The Mechanics of Manslaughter: A Review of Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami is a ballet of impulsive violence performed under nauseatingly bright neon-lights, to a synth soundtrack that some-how makes the sickening mix go down smoothly. The 80’s era graphics and simple top-down shooter mechanics – think playing SmashTV on speed – are admittedly nostalgic, but nightmarishly so. Those pixelated graphics do very little to take away from brutality of the violence on display. The ground-kills, or “finishing moves”, never ceased to make me to grimace at my computer-screen.

Hotline Miami was developed by Dennaton Games, a two man team comprised of Jonatan Soderstrom and Dennis Wedin. It’s clear that Hotline Miami‘s art-design and setting (as-well as its theme, to a lesser extent) owe a debt to the Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive. The narrative – set in Florida, circa 1989 – is a blunt excuse for violence, but one which still manages to surprise the player with a few self-aware tricks up its sleeve.

Every level begins with a brief intro sequence, which takes place inside the player’s apartment. At first, these segments stuck me an particularly odd way to waste my time; not the most offensive design decision ever, but definitely a strange and indulgent one. For the first handful of levels, you start by crossing your meticulously-kept apartment to answer a ringing phone. It’s that simple: use WASD to move, then click the phone.  Cryptic dialog ensues, informing the player that they gotta go kill people. The reason: ahh… video-games? Then, you exit the apartment building and climb into your Delorean. And, well, you kill people. But as the game’s narrative begins to unfold, your apartment starts to look like it belongs to Travis Bickle. Small details like a discarded pizza-box and piles of laundry begin to add up and tell . A beaten prostitute you encounter during one mission then begins to live with you afterwards. Her presence becomes increasingly evident on the apartment. This is a descent into madness, glimpsed one frame at a time.

There was another design decision that bewildered me at first glance, then later revealed itself to be rather inspired one. After clearing a three-story building and completing the mission, I  began to wonder why the developers insisted upon me having to walk all the way back down the stairs to hop in my Delorean. Why not just end the level here? …I’m done, right? Again, this seemed to me like a befuddling waste of my time.

Then, I descended onto the second floor of the building, turned the wrong way and walked onward through a maze of corridors, only to realize I had to turn back around. The action leading up to the third-floor had been so frantic, so mind-numbingly chaotic, that I had forgotten the path I took to get there. I was stumbling through the blood-bath and carnage I had instigated, unsure of which way I had come, feeling dazed and riddled with jittery adrenaline. That single moment shocked me more than I could believe, more than a game like Hanhunter – with all of it’s semi-realistic graphics, folly-sound and gruesome animation – could ever have hoped to. Hotline Miami made me feel like a killer, facing the foggy hang-over that comes after a blood-thirsty rampage.

Boss fights are ridiculously unforgiving in Hotline Miami. In a game that promotes quick-thinking and seat-of-your-pants creativity, they stick-out as being punishingly linear. There is only one way to kill these bosses and it is never easy. You will internalize the timing of these encounters down to the half-second. Your muscle memory will develop, go through periods of reduced reaction-times, then finally recover in order to perform the series of precise twitches needed to succeed. Expect to attempt a simple series of actions (like grabbing a butcher’s knife from the ground, dodging, then throwing it) an un-countable amount of times before performing it correctly. Some boss fights took me close to an hour to beat. My final play-throughs, though, never took more than thirty seconds. While brutal and frustrating, these bosses are completable and immensely satisfying in hind-sight. The final boss – involving two purple panthers and a ninja – at first appears to be flat-out unbeatable. After an un-Godly amount of attempts, though, I succeeded – and so will you. My fingers were bleeding, but I was grinning. There is something immensely fulfilling about this game’s sadistic difficulty-curve.

Before entering every building, you are given a choice between the masks stashed inside your Delorean’s trunk to wear as a disguise. Each represents a different animal and each grants the player a unique advantage/disadvantage (everything from starting with the God-like silenced uzi to playing with reversed controls). Some masks are earned as a reward for high-scores and others are hidden through-out the game as collectables.

In fact, secrets are abound in Hotline Miami. Every level includes a floating pink pixel – weird, I know – that when clicked, unlocks a single letter. In the menu, you can rearrange these letters to form ‘the secret phrase’. There is a secret room to go along with this secret phrase, which serves as Hotline Miami‘s true ending. It’s cute and all, but it does’t amount to more than a half-hearted attempt at satirically pointing the finger at the player.

I’ve been dancing around talking about a very specific level – one which seemed to have caused many critics a great deal of grief – for fears that referencing it directly would spoil the experience for first-time players. I’m gunna have to put up a spoiler warning here, I’m afraid. This is something I’ll try to do as rarely as possible when discussing video-games.

…Okay, so you left, right? Good.

Now, I understand why people were so frustrated with the hospital level; I do, I really sympathize. But being an admirer of Metal Gear Solid 2, I have to applaud any game willingly to reject the concept of fun in order to achieve something larger. And I think we can all agree, no matter how feel about that hospital level, it was not fun. It sucked, pretty hard. Hotline Miami‘s mechanics are not well-suited to obligatory stealth sequences; but, that was the point, I think: disillusionment. The fun and games were put on hiatus, if only temporarily.

I loved Hotline Miami from start to finish and I would highly recommend it. One of the most memorable video games of 2012, hands down.

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