You step out of your car, your face shrouded beneath the rubbery latex of an animalistic mask, warm and sticky. You crane your neck backwards and gaze up at the multi-storey building standing in front of you. Each floor is packed with a crowd of violent, murderous criminals, and you’ve been hired to kill every single one of them. You take a deep breath and pause in the humid silence for a moment, before smashing open the front door with a thick wallop of your boot. The impact knocks a guard stationed on the other side out onto the floor, his silenced pistol flying from his grasp, sliding across the tiles. You scramble for his weapon and wrench him up off the ground, taking him as a human shield just as a group of his comrades pile into the atrium, all of them wielding knives, pipes and baseball bats. You quickly snuff them out one by one, in frantic, silent squeezes of the trigger as they funnel into the corridor before you. The hallway is bathed in blood, but nobody else has appeared to notice the commotion. You break your hostage’s neck in one powerful, fluid motion and skulk deeper into the fortress.
This is Hotline Miami, a top-down arcade action game, slathered in a retro aesthetic and portrayed in a pseudo 8-bit style. Set in the 1980s, the game features a palette of garish pinks, gaudy greens and bright blues that leap off the screen, distilled straight from the pop culture of the era. Silhouetted palm-trees arc against a background of pastel hues, shag carpets cover the floors of apartments and condos, and your car is a retro-futuristic model with gull-wing doors. The protagonist visits VHS rental shops and dance clubs with neon lighting during his downtime between jobs. Environments are nicely detailed and decorated, despite being viewed from a top-down perspective, and they even change appearance in subtle ways on repeat visits. A CRT-esque filter is laid over the proceedings, complete with darkened edges and faint scanlines, invoking the dated media of the era. Another touch to your view of the world is present in the simple movement of your viewpoint: it subtly sways about in a slightly unsettling motion, giving the entire game a kind of feverish, hazy atmosphere.
This odd ambience is also reflected in the characters you meet and speak with, ranging from characters wearing masks (including yourself), to wild-eyed hobos and policemen. The story is somewhat ambiguous, and open to a significant degree of interpretation, and only grows more and more bizarre and unhinged the further you progress. You receive your assassination orders from mysterious phone calls, briefing you of the details of the job under the coded guise of invitations to dates, or offers of babysitting. The overall aesthetic of the game feels somewhat kitschy at times, almost channelling the adolescent spirit of amateur flash games found in dark corners of the internet, but deliberately so, keeping in theme with the dated presentation of media back in the day, as well as its trends and fashions.
Style isn’t the only thing Hotline Miami drips with though, as every level is invariably soaked with the blood of your victims by the time you’re doing playing through them. This is ultraviolence in the extreme – enemies spray copious amounts of claret upon death, heads burst apart like swollen watermelons from the impact of a blunt pipe, or the wild blast of a combat shotgun. Walking through a door causes you to belt it open, knocking down anyone unfortunate enough to be on the other side. Whilst downed, enemies are left vulnerable to brutal finishing moves, ranging from a vicious boot to the face, all the way up to having their head torn apart by a power-drill.
Everybody in this game is fragile – including you. A single hit is generally all it takes to kill a character, and this rule applies as readily to the player as it does to your enemies. Death is never far away, and swiftly punishes any of your blunders. However, the game offsets any potential frustration generated by this by allowing you to respawn near instantaneously upon failure. In fact, this vulnerability plays to the game’s advantage – player movement is brisk, and you refine your approach after each failed attempt until you reach the point at which you confidently breeze through room after room of assailant like some kind of hyper-charged grim reaper, smoothly flowing from one enemy to the next, rapidly switching weapons to suit the situation at hand. The fact that you could be downed at any moment by a single blow only adds to the feeling of power and mastery over the systems in play.
