Snack of the Year
Hotline Miami is a top-down puzzle-shooter with very strong visual character and a deadly soundtrack of finely curated deep and dark electronic beats. The super colourful and lovingly animated bit-styled graphics elevate it outside the range of most retro-inspired games. This is a fresh, invigorating game, through and through. I was no where near Miami in 1989, but I'm damn sure it was just like this.
Playing Hotline can mostly be described as a long series of failures with lightning bolts of euphoric success peppered throughout. Levels are short and rarely made up of more than three stages, or checkpoints. But between you and that checkpoint are a whole bunch of bald dudes who want nothing more than to gut you, bash the purple out of your skull or have their dog gnash your throat out. You will in turn visit the same fate upon them.
What this means, practically, is that you will run down halls the WASD way, orbit with the mouse (which takes some getting used to) and left click the mouse to attack, right click to throw (er, attack again). Depending on the weapon in your hand (none, knife, bat, katana, shotgun, etc.) you'll either kill the bastard outright or TKO him. If the latter, hitting spacebar finishes them by popping their head between the wall and your foot or pounding the floor with their face until it's gone. Though many levels can be beat in less than a minute, you’ll probably die upwards of 30, 40 times on most before finally getting through.
The puzzle element comes in to play as Hotline is an everything-is-a-one-shot-one-kill game. Your success is dependent on memorizing NPC routes and knowing how to counter their weapons and abilities with your own, and more often than not, striking first. Abilities come from the various masks you unlock throughout the game (one for each main level plus some bonus ones). Most are practical, like Tony the Tiger (punches and finishing moves are instant kills), and some are just for laughs, like Phil the Fish (translates the game text to French). A small number of masks are basically irrelevant, which is a real shame. There are two masks for walking fast, one of which is just faster than the other, and there are also two masks which claim to let you survive one or two bullets. Yeah, good luck with that one.
You may run into minor frustrations as you can't change your mask when you die, you instead have to exit the stage and return. It would've been nice if you could hit M for Mask instead of R for Restart, and lose the perk after the first stage of the level. There's something to be said about being forced to stick with your mask, but, especially when you restart the game to hi-score the levels and unlock more weapons, you'll wish you didn't have to go all the way back through the menus.
In the short time since its release Hotline Miami has already become a magnet for video game philosophers. Talk about extreme violence and shotgun blasts to the face are more and more common these days and when such a caricaturized example that, lo and behold, is self-aware, comes along, well, you know the rest. Hotline isn't actually this super smart essay on violence. It is smartly written though, and it’s partly the tone of the game that keeps the violence, while still appaling, cartoonish and hilarious. The questions and supposed mysteries the game presents you with aren't deep, they're clever and tongue-in-cheek. More important than that, and the most brilliant thing about Hotline's narrative, is the subtlety.
Hotline presents itself at the start as a mystery, your character interrogated by three masked figures in a dream. From the protagonist's first throw-up after a random kill in an alley to his lonesome cigarette after the death of his last foe, Hotline Miami traces a subtle arc for our hero, one littered with nightmarish visions and even more nightmarish days. The girlfriend character is quietly introduced and developed very slowly, without a word, from mission to mission. Watch the apartment after she moves in and you'll see gradual changes: pizza boxes disappear, table cloths and flowers cover the tables, and the two beds, for a long time separated by a lamp, are pulled together. This level of subtle narrative is present throughout much of the game. You might say it's detail obsessed.
I recommend this game to anyone who has ten dollars to spare. It’s a full body experience, a real nerves to nuts lean-in with addictive gameplay and a great story.