The feeble description of Hotline Miami as a top-down action game is reductive, but that’s all Hotline Miami seems to be – until you pass through the tutorial. Soon afterwards, your character listens to a cryptic phone message in his crummy apartment and, a quick drive later, dons a rubber chicken mask in front of a building full of Russian mobsters. The thick thumping syrup of Hotline Miami’s soundtrack starts to swell, grinding chiptunes and techno into a crunching audio track that raises your adrenaline and neck hairs as you wonder if the song is better fit for a drug trip or a club. You bust through the front door, slamming the first mobster’s head on the floor with your bare hands. Two more come at you – one with a shotgun and one with a leadpipe – before you toss the bat of your first kill at the gunner, knocking him down, leaving you free to disarm the pipe hitter while you press in the eyes of his downed comrade. Crimson stains the floor as he writhes. There. Now you have a better idea of what Hotline Miami is, but there’s more.
It’s also worth mentioning that the brutal and laser precise action above likely comes after a series of your nameless hero’s very quick deaths at the hands of faceless mobsters that shoot with pinpoint accuracy and can hear gunshots from rooms away, providing you don’t get lucky and witness the AI ignoring all the racket. Hotline Miami is a game that rewards planning, quick-thinking, and good reflexes. The game may only last a half a dozen hours or less on your first run-through, but that all depends on how well you satisfy all of the previously mentioned demands the game has. Thankfully, checkpoints and load times are generous enough that you can experiment and mess up as often as you want without it feeling very frustrating. There is also a helpful lock on feature that’ll track an enemy if your crosshair is close enough, as well as controller support. Unfortunately, the latter wasn’t functional the time of the review according to what developer Devolver Digital said was a conflict with Steamworks.
Different types of masks are unlocked by scoring well in missions or by finding them. These change up the combat and encourage further experimentation in meaningful ways. Wearing a horse mask makes opening a door kill anyone on the other side if they’re in the path of its swinging bulk. A unicorn mask that I unlocked later in the game made my gunshots silent, shifting my focus from high-scoring melee attacks to the safer alternative of shooting and throwing guns. After completing the game, I still had four or five masks to unlock, encouraging a bit of replayability.
Without me spoiling too much by saying so, the story also encourages replayability. Bits and pieces about the main character’s life, personality, and state of mind are filled out between missions. Sometimes it’ll be noticing differences in your apartment each time you wake up and listen to a new phone message. Other times, it’ll be a quick chat with a chummy cashier on your way to pick up a pizza after a job – again, all layered with music that fits the mood as perfectly as it does during the pulse-quickening missions. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything about story beats, so I’ll just say that all of the brutality and violence in the game isn’t for nothing; things aren’t what they seem in Hotline Miami, and the conclusion when the game rolls credits is one to be pleasantly surprised by.
Almost everything about Hotline Miami, from its soundtrack, color palette, and atmosphere to its brutally tough and graphic action, are in service to a design that puts entertainment on equal grounds with a small but engrossing plot. Still it has its problems. The game crashed about half a dozen times while I was playing it. Controller support at the game’s launch would have helped even out the learning curve. Also, the game has a serious problem when being played on one monitor in a dual monitor setup, as moving the cursor too far to one side sends it right out of the game altogether, as if Hotline Miami was being played in windowed mode. I realize that last grievance puts me in the minority, but it’s something I haven’t experienced in any other PC game I can recall.
Even with those technical issues holding it back, Hotline Miami is still a must play for any fan of action games and one of the biggest surprises in gaming that I’ve witnessed this year.