Hotline Miami is one perplexing game that is really a sight to behold. It messed with my mind from beginning to end, and I just knew I had to review it.
Nauseating. Cathartic. Stressful. Thrilling. Repulsive. Captivating. Hotline Miami is an experience that is hard to sum up in just a few words, especially when most of those words seem contradictory to one another. The swirling pool of unresolved emotions that continue to linger within me are telling how powerful games can be at times, and I felt obligated to write a review of this one in particular. After all, I can’t think of a better time to put on a mask and explore the psyche than Halloween. Can you?
From the very moment you start Hotline Miami, it will be clear that you’re in for a unique experience. The in-level pixel art itself will likely not win any awards because the game leans towards simplicity, but because of the large amount of fast-paced action on screen, this was the correct design choice. The exception to this would be the character portraits, which are painstakingly rendered to not only show a lot of detail, but to give the world a much more twisted and uncomfortable vibe. The vibrant colors used are almost a sickeningly sweet contrast to the violence on screen, and perfectly match the neon-infused 80’s setting the game strives for. The color palette would be nice if it weren’t used to such nauseating effect, but this is also intentional, given that the game even makes some levels shake back and forth to match the trippyness of the events going on around you.
The soundtrack is used just as well as a means of carrying over the game’s themes. While the muffled club beats and electronic melodies aren’t the type of music I would listen to on my own time, they fit perfectly here. The subtle and eerie echoes mixed with the invigorating and positive beats had a profound effect on me, often putting me into a sort of trance as I played, but that of course will vary from person to person. I would almost suggest that everyone try listening to the soundtrack regardless of whether you are interested in playing the game, just because I am curious to see whether it has the same uncomfortable effect on you that it had on me.
Easily the most convoluted aspect of Hotline Miami is its storytelling. You are slowly dripped information through cryptic phone calls and newspaper clippings instead of offering a more standard narrative structure. This makes the story itself a puzzle, as the developers have made it clear that they don’t want you to accept anything at face value. The plot in itself is an enigma, resting on a balanced scale that fluctuates between a cryptic narrative and poignant meta-narrative that leaves the player unable to truly know what is going on. Who is sending you these calls? Why are you so willing to go out on these murderous sprees without a second thought? Are the events presented to you actually happening, or are they some kind of drug-induced hallucination or coma dream? Unraveling this mystery is just as rewarding, if not more so than the gameplay itself, and is a very important aspect of the game’s design that truly moves it from being a hyper violent game with no purpose to a much deeper experience.
Or does it?
Hotline Miami is primarily a a twin-stick shooter, which is a genre I’ve come to know and love over the years. What is really interesting is that unlike most games in the genre, this title doesn’t restrict you solely to one means of play. Running in guns blazing is not always the best strategy; in fact, the game often encourages stealthy play more than anything, but the spottiness and randomness of the AI means that even the most well thought-out plans won’t work without some level of improvisation.
The game judges how well you do and gives you points accordingly, though I’m not sure how accurate said scoring system truly is. The end of every level gives you a ranking and criteria, indicating which actions gave and removed points, but it all seemed fairly abstract to me. Luckily the score doesn’t keep you from moving forward; it only serves as a means of unlocking new and optional weapons per level. Since these weapons are randomly generated, you still need to be lucky even after they’ve been unlocked to actually use them. It is still a fun reward either way, especially when you get stuck on a level for a while only to finally find that one weapon you really like and gain an advantage over your opponents.
In Hotline Miami, death is almost instantaneous, and you have just as much a chance of hurting your enemies as they have of hurting you. This makes the game a frantic struggle, as one small mistake can see you starting over from the last checkpoint. Thankfully, the checkpoints are rather frequent, and each level is extremely fast-paced and short, actually encouraging you to try other strategies as opposed to punishing you for it. The fact that the violence is so decisive and also so graphic really creates a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you stop to think about it. But the game moves at such a quick clip that you are never given that opportunity until a mission is complete, and that pacing is another mark of its great design.
Not everything about Hotline Miami‘s gameplay is perfect, however. The level design doesn’t always make for ‘fair’ encounters, often creating scenarios where you will be killed by people who are off-screen. In these moments the game feels cheap, but because of the near-instantaneous restarts and the tools at your disposal, it never creates an obstacle that feels unfair for too long. Not in my experience, anyway.
You have one last tool in your arsenal should you find yourself struggling too much, and that is the rather iconic set of masks that Hotline Miami provides your character. Besides giving the plot-relevant effect of hiding your character’s identity, they also provide a different effect depending on which one is equipped. For example, one gives you two hits before you die instead of one, while another makes it so guard dogs are completely unaware of your presence; my personal favorites were the ones that make doors lethal and make your guns silent. While not a hugely important addition, they do create another fun variable that can make replays all the more enjoyable.
Hotline Miami is a game that needs to be experienced to be appreciated. The brilliance comes from the the level of detail put into each layer of this game’s design, and on further dissection, those layers are up for further interpretation. Hotline Miami puts all of its pieces out on the table, but instead of giving you instructions it allows you to create your own tapestry of events. After all, when it comes down to it…
What you do from here on, won’t serve any purpose.
_____ ___ _ ____ _____, ___ ___?
You will never see the full picture…
___ ____ ____ ___ ___ ___?
And it’s all your own fault…
__ ___ ____ ______ _____ ______?
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net