Developers: Dennaton Games
Publishers: Devolver Digital
It takes me a while to realise that Hotline Miami, far from being the run-and-gun, top-down, arcade shooter or stealthy gangland experience that one might expect when gazing at its heavily pixellated, neon-soaked screens, is something of a puzzle game. I start unarmed, the ground floor plan of a domicile highlighting the patrolling patterns of various guards. Some have knives, some are sporting baseball bats, one appears to be armed with a sword. I tip-toe up to the front door, making mental notes, preparing myself for the optimum moment to smash the door into the nearest guard's face...
...except I mistime it and in the blink of an eye I'm dead, languishing in a wet crimson bed.
Death is both a miserable business and a gleefully swift affair in Hotline Miami, the difference, of course, comes from whether you're dishing it out or on the receiving end. One shot kills rule the roost, with your weapon variants giving you greater fire rates or a wider spread rather than any particular improvement to damage dealing. So it is that bright bursts of blood will gush forth from knife wounds, shotgun blasts will paint everything in sight with entrails; you'll gasp as heads are split open with blades, and entrails will dribble out from holey stomachs. Miss your shot, and you'll almost certainly wind up decorating your immediate surroundings with your innards.
It's a violent game, to be sure, with a plot that unfolds slowly, cast as you are in the role of an amnesiac going over the last month, a bunch of mysterious phone messages, and an unnerving association with a bunch of miscreants wearing grotesque animal masks. Dennaton Games have not hid their admiration for Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, and it really shows the scruffy visuals, all pastel colours in garish clashes, accompanied by a synth-driven soundtrack that punctuates the action perfectly.
But it's the explosions of heightened violence that present the greatest point of comparison, though much more of a central feature than its sparing use in Refn's slow-burning masterpiece. Still, the immediacy of the action is very startling, and it's a feeling that persists throughout, effortlessly reminiscent of Joe Pesci's outbursts in Goodfellas, or the sudden eruptions of bloody conflict in the films of Scorcese, Tarantino, and Cronenberg.
Movement is handled by WASD inputs on the keyboard, with aiming given over to the mouse. It allows for swift navigation of the game's buildings, creeping through corridors before suddenly exploding into action. The aiming is twitchy and light, and requires a fair amount of precision, and the action happens quickly. Blink and you're dead. Open the door a second early and you're dead. Fail to land the first hit with your baseball bat, and you're dead.
There's a briefcase on the second floor, that's my objective, or so a voice on the answerphone told me. I finally get my entrance right, knocking a goon to the floor. A tap of the spacebat and I'm on top of him, choking his life away with my bare hands. I shoulder his baseball bat and press on. There's a guy with a knife in the next hallway, but my superior range sends him flying. It's not long before I have a gun in my hands, but my glee at blasting away an oncoming goon as I reach the second floor is cut short as the noise conjures up the attention of the remaining adversaries, who quickly turn me into Swiss cheese. Press R to restart, blinks the screen. It's not the first time I've seen that. This all happens in about ten seconds.
Hotline Miami is a bit like the original GTA mixed up with a Mai Tai, an LSD tab, and an EpiPen.
The game creates a strange rhythmic tapestry of violence that goes hand in hand with the pulpy rumblings of the soundtrack. It's not a pure stealth experience - you have to clear these buildings of their inhabitants - but knowing when to attack, when to burst into life, when to attract attention, and when to tiptoe up your opponents and make them pay for whatever it is that they've done, these are all crucial. As soon as you drop your first man, the fuse is lit, and a volatile chain reaction of action escalates in relentless fashion that ends only when the last goon hits the floor...or you do.
Hotline Miami is a visceral video nasty that proves strangely hypnotic. The colours, the music, the simplicity of it all, and the swift nature of the action, the failure, the restoration, and the redemption, all come together to make a cocktail with a kick to it. The ability to immediately respawn, as with all trial and error games, is utterly crucial, and the buildings are never so large as to induce frustration. Furiously addictive, Hotline Miami's garish, gory appeal is an unapologetic , incredibly self-aware title with a bunch of simple, accessible, and often punishing elements, that makes you ill a whole bunch of pixellated fellows in a frenetic battle for survival, and then calls you a terrible person for doing so before sending you on another murderous mission.
It's utterly crazy, and I loved every second of its seedy delights.