plan every step of action before you walk into the room, including who to hit with the door on the way in, is a twisted and wonderful meditation.
The game doesn’t let you take in the brilliance of your plans coming together; when the action starts, it usually doesn’t stop until your enemies are piles on the floor, or you are. And you will be more than once. The speed in which your respawn is equally as jarring as the speed required of you to be an effective killer in this game, reinforcing the unspoken rule of imaginative murder on the go. A lot of AAA action games are often accused of having too long a leash and being too forgiving. Hotline will never, ever be accused of either, and this sort of refusal to hold your hand adds to its allure. It’s that dangerous and cunning thing you shouldn’t want to touch, but really want to touch.
It being gift wrapped in a late 80’s motif also adds a particular charm. The colors are bright and distracting, and the music is a warped synth menagerie that powers the disorienting environment of the game. Even in its top down, 8-bit form reminiscent of Smash TV, the sun-drenched, drug-fueled era is well represented in the design of its levels; nightclubs and apartment complexes capture the iconic time period just as well as games like Vice City did 10 years ago.
It suffers from some real lacks of polish in almost every aspect, though. Dialogue, though not a very prominent feature, is overly simplistic, but unlike the rudimentary combat system, doesn’t provide that same beauty in action. The scoring system is incredibly vague, too. What each element means, and how to do better or worse in them, is never explained, and can be difficult to decipher. Controls with both mouse and keyboard and 360 controller can have a very twitchy responsiveness, sometimes being too sensitive, and other times not enough. And in a game about efficient and ultimately stealthy approaches to killing the bad guys, you very often don’t have the resources to plan around the bad guys. The play space is zoomed in so much, you can see when guys have been or where they’re going. More often than not though, they will see you, leading to many times where you are gunned down by off screen opponents, that you could have never known were there.
But this game is absolutely worth the meager asking price, the successes are far greater than its faults. The sugar dusted nihilism is an uncomfortable cloud hanging over you at first, but the brain flexing required makes the danger of seeming like a creepy closet masochist a cathartic saunter into blind and bountiful violence.