Review: Hotline Miami

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“Welcome to Miami
Bienvenidos a Miami”
–Will Smith, “Miami”

Few games invite the description of “murder simulation” to the degree Hotline Miami does. Though the bodies splayed across these empty halls are faceless and pixelated, you sacrificed much of yourself for them: your lives (marked by the many presses of your R key), your time, your concentration, the main character’s sanity. Everything is a trade-off, and here you’re bargaining it all for the pure satisfaction of the kill.

From a mechanical viewpoint, Hotline Miami is Hitman wrapped up in a shell of Robotron. The entire experience is about a skill at planning and executing fantastic sprees of killing, while avoiding the many eminently powerful forces that seek to prevent you from this end. Much like Robotron, it is intensely manic; a split-second of reaction time stands between you and your demise. But, as the game offers in a handy tool-tip, “Do not fear death.” It is an inevitability, another chance to reform your plan of attack and try again. Smash R yet another time and see if you can do better. Work harder, be faster, be smarter, kill more.

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Hotline Miami controls similarly to most mouse-and-keyboard top-down shoot-em-ups; a top-down perspective gives a view of some of the environment through which our hero must progress. Enemies litter the hallways of seedy Miami bars, hotels, apartments. They have guns, melee weapons, laser-like accuracy, and split-second reaction times. They are much better than you, so the only means of survival is to cheese their AI to take as many of their advantages away as possible. This generally comes down to stealth. Most encounters can be easily solved by hanging back and smashing heads in with blunt instruments or gutting stomachs with knives when a specific victim is isolated, but that doesn’t net a high score. In order to gain more abilities and achievements, speed is key. Guns are quick killers, but they alert all guards in the area to your position; unless the player has a machine gun and can take off their heads one bullet at a time, they’re a goner. Blades and blunt weapons allow for quick kills too, so long as their owner is able to strike more quickly and with more reach than their opponent.

Most levels have a very similar progression. Open a door, stun an enemy, smash his head into the floor by mashing the left mouse button as the crimson pool around his head grows ever-larger. Grab his bat, move on to the next room, smash two skulls in before getting sighted. Run into the next room, throw your b—oh no, a bullet to the face. R. Death. R. Death. R. Victo—death. R. Think. Move slowly. Kill at the perfect opportunity. Get shot. R. Go fucking ballistic and rush through at max speed. Victory. Perfection. Satisfaction.

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Like Super Meat Boy, progressing through the environment is an exercise in patience. Unlike my experiences with Super Meat BoyHotline Miami never felt cheap or difficult-for-the-sake-of-difficulty, bereft of reward. It is up-front about what it is and the ruleset it works under. When both of those elements are conquered, victory is immensely satisfying. All it requires is time and concentration.

Due to the infinite lives and general lack of risk when going through levels, some may find the difficulty purely artificial. When death is merely a one-minute—two at max—setback, inhibitions to risk disappear. The consequences are too low. Or perhaps you feel that time is enough of a currency that spending it going through the level repeatedly is a loss. When that time-sink is rewarded, Hotline Miami gives back the investment with interest. For players of the former philosophy, developer Dennaton has announced intentions to release a permadeath mode in an upcoming patch, so that worry may be alleviated at some point.

Thanks to the masks, secrets, and high scores, it’s easy to get hooked on replaying Hotline Miami. As of this writing, I’ve played through it in full around three times, and it’s yet to get old. It’s satisfying enough to survive the levels in a first playthrough, but the high scores net as much enjoyment. The Steam achievements for the game lay out even more side objectives, and they end up being more fun than arbitrary. Finding every execution animation is a personal favorite of mine, especially the ones for boiling pots of water and broken cue sticks.

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It’s doubtful that Hotline Miami’s trial-and-error design would lack frustration if it didn’t feature such a fantastic soundtrack. The tracks used in the missions all have a certain drive that encourages continuation. Those used in the story moments (which we will get to shortly) work in an opposite manner; they are dark, paranoid, schizophrenic nightmares of FM synths and distortion. The publisher has uploaded it all for free listening here. Jasper Byrne (of Lone Survivor fame) has released an EP of his contributions, and Pertubator’s tracks can be found on their first album and EP.

Hotline Miami’s storyline, strung together by the massacres of the main character, wouldn’t have worked without the game underneath it. Tonally, Hotline Miami invites comparisons to the films of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, especially since he is listed under a “Special Thanks” section of the credits. Evan Glodell’s Bellflower and Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow also come to mind, primarily for the more psychological tones they share with Hotline Miami that Drive lacks. The protagonist is an unnamed man, taking messages from his answering machine to kill members of the Russian mafia at various locations around Miami. Eventually, he rescues a woman from them (the only person throughout the game that is not killed by the protagonist during the combat levels); she provides a touch of life to his decrepit apartment. An average life seems to take form within this space, until another message comes along. Another mission begins and ends. The player and the protagonist are satisfied once again, having accomplished another skillful spree of murder.

With each mission comes another blow to the protagonist’s sanity. The lifestyle he lives isn’t his own; it belongs to the people on the other end of the answering machine. All he lives for is to provide them with more blood. Someone comes into his life and helps him live, but he cannot give up the life presented to him by the answering machine. Was it worth it? Hotline Miami never answers anything in this regard. Much of the narrative can be viewed as the ramblings of a madman or drug addict; or perhaps it’s a commentary on violent games as a means of release for real-life violent tendencies; or maybe it’s about the personas we present to society with our metaphorical masks, much as how the protagonist masks himself between his dual lives (in a very Persona fashion). There are about as many interpretations for the story as there are ways to solve each level, but Dennaton has little intent of making any of them clear. It works in Hotline Miami’s favor.

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Hotline Miami is not especially long, nor do the levels change dramatically over the course of the game. It’s comparable to an arcade game: high scores provide near-infinite replayability, and the core is more than solid enough to fill an afternoon-length experience. The enemy AI can look idiotic at times, but they’re more than powerful enough to murder you repeatedly. There are bugs a-plenty, including memory leaks and hard crashes, which are all still being patched away now, several weeks after release, but Hotline Miami is more than worth these sacrifices.

It is simultaneously disgusting and poignant, profound and nihilistic, satisfying and depressing, with violence covering each element and purging its very soul. Hotline Miami is a game almost purely about murder, and it shines for it.

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About Justin Hutchison

Despite being the youngest member of Stereogram’s staff, Jay was still old enough to cut his teeth on the last arcade in town before it closed for good. (Damned go-kart accidents.) Though he’s a bit of a late arrival to the comics scene, he’s spent most of his life steeped in anime and games of all sorts. Outside of his writing, he makes music as Fatal Labyrinth. He is not a fan of Fatal Labyrinth, the video game.