Hotline Miami is a top-down shooter that takes the genre's formula of racking up the highest score while battling it out in a target-filled environment, and loads it up with psychedelic, neon-color graphics and a thumping quasi-techno-new wave soundtrack. It's a weird and incredibly violent game, but underneath the pixilated visuals and bizarre narrative Hotline Miami delivers an exceptionally challenging experience.
Set in late 1980s Miami, Florida, you play as a hitman, receiving cryptic orders on your voicemail to go to a location and "take care of" everyone there with utmost "discretion." Or maybe you're part of a vigilante group, killing off Russian mafia thugs and other criminal ne'er-do-wells in an increasingly violent fashion. Or maybe nothing's real, and the enigmatic conversations you've been having with the strange animal-mask wearing individuals you've never met before but yet seem to know so much about you is all happening inside your own head. Hotline Miami's narrative is definitely obscure and hard to follow, with each story and plot point usually ending up providing more questions than answers, but it has enough of a hook that you'll be interested in finding out what exactly it all means.
Each "assignment" in the game takes your character to a multi-stage chapter full of white-suited enemies wielding a variety of weapons that you'll have to eliminate. You'll pick from one of several animal masks that'll grant you a special ability for that mission, whether it lets you see farther in the game world, survive a bullet or grant instant execution moves. However, the option of how you proceed through the mission itself is up to you. While the game encourages stealth and speed whenever possible, there's enough variety and randomness in each stage that you're rarely limited to just one avenue of attack and almost nothing plays out exactly the same. You can go through an entire level moving quietly from one room to the next, silencing your opponents one by one, or you can pick up the first firearm that drops and blast your way through anyone dumb enough to enter your line of sight. At the end of each stage, you're given a score and a grade based on your in-game actions, leading to to new masks or weapon unlocks, which in turn gives you more options for future missions or if you're looking to replay a previous stage over with a different mask or strategy.
While it all sounds simple enough, make no mistake - Hotline Miami's difficulty is brutal, and it will kick your ass. Repeatedly. Just about everyone in the game, yourself included, can be killed in just one hit, so it's entirely possible (and more than likely) that you'll die multiple times just trying to take out the first enemy on a stage because you're not quite fast enough to knock him down and crush his skull under your heel. The speed with which Hotline Miami's pacing and combat changes can definitely invoke feelings of keyboard-breaking frustration, but at the same time, it's all the more satisfying when you manage to kill all your targets in an adrenaline-fueled rampage where every one of your on-the-fly decision clicks together in just the right way.
There is one particularly gruesome aspect of Hotline Miami. For a retro-style shooter, it's incredibly violent. Right from the start you'll be smashing heads into floors until they split open, slicing open throats, and chopping people in half. Once guns enter the mix, you'll mow down enemies with Uzis and double-barreled shotguns, leaving a trail of bloodied bodies and spilled entrails in your wake. While games that deal with violent themes are not uncommon these days, Hotline Miami is almost disturbingly graphic, and it may not entirely sit well with some players.
When it all comes together, Hotline Miami's a solid game, but it's not for everyone. While definitely a highly challenging experience, its biggest flaw is how it can get absurdly repetitive at times, especially when you're stuck having to replay the same stage over and over because you keep getting hit by some shotgun-toting enemy who's just off-screen. If you are easily frustrated by that kind of fast-paced, die-and-retry style of game play, you might want to give Hotline Miami a pass, but if you're partial to the weird visuals and intense difficulty, you will definitely want to give this game a try.
Bottom Line: With its retro-style visuals and surreal story, Hotline Miami is a brutally challenging but engaging 2-D shooter that'll have you coming back for just one more mission.
Recommendation: If you like games that are tough, surreal and/or ultra violent, then Hotline Miami is for you.
Game: Hotline Miami
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital