And who do we have here? Oh, you don’t know who you are? Maybe we should leave it that way? But I know you. Look at my face… we’ve met before… It’s hard to forget when you meet a polar bear and what are you doing wandering around the Arctic wearing an animal mask? Are you crazy? Let’s wait and find out…
Cryptic is the best word to use to describe the story in Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami, a 2-D Topdown action puzzle game. The best word to describe the gameplay is violent. Oh yes this is a violent and gory game but don’t write it off as a cheap and lazy attempt at pulling in 13-year-old boys. There’s a lot more to this game than meets the eye.
Hotline Miami is set in (surprise, surprise) Miami in the 1980s. It follows the story of a character of Jacket, whose name is never used in the game, as he receives phone calls with coded instructions to go to a location and kill large numbers of people while wearing different animal masks. It’s difficult to go into the story properly without spoilers or just wild interpretation. Very little is fact.
It rarely gives the player a reliable idea of what is going on. Jacket’s mental faculties seem to decay throughout the game leading to hallucinations that make it difficult to determine what is real and what isn’t. It’s like looking at the world through the eyes of a schizophrenic. Most of the story is implied with the player having to interpret the meaning behind the various events. These don’t usually happen in mission but take place in mini prologues or chapter breaks with (possibly) imaginary scenes.
The game does a lot of things really well. The combat system is incredibly quick and incredibly satisfying when done well. Most characters are one hit kill and this includes the player character so when if you make a mistake you’re almost guaranteed to die. But this isn’t a problem because it’s just one button to respawn instantly.
This is so streamlined that you can go into room, kill two enemies, get killed by the third you didn’t see, and respawn to try again in a matter of seconds. The game is as much a puzzle game as it is an action game, with players having to navigate around the many rooms and dispatch all the enemies without a single one getting you.
The game does have an interesting design. Great clashing colours dominate with a psychedelic feel that is very evocative of the era and (potential) madness of the characters. Even the menu screen creates this haze of insanity that does sometimes make you feel like you’re a bit drunk when you’re just trying to pick a level to play.
But one of the best features in Hotline Miami is the soundtrack. When I first played the game I didn’t really think much of it. I’d heard lots of people praising it but didn’t find it particularly special. However, I very quickly found that the game and the soundtrack blended together so well that it started creating a real adrenaline rush just hearing it. Good soundtracks can do wonders for a game, Bastion for example, and Hotline Miami’s mirrors the gameplay to the point that your brain just kinda turns into this crazy mush as you just play and die and play and die until it’s about three hours later and you don’t know what happened.
Of course for all that it does well there are inevitably things it does poorly. Though the game can get frustrating I wouldn’t count this as a bad point because that’s part of the puzzle, apart from two things. First is Chapter 12: Trauma which is different to all others (one of these things is not like the others…). This chapter is a stealth chapter where if you are seen by an enemy you are sent back to a checkpoint, all the while having to manage how long you walk before having to pause thanks to a head trauma
It is frustrating, really frustrating and for me it breaks the flow of the game a little. The rest of the chapters are quick and loud and adrenaline fuelled. This one is slow and quiet and patient. Changing the tone in a game can be done well but here I feel that this chapter deserved to be more of a story prologue than a full chapter.
The other problem is the boss battles. They are few and far between but they are probably my least favourite parts of the game. The one-hit kill feature for the player character does not make for exciting boss battles and since most of the bosses are preceded by an unskippable cutscene it doesn’t have the flow of the instant respawn that the rest of the game has.
Hotline Miami is a bit like a fever dream with serious violence and serious confusion. It is unlike pretty much anything else out there at the moment and I look forward to the possibility of DLC or even a sequel. I just have one question: why no polar bear mask?