Hotline Miami is a top-down stealth retro-styled shoot-em up. Now I’ll be honest in saying that the “stealth” element of the game wasn’t apparent to me as I played the game for the first time. I had no idea that your character could die from one single bullet.
Gameplay consists of you controlling your character’s movement with the WASD keys and his aiming perspective with the mouse cursor. Left clicking causes you to use your weapon and right clicking allows you to drop weapons and interact with world objects.
Each chapter in the game consists of an intro to your mission at your apartment where the main protagonist receives vague messages to perform menial tasks. This segues onto the actual mission itself, which always consists of you taking out every enemy on a map. The chapters are wrapped up with story-like advances in the plot.
On paper the game is extremely simple, however to write it off as such is a mistake. The stealth element I mentioned overlooking earlier is absolutely crucial. Melee weapons cause no noise but leave you completely vulnerable to opponents who can see you from across the screen boundary. Firearms allow you to kill opponents from a distance, but are noisy and will alert a horde of enemies to your position. Strategy becomes very apparent in mission situations, when most of your time will be spent experimenting with your surroundings, using doors to knock out a swathe of enemies as they become alerted to your position. Or you can manage to exploit a corner of a room and cut down a mob of enemies with your carefully planned gunfire.
This all, of course, sounds easy until you realize you are at the mercy of the enemy’s ability to annihilate you with either one shot or a swing of their melee weapon. Enemies see you almost immediately from a distance and are even alerted to your presence when you’re behind them. They are also extremely fast, almost Speedy Gonzalez-like in their reaction to running up to attack you – once you realize the ferocity of your enemy you start to pace each mission and take them more seriously.
To aid your mission, the protagonist wears several masks styled as animal heads. These masks give you unique abilities such as making doors lethal to enemies, more ammo and even starting some levels with a special gun. Most of the time the masks are useful, however I feel they're largely there to spice up the challenge within this already very difficult game.
The challenge is a huge part this game. I would say you need a lot of skill to play a game such as this successfully, as it's not geared towards a casual market at all. If you thought games like Dark Souls were difficult, then please by all means reserve your Jedi (or Sith)-like gamer judgment until you have played Hotline Miami. While I do enjoy the odd good difficult game now and then, I do feel that the developers tried their best to balance the difficult curve, with later levels becoming much harder. However, I will admit that a handful of sections in certain missions were extremely frustrating rather than fun or challenging.
Visually, Hotline Miami is very retrocentric with its 8-bit pixelated glory. Sprites are gorgeously well designed for a top-down videogame and many parts of the environment are easy to envisage in a real-life context. The blood and gore has to be noted as being extremely over-the-top – you will often create a pile of enemy bodies with their entrails or brains hanging out, or just completely mushed into pieces.
The music is absolutely fantastic. The game’s soundtrack reflects the 80s vibe as presented by the story and visuals of the game, but with a more modern electronic twist – even the more surreal story elements, while dark in design, have a funk to them as if Godspeed, You Black Emperor and Earth, Wind and Fire happened to become morphed into one another. The result is delicious to the ears. If nothing else, I highly recommend you at least purchase the soundtrack to this game.
The most important element of Hotline Miami has to be its story and style. I'll stay vague about the story, as I don’t want to spoil its inevitable conclusion, however the overall feeling of the story is intentionally vague anyway. For the most part, the game takes place in the 1980s. You play a nameless protagonist who, from his apartment, collects phone calls that lead him to massacre people at different locations. After each mission, and as the game progresses, your life becomes more and more surreal and the fabric of reality begins to collapse.
I loved how the story was told in this game. Much like how Dark Souls forced the player to have chance encounters with NPCs who'd enlighten you with pockets of exposition about the game’s story, Hotline Miami achieves similar success in telling its story with a series of surreal fast-paced dialogues which have little to no connection with each other.
I found myself the games imagery of a chicken masked protagonist violently disemboweling his enemies very similar to the visceral and dark storytelling of David Cronenberg or Lynch. Visually, certain sequences in the game are intentionally designed like an acid trip, with the surreal nature of the dialogue and the haziness of the graphics. In some sequences, your screen becomes infested with roaches crawling rapidly across your screen – very Naked Lunch. The last thing I was expecting to find in this game was a psychological horror element; needless to say it helped turn a simple game into a much deeper experience.
Let’s face it; the gap between movies and videogames in both artistic and visual style and storytelling has become much slimmer. With the advent of larger budgets for AAA developed titles, production and promotion in both entertainment mediums shadow each other almost identically. The only new challenge in videogames has been to balance its gameplay with a unique story. I’m happy to report that Hotline Miami is a rare case of a game achieving both.
With intense gameplay forcing you to fear death around every corner, violent imagery that would make even make a Takashi Miike movie look tame and a story with both visual and written elements that hand-in-hand create one of the darkest and messed up universes to ever grace the videogame market, Hotline Miami has without a doubt achieved the developer’s vision with absolute success.
In a few words: fast, violent, arcade-like, surreal, unique, and most importantly, fun.