Earlier this year, critics praised Yager’s Spec-Ops: The Line for its narrative. A straightforward shooter that presented traditional videogame violence in such a way that it made you feel like a terrible, guilt-ridden person. Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami goes one further. It makes you feel like the worst person on earth, a rampaging, amoral, gore-soaked monster. It’ll also make you love that feeling, in spite of whatever moral fibre you think you might have cultivated over the years.
Hotline Miami is the first commercial release by prolific (and frequently disturbing) freeware developer Jonatan ‘Cactus’ Söderström, this time teamed up with illustrator Denis Wedin. At its heart, it’s a simple 2D action game with a focus on scoring. Intuitive Keyboard + Mouse controls leading you through a bloody rampage across a series of gangster-infested buildings in drug-fuelled, gaudy late-80s Miami, all at the behest of a mysterious voice on your character’s answerphone. There are only a handful of enemy types (punctuated by a couple of short but brutal puzzle-boss fights), but the level layout is what holds it all together.
Early levels are simple room-to-room, corridor-to-corridor hunts. Guns (which only come with whatever ammo hasn’t been spent by the user) seem far less important than melee at first, but as you progress, the levels become more intricate and demanding. Windows change the whole dynamic, with a single rifleman able to cover several rooms at once, and often the only safe way to deal with an entrenched guard is to use a gun yourself, which in turn goes and alerts every enemy within earshot, all of whom dogpile into your last known location. While not inherently a stealth game, there’s some elements of it here, as a clean, planned victory is often based on careful manipulation of predictable enemy AI.
It’s hard to feel bad for killing an individual enemy in Hotline Miami, but the sheer brutality of the violence you will inflict upon your foes is simply horrifying. Blades slice open stomachs, sending intestines spilling across the room. A stunned and pinned enemy will need to be finished off, and if you’ve only got a baseball bat to hand, then that involves bludgeoning his skull until it’s a mushy, purple pile of goo. All the gore is just slightly too bright, too vivid, matching the general aesthetic of the game. It’s excessive, cruel and strangely satisfying. Hidden behind a rubber mask, you feel like the villain (monster?) from a slasher film, right up until you make a mistake. Your own, frequent deaths are similarly violent. There’s a great many ways to die, and you’ll likely see them all over the course of your first playthrough.
This game does for brutal murder what Redlynx’s Trials series did for motorsports. Death feels almost unavoidable at first. The slightest mistake, the slightest hole in your plan, a missed shot or a flubbed swing will result in an opening, and then you’ll take a hit and most likely die on the spot – guts hanging out, brains splattered or otherwise pulverised into so much meat. You’re every bit as fragile and mortal as your countless foes. Fortunately, the individual floors making up the ~20 levels are short and focused enough to make (instantly) respawning and trying again not feel frustrating. A lesson possibly learnt from Super Meat Boy, among others.
As featured prominently in most of the art and trailers for the game, a collection of named rubber animal masks hide your identity and insulate your character from his own terrifying actions. Unlocked through progress through the campaign, with a few of the more interesting ones being tucked away in hidden corners of some levels, each provides a unique gameplay perk. One might let you run faster, while another might increase the power of you kicking open doors, letting you outright kill enemies as you enter a room. It adds one more layer to the replay value, and some of them are more playful than others. ‘Phil’ the fish-mask (now that HAS to be a deliberate reference) will translate the entire game into French, for instance.
There’s a strong scoring system backing up the moment-to-moment gameplay. The game rewards speed and aggression with points, which in turn provide more unlockables – new weapons in particular being seeded through the entire game, even in earlier, revisited stages. A single playthrough won’t take you particularly long – maybe two hours – but this is a game designed to be returned to and replayed. This is undermined slightly by a lack of online leaderboards (at least in the review build received), and by the slight randomization of enemy loadouts and weapon placement on respawning meaning that any score-run might not be an entirely level playing field.
Hotline Miami made me feel sick. A gnawing, slightly dizzy, aching sense of unease almost indistinguishable from a raging hangover. Every room survived and left splattered with the entrails of my countless foes was another shot – a little hair of the dog – to help drive away that feeling that this is all wrong and somehow doing more than raw psychological damage. The scuzzy, grungy distorted 80s synths of the soundtrack (courtesy of a long list of excellent, talented musicians) bore into my brain, and the colour palette can only be described as lurid – inescapably 1980s, but everything is just a little too sickly-bright. Paired with the slightly drunken, unstable twisting of the 2D camera, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something deeply wrong with Hotline Miami’s world.
Being a Cactus joint, something is deeply wrong, of course. The rabbit hole goes deeper than you might think at first, and there are some pretty cool and unsettling twists to the tale along the way. The true ending is kept under wraps at first, and will only reveal itself to eagle-eyed players willing to do a little puzzling along the way. Still, not to spoil anything, but I personally feel like the story peaked quite some time before the final stages, and the secret ending, while wrapping things up nicely and even making sense of a lot of the madness running through the game, felt a little anticlimactic and unsatisfying. After playing through Cactus’ demented ‘Mondo‘ series, having all the pieces come together (mostly) coherently is almost disappointing, in a strange sort of way.
Still, that doesn’t really detract from the big picture. The game feels rough in just the right way. This isn’t a highly polished product. This is the work of two very creative people with a terrifying vision of urban violence, 1980s style. While held back from being a classic by a smattering of issues in both design and narrative, the core moment-to-moment combat is compelling, and simultaneously satisfying and sickening. At $10, it’s not hard to recommend this one. Just don’t expect to be able to look at yourself in the mirror quite the same way once you’re done.
Hotline Miami will – at the time of writing – be available in just a few hours for Windows PCs (with a Mac version coming later). With an RRP of $10 before pre-purchase discounts, you can grab it from Steam, GetGames and GOG, with the GetGames version coming with a bonus level based on the Eurogamer expo. Y’know, just in case you wanted to run around a real-life industry event, slicing people into bloody ribbons.
[review pros="Tight, compelling action. Amazing soundtrack. Cool aesthetic. Twisty, exciting plot." cons="No leaderboards. Randomization can affect scoring, too. Final denouement doesn't quite pack the punch it could." score=87]