Hotline Miami was developed by Dennaton Games and published by Devolver Digital, A Steam copy was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
Remember that scene in Drive where Ryan Gosling walked into a room and hammered someone’s hand? Or when he stabbed someone after Christina Hendricks got a shotgun shell to the head?
Hotline Miami has that same feeling: Unsettling but necessary murder. To the point where you don’t even know if it feels right.
Dennaton Games’ first commercial release has been blowing up the indie scene. The first appearance was at the European gaming event Rezzed, and later on won the Most Fantastic Game at Fantastic Fest in Texas. You might think it’s strange for an indie game to be centered around killing people, but underneath that core sits an interesting commentary on violence.
You play as an unknown protagonist who keeps getting messages on his answering machine. He must go to a certain areas in the city – armed with his wits and an animal mask – and kill everything in the room. Much like a ‘cleaner’ who makes the bad things disappear.
At first glance, you’ll think it looks like an older Grand Theft Auto title, but it’s far from it. It retains the classic over-the-top perspective, but the gameplay isn’t sprawling. As you first enter the room, you’ll notice guards all over the place. How you kill them is entirely up to you.
The first guard might start out with a knife or a crowbar. Using the door behind him will knock him out, leading you to pick up the crowbar and bash his head into a bloody pulp. But the other guard notices with his shotgun; do you throw the crowbar to knock him out and take his gun, or do you hide until he goes around the corner to kill him?
There’s a lot of choice and variety in how you take out enemies in this game. Using certain masks will lead to different abilities. The horse mask, for example, will kill people when you swing doors, while the unicorn will silence guns. Whatever mask you use in a certain situation will help your play style.
The more people you kill in a row, the better combo you’ll have. This isn’t a stealth game about waiting around. As one of the tips says in the game, recklessness is rewarded – so it’s your duty to go in and get the job done with no fuss. But the mess of blood and brains all over the area will stay.
As soon as you finish a level, you go back to your car and a stats screen rates you on how well your raid was. Depending on the number of points you gain, you’ll get a new weapon or a new mask. You won’t get every weapon on your first playthrough, but with new masks, you can further your grade for each level; eventually getting the A+ from the bloodbath you incurred.
Between levels, the protagonist will have an interlude where he will go to a pizza place, video store, or a bar. The shopkeeper is always baffled by the amount of killings going on and oblivious to your role in such acts.
Without getting too much into spoiler territory, the story of the game starts to unfurl in different ways. As you learn more about the protagonist, you start to wonder, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ and if you’re hurting innocent people or not. You find out who’s behind the phone calls and what all this means in the end. By the credits, you might be confused, but it all starts to sink in eventually.
Hotline Miami feels like an introspective take on violence in video games. You’re explicitly told to kill people through an answering machine – not because you’re the hero – but because they want you to. It makes the neon-colored atmosphere all the more unsettling as you murder countless people.
It’s amazing, but it’s not perfect. When it was released, the game had a few bugs going on that were difficult to ignore. The game would randomly crash at points, and during a successful run of a highly difficult level, that became excruciating If it came out maybe a month later, it would have hopefully ironed out all the kinks. There’s also no controller support, which is a shame. It’s not a huge issue, though, since using mouse/keyboard works great. I’m just not very good myself with that setup, so it would have been nice to see it. Dennaton Games did address that the patch will go live sometime shortly with more bug fixes in the future.
The only other complaint I have is the boss battle structure kind of comes out of left field. After clearing so many rooms, you’ll encounter a random boss that completely feels unbalanced. Since you can only take one hit, you’ll be retrying a lot to learn the strategies of the bosses. It’s a lot like Super Meat Boy in that sense, but it’s not that fun. On the bright side, they do end quickly.
But overall, Hotline Miami might be the coolest and most unsettling game to come out all year. There’s something about it that makes you want to go back and question your actions. The blood on your mask from all the people you killed, the scattered brains on the bat you bludgeoned them with – all these contributing decisions factor into how much of a calculated psychopath you are for doing this. But you’re only told to do this, so are you really crazy?
It’s a near perfect example of how violence in games can be brushed away, but it takes a truly special game to show your actions and the repercussions of it.
Don a mask and letterman jacket; you have a message on your answering machine.
Hotline Miami was developed by Dennaton Games, and published by Devolver Digital. A PC copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.