Maybe it has something to do with how regulated the video games industry seems to have become in the past 10 years, but I’m finding lately that my attention is often being held better and longer by games which were not introduced to me by months and months of hype and promotion. There’s something about a game that is released with little to no fanfare that makes me want to get to know it better. Last month FTL: Faster Than Light captured my heart (seriously, go buy it), and this month Hotline Miami is my new favourite thing in the universe.
The first thing you will notice about Hotline Miami is the game’s deliberately cheesy and retro aesthetic. The second thing you will notice is how ridiculously violent it is. These are two pretty striking features, and it’s pretty easy to make your mind up about Hotline Miami based on them. I’d urge you not to, because there is a lot more to this unpolished diamond than meets the eye.
Where Hotline Miami first succeeds is in its gameplay. What looks like a pretty straightforward top-down arcade shooter is actually made up of various complex gameplay mechanisms. The first design feature that bears mentioning, is that it’s really easy to die. In fact, one bullet is all it takes. You can also forget about copious amounts of ammo, or overpowered weapons. That’s right boys and girls, Hotline Miami is a brutally difficult game, and if you reveled in the punishing challenges that the likes of Super Meat Boy threw at you, then you are likely to get a kick out of this game too.
Because it’s easy to die, you will have to play cleverly. Running into a building guns blazing is usually an easy way to a fast demise, as you will alert an entire level’s worth of baddies. It’s about stealth, environmental awareness, and taking down enemies quickly and efficiently. Quite early on in the game, without really thinking, I found myself knocking down an armed enemy using a door, then quickly pummelling him to death using a golf club that happened to be lying nearby. As the room fell quiet and I realized I had managed to not alert a dozen armed goons nearby, I noticed my heart was rapidly beating, and I exhaled. It was at this point that I really fell in love with Hotline Miami. The game delivers an intensity that you will struggle to find elsewhere, and because of various gameplay mechanics, each kill feels utterly rewarding.
The learning curve is a bitch, and you often do not know how enemies will behave in certain situations. As you progress you will discover that enemies can see through windows, that bigger enemies will require two bullets to take down, only certain doors can be blasted through with a shotgun, and that you can’t punch guard dogs, among many other things that will have you restarting over, and over again. It’s frustrating, but extremely compelling.
Not only did the depth of the gameplay surprise me, but the narrative was almost shockingly well put together. Despite the crude delivery, the story really is quite intriguing, with some dark unexpected twists along the way. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re not squeamish and have a taste for more mature, arguably twisted themes, then you’re likely to get a lot out of the storyline.
Of course, it’s not perfect. The controls could be a little sharper at times, and there are a wide variety of unpolished game design features. It’s also a little short and offers little in the way of replayability, with its single difficulty level. Then there is the AI, which often borders on pathetic. However, it is the kind of game that will take you hostage, driving you mad with desire to progress and complete it, and for that, I have nothing but respect for Dennaton Games. To top it off, it’s going for $9.99 on Steam, making it an absolute must play.
UPDATE: You can also get the game for $9.99 from GOG.com. Thanks, PsiCoRe!