Hey Kids, want to go on a trip? How about a psychedelic murderous rampage against some gangsters with a variety of weapons while wearing a pig mask? Hope you're not shy about stomping guy's heads into a wall and slitting peoples throats! Welcome to Hotline Miami!
At it's core, Hotline Miami is a top down 16-bit action game. While it may look like a twin-stick shooter, the game quickly becomes a puzzle game as you decide what weapon to use in what scenario to reduce alerting the entire level of enemies. Every level starts you out with a quick introductory sequence before it allows you to start murdering entire buildings of bad guys. The gameplay might feel a bit hardcore in that there's little room for error but it's still new-age enough that the levels are concise. You also instantly restart if you die at the beginning of the level or section of level similar to Super Meat Boy so frustration is kept to a minimum.While gamepad functionality is available I used a keyboard and mouse for the entire game.
It only took a few levels to realize that holding Shift to look around the level & middle mouse to auto target a specific enemy was mandatory to succeed. Thinking about this game as something like Smash-TV would be a mistake. Each level must be approached with carefully planning, usually with repeated failures, to navigate the level in a way that allows you to dispatch enemies without bringing down the whole level on your head. Gameplay is tight. I never felt like I died because of the controls; I just made mistakes. The AI is unforgiving and surgical with their weapons but it's also a logical construct you can figure out and manipulate to complete a level. Weapons feel like they pack a punch and even with the old-school aesthetic felt very satisfying to use. The surprisingly graphic kill animations and amount of blood certainly help with player feedback.
There is a point system that rewards you for risky play as well as quick subsequent kills with more points added on top if you vary your kill methods. Personally, I was mainly concerned with simply completing the level than going for a high score but some masochists will want to battle for high scores, I'm sure.
In addition, you can customize your play style a tad by picking different unlockable masks. The mask effects range from making your fists do more damage, increasing the amount of guns in a level or starting you with a knife where you usually start empty handed. New weapons that show up in levels unlock as your total score for all chapters increases. That being said, actual weapons that appear in levels seem somewhat random so you don't have total control over items you will be using. The game makes sure you have to adapt to the somewhat random nature of the levels.
As for the story, you're playing as a hit man that gets thinly veiled phone calls directing you to slaughter a whole bunch of seemingly bad people. Maybe. The story is intentionally thin and vague with the tip screens encouraging you to pay attention to details. Bits of story are handed out peace-meal over time, sometimes by men in animal masks. Something bad happened to your girlfriend. I know that. And you're in the 80s. American Psycho comes to mind as you quickly start to suspect that's what's occurring on screen may or may not be real. Saying more about the story may ruin the experience.
If you haven't already gathered from the screenshots, Hotline Miami is ultra-violent and somehow more severe because of the 16 bit graphics. The detail not present on screen only serves for your imagination to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, the developers seemed intent to fill the entire game with psychedelic overtones and graphical effects from title screen to closing credits. Title screens are neon and wave about with reversed letters.VHS-tracking-esque graphical and auditory oddities frequently show up at key moments furthering the suspicion that something is more wrong here than the massive amounts of violence and creepy masks. The masks add to the already disturbing atmosphere but also have a connection to the story. You feel like your main character is on a combination of acid and cocaine to deal with some horrible trauma.
Music is both 80s and trippy depending on the scene. It's also so phenomenal that I almost want to buy the soundtrack. Weapons sound retro yet decidedly punchy. Enemies faces smoosh in a disgustingly satisfying fashion. Blood splatters on walls and pools around bodies that will pile up into gory, nightmarish scenes. When the media talks about video games being "murder simulators" they're usually wrong but this game might actually win the moniker for real.
Fair warning, Hotline Miami doesn't have any graphical options to speak of; not even resolution or v-sync. Perhaps this was unintentional or perhaps the developers didn't feel it necessary because of the aesthetic they chose. The game will take you between 4 and 6 hours depending on how many times you die. And you will die, a lot. I did encounter some legitimate frustration during certain boss battles due to a lack of direction but again, this seems like an intentional design decision. I picked up Hotline Miami for 5$ on a Steam sale and for that price, it's definitely worth purchasing. While I enjoyed my time with the game, this may not be for everyone. Games have made steps forward to be more directed experiences in the last 10 years. I would not call Hotline Miami very accessible so be warned. If this type of experience sounds good, I would highly recommend snapping it up during the Steam Christmas sale.