Hotline Miami is an ultra violent top-down action game developed by the two-man team of Dennaton Games. In the game, players control an unnamed man who begins receiving mysterious phone calls in coded language instructing him to go out and kill Russian mobsters while wearing a mask. Backed by a soundtrack and visuals inspired by the 1980’s, these unexplained missions are the center of the brutal and fast paced gameplay.
Using a wide variety of melee and ranged weapons, the player progresses through each level, leaving a trail of death and destruction. At the beginning of each mission, the player chooses one of a wide variety of animal-themed masks, each conferring different bonuses such as increased punching power or speed.
The sheer violence of Hotline Miami cannot be understated; with each punch, swing of a knife, or pull of the trigger, a spray of pixelated blood will gush from your intended victim. Attacks are lethal and the vast majority of your blows will kill in one hit, but the attacks of enemies are just as lethal to the player. This combination of fast paced movement and brutal combat creates a tactical environment.
Players must be cautious but confident with their actions, carefully planning each movement then following through without hesitation. Mistakes are punished with unflinching brutality; the mobsters can move and attack just as swiftly as the player and a mistimed swing or poorly chosen move will end with a “game over” screen. Dying is little more than a slap on the wrist. After restarting, players are sent back to the last checkpoint in a split second, free to throw them back into battle almost immediately. At the end of each level, players are “graded,” based on how they played, rated on such metrics as speed, variety, and boldness.
Backing up the gameplay is a unique visual style that makes the game feel like a bad drug trip. Behind the pools of pixelated blood and battered bodies, the world is a pulsing wall of color, oscillating back and forth wildly. Cementing the atmosphere is the old school soundtrack. Driving rhythms and thumping bass pound away as the player tears through enemies and when the last foe falls, the aggressive music fades into an eerie soundscape as the player backtracks through the carnage to leave the level.
On the surface, Hotline Miami is a well-crafted and competent game that would easily be worth the $9.99 price tag on Steam. However, there is one last element of any good game that propels Hotline Miami to being a great game. The story weaves a theme of distrust, mystery and darkness through the game. In occasional cut-scenes, the protagonist is confronted in an unreal dream world by three figures wearing animal masks who question the actions of the player. The protagonist’s grip on the world becomes increasingly unhinged as the killing continues, seeing corpses in odd places and letting his home become a mess of dirty dishes and garbage. Phone calls direct the player to larger and larger targets, while the threads of a conspiracy involving the mysterious callers materialize around the player.
Hotline Miami goes beyond simply being a satisfyingly difficult and violent game. It makes players question their actions in the world as well as questioning the reality around the protagonist. Many may be unsettled by the level of extreme violence, but anyone looking for a great game at a good bargain would be well served by picking up Hotline Miami, then picking up the phone and listening carefully.