Friday, January 4, 2013

Headcase: Hotline Miami

At the end of any given level of Hotline Miami, it’s never too hard to figure out what went down in any of the neon hued penthouses or seedy establishments that make up the games environments. Regardless of setting, you’ll find a wild mess of broken and bleeding bodies and the eerie feeling of tense calm that comes right after something loud and terrible has happened. As the main character stalks out of any of these scenes of compacted ultra-violence, it’s hard not to marvel at just how subtly and successfully Dennaton Games achieves a sense of atmosphere that most other developers can only throw out as buzzwords.

Hotline Miami puts you looking top-down on the life of a no-named silent protagonist who, right from the outset, is presented in no uncertain terms as being a few fries short of a happy meal. The flow of the game is simple; the character receives a message on his answering machine vaguely alluding to a number of activities at different addresses around town. The character drives to the indicated address and brutally murders the inevitable pack of white suit wearing gangsters inhabiting the building. The task of taking out these literally faceless henchmen falls to you. Each level begins with you selecting from any number of the characters trademark rubber animal masks to wear during the level. From there, you’re deposited outside the building to commence the blood-letting.

Bit of an understatement.

The gameplay is tension pure – each and every enemy in the game is at least as fast and as deadly as the main character, making your task of clearing out the entire floor of them enjoyably straining. The pacing is also blazing fast, encounters begin and are over with a quickness and finality not easily found elsewhere. When you’re going up against a room full of enemies, it’s a frantic rush to be the first to land that critical hit. You do have two advantages over your adversaries however, one, the ability to see your surroundings in order to formulate a basic plan of attack, and two, your character is one cold bastard. You’ll spend most of your openings kicking down doors to daze the hapless suit on the other side before bludgeoning everyone in the room with whatever you can get your hands on. There’s no shortage of weapons, anything from pool cues to scissors to fire axes, not to mention a bevy of firearms. The guns are capable of ending multiple enemies at a distance, but there are substantial tradeoffs in both ammo capacity and the fact that any loud shots are going to send the henchmen in the surrounding rooms coming right for you.

The end result is a collection of levels that have you taking the best mix of careful planning and balls out Hail Mary action. You’re going to die, probably often, but you’ll almost always come away from that death knowing that it was caused by a mistake or dull reflexes on your part, and the game’s super sharp loading will throw you right back into the beginning of the section itching to pop the skull of the suit that proved to be the quicker draw last time around.  More often than not, by the time I was the only one left in the building with a pulse, I had equal feelings of “I knew that would work” mixed with “I can’t believe that worked”, matching a heightened heart rate. The end of each level sees you earning a grade based on the varying ways you’ve dispatched your enemies, earning points to unlock even more weapons to appear randomly throughout the levels. You’ll also unlock more masks, each one granting specific boons like speed boosts or the ability to start a level with a specific weapon.

You know, in case someone needs help opening a jar.

The beauty of Hotline Miami is in the details. It’s one of the prevalent themes I found within the game: everything, from the art to the plot, is kind of ugly and basic on the outside, but positively riddled with endearing details just waiting to be scooped up with a closer look. The graphics are what the kids these days are calling “retro”, sitting comfortably in the world of simulated 8 or 16 bit sprites that pop up in seemingly a lot of indie titles of late. It’s the lovingly added nuance that sets the game apart. I wasn’t being flowery in my opening paragraph; it’s really not hard to tell exactly what went down when you’re finished with a level. It’s easy to pick up on things like the snap necked pair of henchmen collapsed near the entrance of a room and see that they were ambushed by a kicked in door and a crowbar to the face. It’s easy to look at sprinkling of spent shell casings and chunks of plaster littering the floor to see where the heavy firefights broke out just like it’s easy to look at a cluster of bodies and a bank of broken windows to see where a successful ambush with the short lived clip of an assault rifle took place. Keeping your eye on the details in a level is often the only way to avoid traps and easy deaths, and the game also rewards observant players with secrets ranging from a hidden route or weapon or even a new mask.

Pretty easy to spot the path our character has taken so far in this example.

The level of detail doesn’t stop when it comes to plot either. Each stage is sandwiched with exposition that seems inane from the outset, but leaves observant players enough threads to follow things like the main characters relationship with the outside world, and just how degraded his state of mind is becoming.  When it’s all said and done, the overall story will take a couple of playthroughs to dig all the way through and has enough bizarre retakes and meta concepts that the David Lynch fans among you can happily sit back with a glass of snob juice and chase that rabbit hole in as many circles as you’d like. The rest of you might feel content to walk away with a cool little revenge tale spiced with just the right amount of insanity.

For a game that frequently finds its characters drenched in gore, the game is remarkably more subtle than a lot of other gaming contemporaries. In an industry that seems to want to get in their audiences face with grittiness or edginess, a lot of style lessons can be learned from Hotline Miami. Characters with flaws are often mishandled in modern games, embellishing the characters with just enough brood and gloom to fit through the anti-hero cookie cutter. Hotline Miami might have one of the first generally believable silent protagonists, a genuinely memorable no name who’s still recognizable despite having interchangeable faces and being seen from the top down for the whole game. The game also handles violence in a way that a lot of major releases seem to miss the mark on. Don’t let me downplay it, this is one bloody game, but it’s the way that the violence is portrayed that sets it apart from the crowd. There’s no effort to make the actions of the characters cool. When the main character kills a floor full of people, there’s never any dramatic badass pose or super slow motion flourish, just the standard top down view which serves to further distance the game from actual act of violence while loading up on the details. The game presents its violence with a sense of clinical detachment that enhances the player’s natural reactions, instead of trying to govern them. Even the neon tinged Miami Theme seems a little less on the nose than we normally see it. The game is brightly colored, that’s apparent, but yet again, it’s not shoving its zeitgeist right in your face. The whole game comes across with a detached sense of calm craziness that takes a been-there setting and a done-that concept, and makes a unique experience out of it.

You too can be responsible for scenes like this.

That unique experience is certainly helped by the games remarkable soundtrack. Full of a delicately picked but widely varying range of tunes, Hotline Miami’s soundtrack will have you bobbing your head while you’re filling a hallway with as much ammunition as you possibly can. The songs come from a variety of artists and range from techy club beats to lucid rub-a-dub. It’s a great soundtrack, and it’s worth noting that you can enjoy the whole thing at Devolver Digital’s Soundcloud page. If you’re in a hurry, the three standout tracks are Sun Araw’s Horse Steppin, the game's title track which sets the mood so nicely, Hydrogen by M.O.O.N., a catchy club tune that ends up being Hotline Miami’s answer to the heist music from Heat, and Diasuke from El Huervo, a cold little beat that serves to bring down the tension between shootouts.

Hotline Miami is a dark, bloody, disturbed little game. And it’s only so successful in being that because it looks like it’s not trying to do so at all. The game lays its cards plainly on the table, without the invasive showmanship that oozes from a lot of games trying to do the same thing. Like a real insane person, Hotline Miami will never tell you how crazy it is, but all you have to do is spend five minutes with it to get that message loud and clear.


  1. I was gifted this game over the holidays. At first I was digging it just because of how weird it was. The game just FEELS like drugs. But after really playing it I became to really appreciate it.

  2. I've had my eye on this game for a wee while now... This makes me want it so bad!!!

  3. It is an awesome game to be sure. Get it!

  4. First thing worth reading on this damn blog since that article on The Walking Dead!

  5. Gorilla Eating Coffee Cake Off Hooker's AssJanuary 29, 2013 at 12:32 PM

    Wow, this sounds awesome. Each paragraph sold me in a different way.