Hotline Miami Review

November 6, 2012

/ by Tin Salamunic

Developer(s): Dennaton Games
Publisher(s): Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PC
Review Platform: PC
Release Date: October 23, 2012

Hotline Miami wants to remind gamers that murder is bad. And it wants to do so by putting you in the shoes of an unhinged psychopath, butchering a street gang. Everything about the game is unsettling, from its grating musical score, to the throbbing, hyper-saturated, colors in every level. With every execution an unforgiving bloodbath, perhaps the most unnerving thing about Hotline Miami is how fun it is.
  • Addictive gameplay
  • Up-tempo music keeps you on your toes
  • Tons of unlockable masks
  • More weapons than you can shake a samurai sword at
  • Repetitive
  • Some mechanics don’t work as intended (see ‘meatshield’)
  • Boss fights break the mechanics that make the game so addictive
  • Enemy AI leaves much to be desire 
Controls in Hotline are simple: Left-click to attack, right-click to interact with objects and/or throw your weapon. If you hold down the right mouse button, you can set your weapon down, instead of throwing it. Pressing the spacebar near a downed enemy will perform a gory execution, but pressing it close to a standing enemy will grab them for use as a meatshield (unless of course the game fails to recognize this and nothing happens at all, as was often the case). You walk with WASD and aim with the mouse, coating the entire game in a Smash TV varnish. While the controls are basic, the gameplay is deep.

Each chapter consists of multiple stages, which you must complete to progress through the story. If you die, you have to start all over at the beginning of the stage. Expect death to come early and often, as it only takes one hit to kill you. Luckily, the same goes for your targets. One swing of a bat to their head and they’re out. Likely spraying blood all over the floor.

The game cautions you against using guns due to how loud they are. Supposedly, firing a weapon will alert other people in the room, but this only works about half the time, and usually in unexpected ways. In a particularly difficult room, I opted to grab a shotgun and blast two targets. Several goons burst into the room from down the hall, spraying my brains across the wall. Strangely, the guy one room over stayed right where he was, oblivious to all the noise. Other times, I would shoot someone and no one would react. Apparently some gangbangers like to listen to their iPods on full blast while they patrol seedy motels.

The depth of Hotline Miami’s gameplay comes from how you decide to handle each individual room in any given stage. Kicking open a door with an enemy on the other side will knock the guy down, allowing for a bloody execution, but rarely is there ever just one guy. You could kick open the door, down the first enemy, and then chuck your cue stick at the dude in the corner, but that will only give you enough time to execute one of them. I chose to knock down the first guy, grab his shotgun, blast the thug in the corner and then execute the downed guard. Or I would have if the gunfire hadn’t alerted an attack dog down the hall, who ripped my throat out. The next time around, I made sure to take out the dog beforehand.
You complete stages by killing everyone in the building. While you are attacking street toughs armed to the teeth with illegal weapons, there’s still something horribly wrong with Hotline’s protagonist. For one, he likes to wear rubber animal masks. Animal masks with names. Each of these masks changes the gameplay up in fun ways. For instance, the horse mask - Don Juan - makes it so that anyone you hit when kicking open a door is killed, rather than downed. It’s a small change, but it can drastically affect how you clear the stage.

When the game starts, you’re under the impression that the protagonist is something of a hired gun. Okay, he dreams about masked people talking to him in cryptic fashions, but he’s still leashed to something. Maybe he does it for money. Maybe he does it for respect. Maybe the people calling to give him his mission at the start of each chapter have his family held captive. As you progress through pulsing, dirty, motels and sleepless nights of merciless carnage you begin to doubt the protagonist, and more so, you begin to doubt yourself. The game is gory, and moody, and absolutely mental, and the more I enjoyed it the more I found myself wanting to take a shower.

Under the hood, Hotline Miami is very old school. You are trying to complete each stage with the highest score possible, unlocking treats and getting graded on things like how many combos you pulled off. While some people will say that it’s a heartless gorefest aiming for shock value, I think that Hotline is trying to say something. All the vibrant, shifting, colors and the unsettling screech of the music really serve to put you in the shoes of a sociopath. What’s more, the old school gameplay works as commentary on gaming as a medium and the crazy amount of violence we as gamers not only ignore, but seem to crave.

Gritty, mature, themes aside, the game is undeniably fun. There are a ton of weapons and masks to unlock, fifteen stages to play through, each with randomized weapon drops and enemy spawns,  and high scores to aim for. I ran across a few bugs, but nothing that took away from my enjoyment of the game. Gamers looking for an arcadey challenge will enjoy Hotline Miami’s unforgiving difficulty and repetition. The rest of us might want to avoid the uncomfortable commentary on violence in today’s media.

Final Score “Uncomfortably Fun” 7.0
Hotline Miami is pretty, without trying too hard. The game is colorful and it certainly knows how to make 2D gore look as unpleasant as possible, but I found killing the same bald white guy in a white suit jacket over and over a little repetitive. Not to mention the constantly pulsing colors and twisting levels gave me a headache.
The game was fun in that way only arcade titles can be. Even though each death starts you over at the beginning, I found myself enjoying each replay. Weapon drops are randomized each time you respawn, making each playthrough a new experience.
While I found no reason to go back and play the game a second time, I can see how it might be something the more high-score-minded gamers might enjoy. There are a ton of unlockables to shake up the gameplay and some people just love trying to one-up themselves. The changing weapon and enemy locations give Hotline a slightly longer shelf life.
Let me start by saying that Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is spot on. It does everything it should. Unfortunately, what it is accomplishing here is making you feel like your sanity is dribbling out your ear. There’s a lot to be said for how well a game’s soundtrack sets its mood, but you can only have earsplitting screeches coming through your headphones so often before you want to actually murder someone. And that’s not exactly a good thing.

Review by Jeff Ellis

I'm a freelance writer and game reviewer with a year's experience working in the game industry. I've been playing games longer than I've been able to read. In fact, I learned how to read by watching my brother play JRPGs on our Nintendo. I also learned geography from Uncharted Waters: New Horizons. Facts that I probably shouldn't be proud of, but I am. You can read more of my writing over at First Word Problems and keep updated on the site and me via Twitter @1stwordproblems. All Articles by Jeff. 
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  1. This looks insane.

  2. It is. Very much so, haha.

  3. I actually wish it had updated graphics. I feel like the nostalgia would have translated just as well. Still a great game.


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