Dennaton Games might not be a big name in the indie gaming scene quite yet, but they have certainly made their mark with their first retail title, Hotline Miami. The game received a ton of buzz when it made its way through the convention circuit this year, garnering praise, awards, and the ire ofÂ squeamishÂ gamers everywhere. Now the over-the-top 80s shooter has been released for the masses, but does it live up to the hype?
Hotline Miami is a much more complicated game than the screenshots and trailers imply. The top-down view is reminiscent of early Grand Theft Auto titles, and the retro aesthetic does not normally lend itself to a moody, atmospheric tour de force of violence and revenge. Somehow, Dennaton has managed to not only shape their game around these self-imposed limitations, but create an incredibly satisfying shooter with a powerful, difficult message.
The game begins in a small building where a man teaches the protagonist how to kill. Considering how often that skill will come in handy over the course of the game’s fifteen chapters, it is important to pay attention. The game can be played with an Xbox 360 controller, but I found the keyboard to be perfectly serviceable while dispatching the enemies. The protagonist (who remains unnamed throughout the game) has a very limited amount of options at any given moment. He can pick up a weapon, throw his weapon, or use his weapon. And he can run.
Speed plays a very important role in Hotline Miami. Although many of the small, enclosed levels require careful planning and forward thinking, sometimes running in, guns blazing is the most effective way to clear a building. Besides using his weapons, the main character can also utilize the environment to render enemies helpless. Enemies standing too close to a door can be knocked out when the door swings open. This gives the protagonist time to violently murder the unconscious foe before anyone else becomes aware of his presence.
Murder is frequent, and the weapons employed to dispatch baddies also become more varied and entertaining as the game progresses. The protagonist starts levels with nothing but his fists, and must either collect weapons strewn about the level or snag them from unconscious (or dead) enemies. As players accumulate points at the end of each level, more weapons are unlocked. Another important series of collectibles comes in the form of masks. The protagonist dons a mask at the beginning of each level which provides perks to make levels easier. Surpassing the score requirement unlocks new masks.
Another feature of the game that often draws criticism in the era of open world gaming is its linearity. Each level, without exception, tasks the player with entering a building, clearing the first floor of enemies, then continuing on to the next floor of the building only after every last living soul on that floor has been silenced. Rinse and repeat. The reason this is a feature of Hotline Miami and not a drawback is how it trains players to react to situations, and subsequently how it flips the script at regular intervals to keep players on their toes.
Just when a player may think he or she understands the speed of the enemies, lighting fast dogs are thrown into the mix. Once players become comfortable hiding behind walls for cover, windows come into play. There are several more examples like this that keep every level feeling fresh and new, but it’s worth discovering those on your own.
The gameplay alone would have been enough. If players can manage to separate themselves from the admittedly atrocious and abundantly graphic acts being committed on screen, the pure mechanics of busting into a room, taking potshots while running from one corner to the next, spraying bullets like hellfire while expecting death at any moment is pure, tense bliss.
By the way, death comes quickly and often in this downloadable title. For the most part, a single shot will take out the player’s character, which might normally signify that players should carefully plan every move to avoid an untimely demise. Considering the nature of the levels though, along with their length, death is less of a punishment and more of a learning tool. Finding out what works and what doesn’t is a huge part of Hotline Miami‘s appeal.
All of that said, the most intriguing aspect of Hotline Miami is its relatively bare bones story. After the stranger teaches the protagonist how to kill, he starts killing. After every successful mission, he goes to the bar, or the movie store, or the grocery store, and hears first-hand about some awful man murdering citizens all over the city. He goes home, goes to bed, and every morning he wakes up to a vague voicemail on his answering machine directing him to a new address to complete some mundane task.
Resolution might not be what Dennaton Games had in mind when they wrote the story for this game, but once the actions of the protagonist are put into context, it forces players to ask themselves some potentially difficult questions.
Hotline Miami is a thrill ride worthy of any gamer’s time. The frustration of repeated deaths may wear on some gamers, and the ultraviolent gameplay may, understandably, nauseate others, but the rush of playing a game structured like a combination of all the best and most brutal 80s action movies should be too good to pass up for most.
Hotline Miami is available now on the PC for $9.99.
Follow me on Twitter @JacobSiegal.