I will try to keep this review short. Hotline Miami is one of those games where reading about it does it no justice whatsoever. It's also a hard game to describe. At first glance, it's a mindless top-down shooter with a played out old-school aesthetic, but Hotline Miami is anything but. Unfortunately, Hotline Miami was released a tad too early with a multitude of bugs but nevertheless, this is a truly unique experience that is absolutely worth your money.
The story in Hotline Miami is complete madness. One thing is for certain, you play as a guy who receives phone calls to eliminate groups of people. Why? Just 'cause, more or less. Hotline Miami doesn't present the player the typical things that make up a story. You know, things like characters, any sense of development or even a proper plot. But once I started playing, I was immediately hooked. Being in a dark room with a bunch of blokes wearing different animal masks while a slow but amazing bass line played in the background; it was this moment when I realised that Hotline Miami was going to be something special.
Even though the story is seemingly a load of nonsense, I was itching to find out anything about what on earth was going on. Having beaten the game, I still don't have a notion about what actually happened but I loved how I was immediately plunged head first into a nightmarish setting, with a lot of sickly neon colours and strange filter effects. Escapism in videogames doesn't get much better than this.
The actual part where Hotline Miami becomes a videogame is similarly unique and well-executed. At first glance, it looks like a top-down shooter like Smash TV and Robotron 2084, but Hotline Miami is a lot more engaging and tactical. This is one of those games where if you get hit once by anything, then you are dead. Your enemies, primarily guys with either melee weapons or guns, are very quick and you can't afford to have your guard down at any given moment. This means that you have to carefully observe your environment and plan suitable ways to strike. You can look ahead in the environment by hitting the Shift key, which is vital as off-screen enemies can waste you instantly. You also might not want to use guns as their loudness will attract all nearby foes. In this sense, Hotline Miami almost feels like both a stealth and a puzzle game at the same time.
However, the gameplay here is so fast paced, you have to perform all your actions quickly to ensure all of your enemies are bleeding sprites. You also feel quite powerful in Hotline Miami. Melee weapons and firearms kill quickly and even when you are unarmed, you can flatten a guy with a single punch and then finish him off with a gruesome execution. Gruesome is certainly a word to describe Hotline Miami's combat in general, but it's so much fun. You will see guys get their body sliced in half, get their brains blown out and get their throats slit.
But there are many instances in Hotline Miami when you are the one being killed over and over. The fact that you can't survive a single attack does make Hotline Miami quite a tricky game. You are also heavily outnumbered in every level, which means that odds are heavily stacked against you. What is great though is that you can instantly restart whatever section you are on with a quick press of the R key when you meet your demise. So like games such as Super Meat Boy and BIT.TRIP RUNNER, Hotline Miami is tough and sometimes punishing but when you do finish these levels, it's incredibly satisfying. Hotline Miami would be half the game that it is without it's stiff but fair difficulty.
As you play through the game, you unlock new masks to equip before the start of each mission. All of the masks (apart from the one you begin with) alter the gameplay somewhat. For example, you can get a mask which allows you to start the level with a knife or you can wear a mask which greatly quietens your gunshots. Each of the many masks are very useful and their impact on the gameplay is profound. In between levels, you also unlock new weapons but I hardly ever saw any of the weapons I unlocked appear in the game. I saw a katana sword that I earned spawn once and that was it. So while the unlockable weapons don't play a huge role, the masks are very interesting and there are loads to unlock, many of which I missed during my first playthrough.
Speaking of my first playthough, it took me about 4 or 5 hours to finish Hotline Miami. It's not especially long but given how hard the game is and considering how many retries some sections took, it's a perfect length. While I don't immediately want to play through Hotline Miami again, I definitely want to in the future as it's so different from everything else out there.
My only complaint towards Hotline Miami is that there are some technical issues, as of this writing. I have been fortunate and I have not experienced too many. The main issue that I ran into is that there is a bug where the chapter -- after the one I am supposed to be on -- is unlocked. It's a minor problem, especially if you know that it's there but it meant that I accidently skipped a level without realising it. There is some occasional slowdown and all of the Steamworks stuff seems to be broken at the moment. Xbox 360 controller support also doesn't work right now, though the game controlled fine with the mouse and keyboard. All of the issues I ran into were pretty minor, however, there are folks claiming that they can't even play yet so your mileage may vary. The developer seems pretty focused on patching the game so hopefully all of these things will be fixed soon.
The graphics in Hotline Miami are good but ultimately, not really my type of thing. I have never really appreciated newer games that deliberately try to look like old games but it doesn't hang it's hat purely on it's look. As I mentioned earlier, the use of weird filters and vivid colours really help enhance this crazy world that you are in. I am also impressed by how many animations there are, and there are lots of unique sprites too.
While the graphics didn't quite click with me, the sound design in Hotline Miami is fantastic. The sounds used for combat are great but it's really all about the soundtrack. During gameplay, the music is fast paced, techno style music that is immediately catchy and you soon find yourself moving your head every now and again. The music is actually one of the things that stops Hotline Miami from being too frustrating as it continually motivates you to keep pushing on no matter what. The other pieces of music that play during the game's more slower moments is just as good and overall, Hotline Miami contains one of the best soundtracks of the year. Best of all, the soundtrack is available for consumption inside the game directory!
Hotline Miami won't be for everyone. If you don't like your games to be difficult, or you don't like trying the same thing over and over, then don't bother. For everyone else though, you should play Hotline Miami. It's one of those games I couldn't stop thinking about after I stopped playing. The tense, nerve-wracking gameplay and the severe weirdness serve each other well to make for a truly memorable experience.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE
(An exceptional game whose flaws are barely noticeable.)