Throw on your favorite Halloween animal mask and go on a pixel-art killing spree in Hotline Miami, the retro-style mass murder simulator from indie developer Dennaton Games and Devolver Digital, the former Gamecock dudes now known mostly for publishing Serious Sam games.
Hotline Miami is a top-down action game built on the old school pillars of intense–sometimes unfair–challenge and combo-based high scoring. You play the role of a ruthless antihero who begins receiving strange messages on his answering machine between the months of April and July in the year 1989. Some tell him that a replacement babysitter is needed to discipline a few naughty kids, some call for pest control to exterminate an infestation of vermin, some claim to be a dating service telling him to dress up in something fancy for a hot date. Of course all of these messages are code for the protagonist to complete one very simple objective: hop in his car, travel to the provided address, and viciously massacre the armed thugs waiting inside, electronic beats thumping in the background like a deranged 80s Miami club mix. His reward afterward is a trip to the local bar, pizza shop, movie rental store or mini-mart for a free drink/pizza/VHS tape.
Your murderous player character enters the fray with nothing but a pair of fists and one of many different unlockable animal costume masks, each with a cute pet name and a bonus ability perk for the level ahead. The unicorn mask, named Peter, quiets your gun shots, while Don Juan, the horse head mask, makes kicked-in doors lethal to anyone standing behind them. The trick is to first scout out the area to form a plan of attack and then attempt to break into the target establishment and kill every living being inside (guard dogs begin to appear as the game progresses) as quickly, quietly and efficiently as possible for maximum combo satisfaction and point gainage. Rushing in head first and making a lot of noise causes enemies to swarm after you in full force, which will only make survival more difficult than it already is.
Initially, you’ll need to punch unsuspecting foes or wait for enemies to walk past doors so you can kick them open and slam whoever’s on the other side to the floor, in perfect position for you to mount and maim with bare hands or whatever weapon the white-suit-wearing mobster happened to be carrying before being knocked silly. Once armed, stringing together stylish, varied kill streaks becomes the goal, unless you don’t care about posting a high score and just want to hang onto that meat cleaver you collected after the first kill.
There’s more to pulling off combos than the attached number score and post-mission rating. When you plan out an attack and execute it to perfection, Hotline Miami is a grisly orgasm of pure guilty gaming pleasure. The satisfaction that comes from bashing down a door, kicking in the downed enemy’s head, grabbing his knife off the floor, throwing it to stab and kill the next thug at the other end of the hallway, picking up the dropped assault rifle, and then bursting into the next room to mow down the remaining gang of baddies, all within a matter of seconds, is simply indescribable.
Much of this satisfaction stems from the lightning speed at which the game plays and the sheer challenge of performing such extended kill streaks. Hotline Miami is an incredibly difficult and fast-paced game. Mistime a punch or weapon swing by only a fraction of a second or be just a hair off with your aiming, and your brains are going to be splattered across the floor before you can bat an eye. The twitchy controls also require great skill and reflex to master. Using keyboard and mouse, WASD moves while scrolling the mouse aims the targeting cursor and rotates the player character’s body at the waistline like Linda Blair’s head spin in the Exorcist. I would highly recommend an Xbox 360 controller if you own one, though, as having analog sticks is a tighter fit for the game’s twin-stick shooter control feel. Mouse and keyboard work fine too, they’re just less forgiving and require a bit more practice and patience.
With such overwhelming odds to confront, you might expect Hotline Miami to be a jumbled mess of tedium and frustration. Surprisingly, it’s not. Sure, you may die tens of times on a single level, but it all happens so quickly that you never have any time to take a breath, let alone stop to slam the controller/keyboard or grumble about the mobster you killed easily the previous time exacting sweet, bloody revenge on the retry. Instantaneous respawns bring you back to the beginning of the level (or the start of the current floor in stages with multiple floors) and while the enemy movement patterns are generally the same each time, weapon placement is completely random. So, a guard may be carrying a katana on the first try, but on the second he may be armed with a firearm. Obviously your attack strategy will need to be adjusted accordingly. Rather than feeling like you’re bashing your head against a wall of trial and error, the speed and random weapon drops keep you on your toes and force you to try something slightly different on each attempt.
One problem I repeatedly found myself up against, however, is the lack of definition and variation in the graphics. The neon-laced pixel art is great, but as bodies stack up on top of each other certain enemies who were simply knocked down and not killed will blend in with the pile of corpses. When a guy in a white suit is lying on top of another guy in the exact same white suit with a pool of blood underneath, it’s hard to tell if they’re both dead. As soon as you walk by, the one who somehow escaped death will pop back up out of nowhere and cut you down. Somewhat cheap deaths like these caused my only moments of frustration.
My only other criticism is one of polish. Since release, the game has maintained a somewhat buggy feel. At launch, I experienced a glitch that literally caused the game to run in slow motion, which is not a good thing when speed and reflexes are of utmost importance. Fortunately this common bug was patched up within a week; however other technical faults have persisted. I’ve had my character get stuck in elevators and on stairwells, unable to proceed to the next floor, thus forcing me to quit and reload the level. I’ve also experienced at least half a dozen pop-up error messages and complete game crashes. AI reactions seem to be somewhat bugged at times too as enemies will occasionally run up to you and just stand there without attacking.
Brutal both in subject matter and difficulty, Hotline Miami is not a game for the faint of heart. Even though it’s presented in a sprite-based graphical style that would fit right at home on a Nintendo gaming console or arcade system from the era of big hair and acid washed jeans, the extreme level of gore and violence is bound to make certain folks a bit squeamish, especially in these sensitive times in the wake of recent mass murder tragedies. (Seriously, I’m surprised the NRA chief didn’t call this game out in his clueless rant against violent video games a few weeks back.) This is not comical violence either. Throats get slit, heads get bashed in with pipes and baseball bats, brains get splattered on walls from well-aimed pistol shots, limbs get lopped off, intestines spill out of cut-open bellies, and bodies pile up in mangled masses that often cover the entire playing space with icky red stuff. It’s pixelated gore sure, but the imagery is no less gruesome or disturbing. Even the main character drops to his knees and pukes his guts out after his first mission.
If you’re up for the challenge and can stomach the blood bath, Hotline Miami’s 20 missions will treat you to four to five hours of the finest skill-based action gaming in recent memory, performance grades and unlockable weapons and animal masks providing more than enough incentive to kill, kill, and kill some more after the credits roll.
+ Rewarding skill- and combo-based action
+ Pulls no punches in difficulty or violence
+ Retro graphics and soundtrack perfectly match the 80s Miami vibe
+ Lightning-fast gameplay speed and instantaneous respawns set an exhilarating pace
- Same-looking enemies tend to blend in with each other as the body count stacks up
- Could use a little more polish and bug fixing
- Twitchy controls take getting used to
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Dennaton Games
Release Date: 10/23/2012
Source: Review code provided by publisher