Have you ever felt the need to don a rubber animal mask and mercilessly shed the blood of white-suit-wearing, chrome-domed henchmen all over the place? If you answered yes, not only should you begin a thorough psychiatric evaluation, but you should play Dennaton Games’ ultra-violent game Hotline Miami. It might even help keep those unnatural urges in check.
Hotline Miami is a game that focuses on ritual. Almost every chapter of the game begins with you ‘waking up’ in your apartment complex, shuffling toward your answering machine and clicking play. A seemingly benign message, from an unknown caller, details the location within the pixelated, neon haze of 1989 Miami that you are to visit. You’re a hitman, an assassin, but not the type we find in games like Dishonored or Assassin’s Creed. You’re just a guy who’s afraid to go against what his answering machine tells him to do. Your motives, beyond that, are never clear, and unlike Liam Neeson, you don’t have a particular set of skills acquired over a very long career. It seems that killing isn’t really in your blood.
Once the message has ended, you venture down stairs, jump in your car (some sort of four-door Delorean, it seems) and make your way to your destination. This is Hotline Miami’s playground, a series of interconnected rooms full of the aforementioned bald guys, flanked by a neon pink sea. Before you bust through the front door you pull a rubber animal mask over your head that protects your identity from the thugs you’re about to slaughter and also imbues you with a specific enhancement that you carry throughout the level.
Once you enter a building you can expect to be besieged by a number of enemies emulating The Cousins from Breaking Bad. They all wear immaculate white suits, have shiny heads and sometimes carry beautiful chrome hand-axes (among the menagerie of other weaponry they have access to). They, like Breaking Bad’s Cousins, are more than willing to use their weapons to end your life; something that happens in the blink of an eye in Hotline Miami. Is there anything quicker than blinking? Because, actually, if there is, that’s how quickly you die in this game. There’s no health bar to tell you how many hits you can take because you can only take one. Whether it’s a baseball bat that knocks your skull flying into the couch or an SMG that splits you in two, you’ll find yourself splattered across the floor just as many times as your enemies.
That’s half the fun though. To restart a level, all you need to do is press the ‘R’ key on your keyboard and you’re magically revived back at the beginning of the building. This becomes as ritualistic as the start of each of the games chapters. It’s here where the gameplay shows its true colours, revealing Hotline Miami isn’t simply about running and gunning through each building, but learning through failure, about picking your spots, taking out enemies systematically and preserving your livelihood by using your surroundings. In that way, it sort of feels like Dark Souls in that it never lets you understand too much about its various levels until you’ve walked through them and had your skull smashed open inside them.
To complement the simple idea of “Murder Everything That Moves”, the game also awards points for how you murder and more points are accumulated through variation in your kills. If you simply waltz in with an automatic rifle and gun everyone down, Hotline Miami says “that’s nice, but you are not violent enough” and at the end of the chapter awards you with a grading from A+ down to C- (as far as I know). Through varying the ways you attack – baseball bat the first guy, punch the second guy and stomp on his brain, flick a knife at the third guy and shotgun the last two guys – you can earn more points, unlocking more masks and additional weapons.
While the weapons are mostly aesthetic, the game utilises different masks allowing you to alter the way you play in each level. In the beginning you have one mask, “Richard”, a chicken mask that does nothing but make you feel a little plucky (Get it?…. guys? Guys!?), but as you start clearing out buildings and completing chapters with high scores, you gather more masks. From the Owl mask that helps reveal the secrets of the game to the Elephant mask, which gives you thick enough skin to protect you from a single bullet. The importance of the masks becomes more critical as you progress and the number of enemies in each level ramps up.
I’ve sort of shied away from really digging deep into the story, because amidst all the ultra-violence and the pixelated blood spatter that wouldn’t make sense even to a trained analyst (I’m looking at you, Dexter), there is very little story to hold onto. You’ve been told by your answering machine to kill, so that is what you do. You also meet a number of characters in the game who, like yourself, enjoy wearing rubber animal masks. It’s towards the late stages of the game where the plot starts to unravel and you begin to decipher just who you are and why there are strange messages on your answering machine. Once the game plays its hand, you end up feeling like you’ve stumbled into a Walking Dead episode (no, there aren’t zombies but…) but by the time you reach the games ultimate conclusion (only achieved through picking up puzzle pieces through each level), it feels like the plot was a little more Homeland in its underlying message.
The key to Hotline Miami is that it takes a number of simple game mechanics and blends them together in the most delightful neon-soaked milkshake you’ll ever ingest with your eye-mouths. Moreover, Hotline Miami blesses your ear-mouths with a just as digestible mix of 8 bit-electro funk that makes the many deaths that pot mark the experience much easier to bear. Just like a milkshake though, it is both cheap and consumed quickly, clocking in at only 3 hours length. The game held a few bugs, but no game-breakers that I personally experienced, only amusing walk-through-walls kills and enemies that couldn’t shoot at me.
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