Imagine for a moment, if you would, a world where viciously brutal mass-murders were regular and everyday occurrences Hypnotic music and tantalizing personalities surrounded you everywhere you went and you could barely remember the order of days, let alone what specifically happened during those days. In this world, the more you kill, the more the pieces start to come together in the end. Now, imagine that world transported into an 8-bit stylized environment and put onto a PC for everyone to enjoy. This is the basic premise of Hotline Miami and it succeeds in delivering one of the most simplistically wonderful (at first) games I’ve played in quite some time. The more you play, however, the deeper the narrative gets and its true layers start to unfold.
The campaign itself in Hotline Miami isn’t exactly long, but its deep in the sense of what the narrative accomplishes in such a short timeframe. Basically, you play as a guy who received mysteriously cryptic and anonymous phone calls with locations for different tasks. The person on the phone will ask you to “go babysit and take care of the kids,” or tell you to “make a special delivery.” Regardless of what the person on the phone requests, most missions basically boil down to one thing: slaughter everyone there. The entire game takes place from a top-down perspective and consists of overly simplistic 8-bit stylized graphics. Sounds simple enough, right? Well it is and it isn’t. There are a few nice little variations they’ve thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.
For starters, as you play through the game and explore the mission areas, you locate different masks with animal heads. Each masks grants you a specific ability or bonus. Some examples include finding more of a certain type of weapon in a level, doing more melee damage, finding more secrets, etc. Once you are in a mission area, you’ll come across randomized (based off of what you have seen/unlocked so far) weapons throughout the levels and on enemies themselves. Weapons you can come across include shotguns, pistols, assault rifles, baseball bats, knifes and so much more; there really is a huge variety of tools to use in the craft of murder. Levels in Hotline Miami are also designed like mini puzzle games in and of themselves with NPCs patrolling hallways in different patterns which encourages a mixture of memorization and timing along with aggressive precision in combat. You can beat the game in just a few short answers, but most of the missions can be easily replayed time and time again to increase your score, which is quite addicting.
The great thing about Hotline Miami is the dichotomy between the simplistic gameplay and retro-style graphics and music, along with the mature subject matter and gory visuals. You might think to yourself, “How can a game that looks like it first released on the NES be considered “gory” in today’s gaming market?” Simple: it’s the atmosphere. The music alone is incredibly effective at setting the mood for the game, which is only amplified by what happens when you kill an enemy. Since the game takes place from a top-down view, while the NPCs are walking around they just look like ants. All you see their head moving around the map, so it’s fairly dehumanizing. Once you attack and enemy and force him onto the ground, however, the story is very different.
Now you seem them sprawled across the floor, crawling in agony, or gushing with blood. In many instances, you have to climb on top of them and forcefully finish them off with your bare hands. These concepts are graphic in and of themselves, so combining that with the seemingly simplistic visuals is an extremely charged and jarring experience.
On its face, Hotline Miami is a relatively shallow experience. It may not have dozens of hours of content and 10 prestige levels in multiplayer, but it offers a unique narrative wrapped around engaging and addictive gameplay set in an immersive and brutally charged world. Hotline Miami is more or less a textbook example of how to make a small indie game. Charge small amount of money as the entry fee ($10) and craft a unique experience that simply would not work if it were in a “bigger budget title.” Easily recommended if you’re after something fresh.
Let us know what you think of the game and this review in the comments below. Also, be sure to check out the soundtrack for the game over on Soundcloud; it’s definitely worth a listen.
This review was based on a retail download copy of the game for the PC provided by Devolver Digital.