Gameplay is not far removed from the combat of the classic Grand Theft Auto games, or Smash TV; fast-paced, simplistic, but wholly engaging, the game extracts plenty of mileage from a small set of mechanics. The ability to throw your weapon, for instance, opens up numerous different ways to tackle a given situation, as enemies are knocked to the ground by thrown objects, taking them out of play for a precious few seconds, and leaving them open to a gruesome execution. The player has access to a broad range of weapons too, ranging from fire axes and meat cleavers, to fully automatic machine guns. Melee weapons lack the range and power of the firearms, but allow for discretion and completely silent kills; firing an unsilenced gun, on the other hand, alerts nearby enemies, causing them to quickly swamp your position. Enemy AI is generally quite shallow and easily manipulated, but this never acts to the games detriment – your own vulnerability and the sheer number of foes you face more than provides an engaging level of difficulty. Checkpointing is fair and consistent, the only frustration coming from having to sit through a few short lines of dialogue every time you perish while fighting the sporadic and mostly enjoyable bosses.
Hotline Miami has a highly unique atmosphere which is generated by numerous disparate elements of the game coming together and informing one another. For instance, the game features a combo system whereby extra points are awarded if the player can string together kills in quick succession, in addition to a timer that rewards clearing the level in a short amount of time. As a result, you’re encouraged to slaughter your enemies as quickly as possible, one after the other, causing you to slip into an almost visceral state where you’re being driven nearly exclusively by instinct and reflex. It’s only after the level has been completed that you can gain a bit of lucidity and take in the sheer amount of bloodshed you have created – this is the kind of touch that facilitates moments where you turn around, take it all in and think: “Woah. I did this.” The soundtrack generates a lot of this mood, as the heavy, up-tempo music you typically hear during gameplay gives way to a minimalistic, distant drone, setting a genuinely disquieting tone as you make your way back through the corpse-littered halls to your car outside. The game then abruptly undergoes another shift in tone upon reaching your vehicle, as it tallies the score of your grisly deeds in typical arcade fashion to a laid-back, upbeat track. As a result, the game goes from making you pensively examine the horrible shit you’ve just committed to trivialising it almost immediately afterward, creating a bizarre, uncomfortable ambience. Before you begin each mission, you’re also made select a certain type of animal mask with its own gameplay-changing effect – for instance, choosing to wear a horse mask causes your door bashes to become lethal one-hit kills, while wearing a wolf mask allows you to start the level with a knife in hand, instead of being completely unarmed. It’s a nice feature that adds a bit of depth to the gameplay, and it’s also somewhat fitting that these masks depict animals, considering the primal, animalistic violence you take part in throughout the game.
The game’s fantastic soundtrack has been composed by a wide range of artists (among them Jasper Byrne, creator of Lone Survivor), and is very eclectic in style, ranging from abrasive, pumping techno to chilled jazz, all the while channelling a distinctly ‘80s vibe. The soundtrack is key in the creation of the game’s atmosphere, and easily accommodates the varied scenarios the game portrays, from the relaxed setting of a pizza joint, to the adrenaline pumping thrill of assaulting a police station.
Hotline Miami is an extremely idiosyncratic game – trust me when I say that there’s nothing else quite like it out there. Many will be tempted to compare it to the film Drive, and it does indeed draw many parallels with the movie: the use of extreme violence, the use of masks, an 80’s theme, a quiet protagonist, even some elements of the soundtrack. However, unlike Drive, Hotline Miami exhibits a distinctly strange, almost hallucinogenic atmosphere, that gets progressively weirder as the game goes on, and the title certainly does more than enough throughout the experience to stand apart on its own. Everything in the game is so finely tuned to create a particular feeling and mood; all of the elements mesh together in their own odd, individual way. The retro gameplay and 8-bit appearance of the title slot perfectly into the 1980s era the game depicts. Hotline Miami has a brisk, fluid pace that constantly pulls you forward, and you may find yourself completing it in a single sitting, considering it’s only a few hours long. I certainly wouldn’t say that the (relatively) short play time is a knock against it however, and you’ll certainly not play a title anything like this for quite some time to come. Highly recommended.