Catharsis. It’s the general theme of Hotline Miami, in both plot and player. Grabbing some faceless Russian mobster, slitting his throat and watching the crude, pixelated spray of blood shoot across the carpet got me one step closer to revenge, but also assuaged an intense personal frustration. Hotline Miami is a broken mess of a game. It feels so shoddy at times I couldn’t help but lose my generally calm demeanor. But when I kicked down a door, knocking the thug behind it on the ground, threw a bat at the guy across the room, then continued to bash both of their heads into the ground, the game redeemed itself. Call me a sick bastard, but when the game worked, it felt so right.
Hotline Miami opens loud and never turns the volume down. It’s glitzy title menu with distorting neon colors, chilled music, befuddling Cyrillic lettering, and floating palm trees, sets the mood for a retro 80’s aesthetic that I think only ever existed in people’s minds. And if it did exist 23 years ago, it’s become pastiche here. It works well to create a decidedly seedy mood, as if the game was made in the gloomy basement of a not so respectable nightclub.
It starts by throwing you into a dark room and introducing three characters wearing animal masks spouting vague lines about not much. The plot in Hotline Miami skirts around the edges of the rest of the game. Lines are dropped here and there suggesting a revenge tale, and other moments have completely different implications. Reality begins to bend and tear as the game progress, and hallucinations litter clubs and stores, tossing out any idea you had about what’s really happening Time is thrown around as if it’s significant. Reasons for anything are completely off the radar, and who you are doesn’t matter. Orders are given to you via phone messages in what could be code, but it’s never certain. Whatever messages are left on the answering machine, the real objective is all about cold killing.
At first glance Hotline Miami could be seen as a fast-paced, run and gun, beat-em-up killing simulator. Trying such tactics will get you murdered quickly. Hotline Miami requires a more thoughtful approach to its killing simulation. The game is simplistic in terms of mechanics, and there aren’t too many options in how to do the deed, but it’s all about the approach and the surprise attack. Most of the time, you are going to die, but it’s not always because your plan is flawed, the execution is. It takes careful planning, observation, timing and brash audacity to clear out a floor effectively. You start creating steps for yourself and an order for each floor, always adjusting and adapting as best as possible. Then, when it all takes shape, the wave of sleek death and quick destruction crashes down hard.
This is of course, when the game doesn’t bug out in one way or another. Missing enemies completely at point blank range is a fatally common occurrence. Doors going through enemies instead of knocking them down, thrown objects going through enemies or just flying frustratingly off course, and bullets not hitting because a door is slightly ajar, are only a few of the minor quirks that can destroy carefully laid plans. I will usually admit to my own mistakes when getting killed, but there were too many times where it didn’t feel like my fault at all. I’ve seen an enemy occupy the same space as another, making two thugs look like one, leading to one enemy dying and the other appearing suddenly to cut me down. I’ve seen enemies occupy the same space as me, taking away my ability to actually hit them. I’ve seen the floor disappear, the game erratically flash to blackness, and pop-up screens that inform me that an error has occurred and lock up the game. Hotline Miami isn’t completely broken, there are just a number of missteps that can turn excitement into pure frustration.
Then there is the difficulty, which is a blessing and curse. Enemies are no joke. They can turn around and knock your head off before you even comprehend what happened. They almost never miss when they have a gun. They hear gunshots perfectly and all will rush you when the shooting starts. But worst of all, they can be unpredictable. Sometimes they will walk through a door they never walked through the ten times you’ve tried the level. Other times, the guy that usually has a pipe, now has a shotgun. These enemies shake up the trial and error of levels, but not in a good way, as it’s more beneficial to start the level over to retain the normal enemy layout. There were times when I would get a good rhythm going only to be thrown off the singular instance a thug popped out of his normal routine. It felt so unnatural and random getting shot from an enemy that had never been there before.
The thing is, when Hotline Miami works, it’s fucking awesome. The chapters that amount to killing-puzzles take a few tries at first, but getting a flow is satisfying. There is a point when all of the frustration and anger of the game not working, feeds into a rage filled stream of death and everything pops off just perfectly. Setting it up so that you hit the right thug first, grab the right weapon next and kill everyone in a stylish and disgusting manner is a great feeling. It helps that the soundtrack is incredible; that driving, beat heavy, synth layered, high tension, distortion thick soundtrack is the fuel for the game’s fire. Waiting on one side of a door while the music is playing loud and you’re waiting for that time to strike, getting the rare moment when the music and your actions sync, creates an exhilarating filmic quality of violence.
The visuals are a great not-quite-Commodore 64 style and it’s eerie to see so much gore in such a quaint and basic aesthetic, as if a children’s game went sadistic. The look is pure bright, flashing lights and vivid colors. It’s a minimalistic world with a maximalistic vibe. The violence is over-the-top but keeps to the adage that the mind will create more disturbing images. When you see hands go towards a man’s eyes and blood shoots into all directions, you can imagine the aftermath, even if what you see is a few red pixels. Moments like seeing a bloody thug crudely crawl for his life in a weird sliding animation give a strange disconnect, but snapping his neck will clear that right up.
It’s possible to get some decent mileage out of Hotline Miami, even though my first playthrough of the game took me around four hours, and could change from player to player depending on how later levels treat you. There are plenty of hidden masks of various animals that can drastically change how a level is played. Some masks give you basic bonus like walking faster, or allow for more combos. Others are a little specific, such as making the entire level dark, or translating the game into french. A few are completely overpowered, including one that makes all gunshots silent. They’re interesting to try out and see how they fare in missions, depending on what effect they give.
The game also scores you on each chapter, so hi-score buffs can try for an A+ to pad out that value. I doubt you’ll make it too far though, as one of the traits it scores you on is either broken or is insanely difficult to attain. I got nothing more than 0 points in “Flexibility” in my three playthroughs. Maybe one day, someone will figure out what it is.
Hotline Miami is a candy coated thrill ride of death, murder and style. It’s gruesome, flashy, visceral, broken, but in the end it’s bloody catharsis. It’s a game that can frustrate the hell out of you, but the payoff is worth it.