Hotline Miami first dropped into our lives late last October on PC (our original review is here) and it brought forth countless gallons of blood, old school visuals and possibly the finest soundtrack to a game in recent memory. This week sees it released into the wilds of the PlayStation Network for both PlayStation and Vita, available as a cross buy, and no matter which format you play it on you are in for a bloody good time.
The game is set in some dreamlike vision of the 80s with the gameplay dressed up in blinding neon and filling your ears with delicious synth. The story itself is something that is genuinely intriguing and reaches beyond what you would expect from the game at a cursory glance. You play an anonymous figure, dressed up in a jacket that seems straight out of Drive and in each chapter you receive a mysterious phone message pointing you in the direction of your next mission. The purpose of each mission is never fully explained but the implication of each call is that you must kill everybody at the location. There is a real feeling of some kind of nebulous dreamscape with these sections, everything feels disjointed yet coherent within the framing of the narrative where murdering people is your purpose but the reasoning is unclear. There is a real question within Hotline Miami about player agency in violent games, trust me this is amongst the most violent, and while the intellectual pursuit may seem at odds with the actual content it seems that generating a discussion on the topic was very much the point.
At its heart it is simply a top-down twin-stick shooter and it is styled exquisitely and perfectly with an 80s aesthetic, so much so that you wouldn’t be surprised if you came across a Hotline Miami cabinet in some obscure dusty arcade. The gaudy and blocky graphics only seem to amplify the level of violence on show, there are levels of violence here that the likes of GTA can only ever aspire to despite its obvious advantage in graphical fidelity. Whether cutting someone in half with a samurai sword, splattering them across the wall with a shotgun blast or even pummeling their face into the floor until grey-matter explodes you will not be able to avoid the utter disregard for life throughout this game.
The clever thing is that the game knows this, it wants you to get your hands dirty, to use whatever tactic you can and the wonderful trick it pulls on you is tied into the pace of the game itself. You have infinite lives in Hotline Miami and to some degree it is a lot like Dark Souls in that you are expected to die, and you will die a lot. As you explore each level and succumb to the obstacles in your way whether it be a guard you didn’t realise was there or getting swarmed after being spotted through a window you will appreciate and feel uneasy about every second you are alive.
The game moves at a breakneck pace and you will rarely get a moment of respite, if you die you are prompted with a quick restart with a single button press. Much like Trackmania this simple mechanic for getting you straight back into the game, to try again, is addictive and screams in your head ‘just one more go’. Start, die, restart, die, restart and die some more. The whole game flows with such ease it is a joy to play, and you will find yourself wondering where the hours went after you had promised that you were only going to try a level once more. Throughout the game you will unlock various masks that you can wear, each mask resembles an animal and brings with it a special perk. This adds a little extra dimension of tactics to proceedings as depending on your choice you may have access to more weapons, see further or simply punch a lot harder. The game will rank you and at the end of each level you will find yourself revisiting the levels just to up your score, it has almost become a very old-school thing to chase high scores but here it is as useful a tool at pulling you back in for attempt after attempt as it was in something like Geometry Wars. Every element of this game supports and enhances the other and what it cooks up is some form of gaming crack that it seemed PopCap only had the recipe to.
As previously mentioned the pace of the game is a great trick and helps force home the questions the game wants you to consider. Every level is a high octane bloodbath in which you will rarely have any other thought than how best do you kill everyone in the level in a perfect run. It isn’t until you finish a level that the game stops, the music calms and you have to exit the building. At this point the game will make you walk past every person that you have killed, you have to take stock of what you have done and question your lust for violence in quest of your goal. It is simply marvellous and before you can think too deeply about it you are suddenly waist high in more blood and entrails. It completely captures the nature of the story as your character blindly follows these obscure orders from shady characters, there is a tonal shift very near the end that weakens this point but it is a minor misstep in an otherwise flawless vision.
Special mention must be given to Abstraction Games for the quality of the port, they have managed to completely replicate Dennaton’s original and if possible make it slicker with near immediate loading times between chapters. PlayStation owners also get a little bit of additional content in the form of an exclusive mask, Russell the raging bull. Donning this mask sends the game into a monochrome wonderland that seems utterly bizarre in contrast to the typical neon abattoir that each level ends up resembling. This version also has a lock-on mechanic that can be activated with a click of R3, it is a tad unwieldy at first but as with the original the controls suddenly become as natural, responsive and as tight as any other twin stick shooter.
There is something near perfect at work here as gameplay, story, visuals, controls and audio all compliment and enhance each other. It feels like a cliche, or lazy writing, to call Hotline Miami a ‘pure’ gaming experience but that is very much what it is. Turn off your lights, turn up the music and you will find yourself falling into some trance like state where the pulsing lights that surround the levels suck you into the seedy world the developers have created, hoping for that perfect run. When you pull together a perfect run, a singular fluid motion that removes all enemies and delivers a bloody victory, you will be hard pushed to find another immediate gaming experience that feels so good. Bloody marvellous.