Hotline Miami is the newest title to set the world of indie gaming ablaze. For those of you who have missed out on all the buzz, let me fill you in. Hotline Miami is the first title produced by Dennaton Games, a development house comprised of Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin of Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf fame.
Hotline Miami is a retro, 2D, ultra violent, top-down action game. The player takes on the role of a nameless character, dubbed jacket by the community because of his prominent yellow letter-man’s jacket. Jacket keeps receiving strange messages on his answering machine (the game does take place in 1989 after all), from all sorts of crazy callers; things like babysitter requests or dating hotlines.
The one thing these calls have in common is they give a time and a place that Jacket needs to be at. As you play the game, you’ll quickly figure out that these messages are hits being given to Jacket.
The game plays out with each level being broken into three parts. The first part I’ve described above, Jacket sits in his apartment and receives a message. The second part is where the actual gameplay comes about. You’ll arrive at the location mentioned, put on an mask, and kill everyone in the building. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. The real crux of Hotline Miami is that everyone, including you, is easily killed. One hit and you’re down for the count. The enemies are also pretty fast, making sure you have to plan out your moves before you rush in.
The third part of each level involves Jacket doing mundane things. Things like picking up a pizza or renting a movie. These little clips of Jacket’s life serve as a source for background information and story development. There’s quite a lot to say about the story, and I’ll touch on it later on in the review.
As I mentioned above, Hotline Miami is an ultra violent game. Expect to do awful things like bashing in skulls with a baseball bat or breaking a bottle over a guys head only to stab him in the neck with the broken pieces. Think of executions from Manhunt except done with Super Nintendo graphics and you’ll have an idea of what I mean.
While it may be a different genre, I found that the game most similar to Hotline Miami is Super Meat Boy. Much like SMB, Hotline Miami is all about learning from repetition. You’ll be constantly dying as you hone your skills, but that’s the way the game is suppose to work. As soon as you die, you just hit R and restart the level with no wait.
This constant repetition forces you to choreograph an intricate fight scene. Kick in the door, jump a guy, take his lead pipe, finish him off with it, kick open another door, smash a guy in the face, throw your pipe across the room at a guy with the gun, pick up the gun, use the guy you just knocked out as a human shield as you take on the swarm of mobsters in the next room. It’s almost like playing an instrument. You start getting a feel for timing and control. By the end of the game you’ll be a master at improvising beautifully gory compositions.
The repetitive nature of the game is also enhanced by the absolutely stellar soundtrack. Pulsing 80′s synth-pop beats help fuel your rampage through each level. Featuring tracks from artists like Jasper Byrne, Sun Araw, and M.O.O.N., the sound track alone is worth the $10 price. It’s so easy to get lost in the music, there would be nights where I’d stay up till the wee hours of the morning because the music and gameplay had mesmerized me.
One of the most interesting aspects of Hotline Miami is the story. The game starts out with a surreal, scene where the player wakes up in a dark room. A man “teaches” you how to kill using captive mobsters as test dummies. Once you pass the tutorial you find yourself in a dark, dirty apartment with three people in animal masks. In an almost David Lynch-like fashion, you’re only given fringe elements of the story and are expected to fill in the rest with your own interpretations. After the meeting with the masked people, Jacket wakes up in his apartment to find he has a message on his answering machine. From here you know the score.
What makes the game so compelling is that you’re never really given the full story. There are very few outright story elements to the game. Your only information comes from newspaper clippings found around your apartment detailing the massacres you’ve orchestrated and the short vignettes at the end of every level. In these post-level sections, you control Jacket as he does mundane things; visits a convent store, picks up a movie or a pizza, etc. What’s strange is that the same guy works at all these places, but reacts to you in different ways.
Sometimes you’re his best friend and he’s hooking you up with a free snack. Other times he treats you like you’re meeting him for the first time. As the game goes on, these little vignettes take on a bizarre tone. Jacket will start to see the bodies of his victims all over the place. You’ll walk into a restaurant and see a guy whose head you just bashed in a few minutes ago. These delusions imply that Jacket is crazy, or at least an unreliable narrator. Without spoiling anything, expect to see some crazy plot twists that still have me scratching my head wondering what exactly happened.
I should also say that there is a secret ending unlocked by finding hidden puzzle pieces on most levels. That said, the secret ending is ultimately more unsatisfying than the normal one, but I’ll leave those discussions to the message boards as to not spoil anything for you.
My one issue with Hotline Miami is that the game is really short. You could power through it in under an hour if you really tried, but you’d be missing out on so much that it’s really not worth it. After your first playthrough there are plenty of unlocks to achieve. There are the standard weapon unlocks and achievements, but where Hotline gets a little different is the mask unlocks. You see, one of the main aspects of Hotline is Jacket’s mask. You’ll start the game with a chicken mask (as seen on the cover art) which doesn’t offer any bonuses. As you get high scores or find hidden locations on different levels, you’ll unlock new masks.
These masks give Jacket some buffs. Things like easier to spot secrets, longer combo timer, the ability to take a bullet and not die, etc. There are also some really strange ones that do things like translate the entire game into French or reverse your controls. Ultimately all the unlocks will keep you trying levels over and over again so you can get that illusive high score.
I’ve been playing Hotline Miami for a solid two weeks and don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. Sure I may have unlocked all the content in five hours, but the achievements, high scores, and general badass feeling I get from playing the game will keep me coming back for more.
Also the developers have promised additional story focused DLC. In fact just a week after I picked up the game, Dennaton Games patched Hotline, adding controller support as well as extra level. If you’re worried about getting your $10 worth of gameplay out of Hotline, don’t be. I would have paid at least twice the price for the game as is. With the promise of more levels, I can’t see anyone being upset about the value of the game.
This review is based on a digital copy of Hotline Miami for PC.