Hotline Miami is premeditated murder, emphasis on the meditation
Hotline Miami is a top-down shooter with a retro-infused soundtrack and aesthetic. You move with W, A, S, D and attack with a left-click of the mouse. Objects can be picked up, thrown, or interacted with by using the right-click of the mouse. If you wanted to boil it down, that’s all there is to it.
However, it is also the single greatest playable example of the philosophy, “It’s the journey that matters, not the destination.” The most fun in the game comes not from blasting enemies to pixelated, gory smithereens, but from the white-knuckle tension just prior.
Hotline Miami is the split second between an inhale and an exhale. It’s the rush that comes from planning, thinking ahead of how you’ll react once that door in front of you is busted open and the white-tux, bald-headed baddies are heading your way.
Of course, the counter to all that planning is that your schemes can and do go wrong. Often. The game tries to walk the line of frustrating and challenging, but there are definitely moments where it will step deep into blatantly unfair territory. In other words: it’s hard. One bullet, one swing and you’re down. You can’t go all “Terms of Enrampagement” in Hotline Miami. You’re just one man.
Or one man’s dream. Or maybe you’re several men. I’m not sure, because the game is decidedly weird at times, particularly with regards to the narrator. The game opens with a very Saw-like tutorial, where you brutally murder several defenseless people at the behest of a feral-looking hobo, which transitions into you talking to three versions of presumably yourself, each wearing a different animal mask: horse, rooster, and owl. Oh yeah, of course. Now it all makes sense.
As you progress, you’ll notice that many of the “friends” your character seems to look the same, and will even spout the recurring line, “It’s on the house.” Reality will literally flicker on their command as they warn you what’s happening isn’t real, and chastise you for your killing. It seems like Hotline Miami wants to say something – maybe we shouldn’t enjoy killing people so much in pointless bloodshed, perhaps – but it never comes off its high horse to meet players at their level and explain itself, so it feels like the message is lost.
If I could walk with the animals
Hotline Miami is not a particularly lengthy game. It will take you probably a handful of hours to complete. My time was around the 5 hour mark. There’s even a lovely bug that lets you skip chapters by starting them, exiting them, and going back to the chapter select screen – handy for if the difficulty gets too much to handle.
Where Miami gets its worth is in the variety of playstyles it supports. Let’s say you come up a flight of stairs. Ahead of you is a room, where two guards patrol. You have a baseball bat, but there’s a shotgun on the other side of the door.
You could wait until the guards are near the door and break in, then hope to smash them with melee attacks before they can respond, or you can attempt to rush in, grab the gun, and blast them. Or, you could circle around and attempt to pick the guards off one by one as they come around a corner. Or, if you’re wearing the horse mask, why not wait until they come near a door? Bursting through a door while wearing that mask will instantly kill an enemy.
Yes, the masks aren’t just for weird cutscenes. You’ll unlock these with points or by discovering them as secrets within a level, and each will give the main character different abilities. The horse, as mentioned, kills enemies when a door hits them. The pig mask will cause more guns to spawn. The dog mask will keep attack hounds off your ass. The tiger, my favorite, allows for faster executions.
Unfortunately, for some reason you can’t switch masks at the start or re-start of a mission. That’s a major inconvenience when you realize a mask is less helpful than you would like. The game also suffers from some bugs; there’s the aforementioned level select issue, as well as enemies who stutter and spaz after getting stuck on walls, and some iffy collision detection with melee attacks. It’s never bad enough to be more than a nuisance, but it is there.
Pick up the phone
Hotline Miami is artsy-fartsy wonder; a game that you will love to hate and hate to love. You’ll feel like the game is looking down at you with hipster glasses pushed high on its nose, telling you that you won’t understand what’s going on, and yet you want to understand. The game offers moments of frustration as well as elation when your plan to clear a building works.
You will feel repulsed. Maybe you should. The extreme – albeit pixelated – violence is never given any justification. Your character has no moral compass. Like with Ryan Gosling in the movie Drive (another easy comparison) the character’s work simply is what it is.