Two-Headed Review: Hotline Miami (PC)

[Editor's Note: Both Alex and Tristan have been playing the ultra-violent Hotline Miami, so they figured why not pool their critical resources and review it together? The following is the discussion this unusual, fascinating and disturbing game prompted.]

Alex: So here we both are; bathed in neon, gore and synthetic vespers of a throbbing soundtrack. Hotline Miami. The blood is still wet on your fingers, so go ahead and tell me what you thought the game was going to be and what it actually ended up being.

Tristan: Despite the odd trailer you threw my way, I must admit that I didn’t buy into any of the hype surrounding this indie gem. I had very little idea what I was in for in terms of play and mechanics.

I did, however, know it was going was going to be violent; but I didn’t expect to find an evolution of the puzzle genre hidden behind a series of animal masks. Each situation, rendered in a wave of color unbecoming of something so grotesque, poses a riddle with multiple solutions. Also surprising were the story sequences which posed some questions that made me a little uncomfortable.

Alex: One of the very few games that deserve that tired old industry buzzword “visceral.”

But yeah, it’s a puzzle game at the end of the day. A violent, lo-fi period piece of a puzzle. The only other game that taps into the 80s era so effectively is, of course, GTA: Vice City… but somehow, this goes beyond that, making very economic mileage on simply the audio-visual ticket. I’m really not sure how they managed to pull it off so well, given the actual game is really only about the optimizing paths through very simplistic environments.

Tristan: I think presentation has a lot to do with that mileage. The soundtrack creates this real sense of place and purpose, with action sequences scored with up-tempo club numbers, while the intermissions feature these laid-back, hazy tracks that, when combined, almost made me feel as though I was in a trance.

Time seemed to evaporate when playing this game. The first time I booted it up, I got stuck on the sixth chapter and must’ve replayed the same segment for about an hour straight. The same track was playing the entire time, but it didn’t grate. I’d have happily listened to it for another hour had I not felt the irrepressible urge to hit the hay.

Alex: I never once got incensed or annoyed by failure in this game, on that note. Kind of like the Call of Duty or Super Meat Boy respawn method, getting back into the action is instantaneous. If it weren’t the case, I think we’d be less affectionate.

Tristan: I’d agree with that observation with a few minor notes. Firstly, it was slightly irritating that you couldn’t skip through dialog sequences that prefixed the challenging boss fights and some floors’ worth of goons. Also, I thought there were some quirks in regards to hit detection — particularly in the later stages.

You’re right though, having no lag between when you die and press respawn is essential to the “flow” of proceedings.

Alex: Just to get this out of the way, what’d be your elevator pitch in describing Hotline Miami to an intrigued pundit?

Tristan: Have you ever wanted to play a Bret Easton Ellis novel? Or maybe something along the lines of “Tetris meets Fight Club, with New Order at the decks?”

Alex: Sounds about right. I’d call it Frozen Synapse Pinball. It’s incredibly tactical, but powered on pure lizard brain instinct and reaction. I mean, when you step back and think about those encounters where you’ve cleared a stage entirely of goons, the cumulative action sequences might measure around ten or so seconds. Most of that action would have started with a rough idea, but at least for me, rarely did it go according to that plan – at least on the first run.

I love that chaotic aspect. Making do. My favorite opener was killing with a door, but from there? I could never in good faith plan further than that.

Give me your take on the combat.

Tristan: The pinball analogy (can’t speak for the Frozen Synapse part of it) is pretty apt in my opinion. Bouncing from room to room, luring thugs and dogs to death by knife or golf club to set up big combos, and hoping like hell that you don’t crap out when there’s one or two goons left on the proverbial table characterized my experience.

Masks had a noticeable impact on my approach to combat, and I found it really hard to experiment once I discovered my favorite. After my first playthrough, I experimented with some of the end game unlocks and found that few offered the security that “Ted” did.

Like you said though, little actually goes according to plan, and I found that random aspect to be both a blessing and a curse. Dispatching six enemies with three perfectly-placed shotgun shells is infinitely satisfying, but having those same few shells stop at one on some attempts instead of fulfilling their destructive potential was aggravating. The random weapon generation in certain scenarios also caused me some grief.

Alex: In what way?

Tristan: There’s a boss fight, for example, where you’ve got to repel waves of foes; some of which are immune to melee weapons. Each time I died, I found a new assortment of weapons would spawn with me. On some occasions, there was not one gun to be found; meaning that I’d either have to accept the inevitable, or somehow use that single round I had left in my shotgun waste five goons. Persistence obviously pays dividends, but I’m certain I wouldn’t have died half as many times if a favorable load-out was a certainty.

Alex: A fair call. Despite this, I have to give the game some serious kudos for somehow engendering a relatively simplistic combat system with such variety and option, which perhaps vindicates the random weapon aspect. It’s amazing what you can do, even by the seat of your pants. And it leaves you with such a stinging sense of accomplishment. I dunno, for a graphically austere experience, the brutal kinetics of comprehending and clearing is utterly empowering. Why?! Is it the abstracted lightning-fast carnage? It leaves me feeling buzzed and grubby.

Tristan: Agreed, and that variety makes for some awesome displays of gore. Teeing-off some poor bastard’s head with a 5 iron, exposing intestines with a pump-action shotgun, and carving torsos in twain is all par for the course in Hotline Miami. At first glance you might assess the visuals to be primitive, but they have a real impact.

Despite looking of the 8 bit era, this is an unmistakably mature tale. I loved how each intermission posed more questions. Why are these people so warm towards me? Who’s making these phone calls? Should I be enjoying this?

Alex: Interestingly, the crazy narrative probably wouldn’t work outside of a heavily stylized game like Hotline Miami. It’s just too loose and abstract. Here, amid the chaotic color palette and brain-burned stylistic idiosyncrasies, somehow it fits.

Just in regards to the violence, I think the most masterfully programmed piece of directed player experience is, upon clearing an entire level, how the music cuts out and is replaced by a low humming synth. It’s so… I don’t know, I get visions of Gaspar Noe films. This subtly oppressive ambiance that then follows you as you backtrack to your car, being forced – and this is key – to wade back through the carnage of your own doing. The blood spilled by your own doing. For me, it’s Hotline Miami at its most poignant.

And you’ve said that it’s 2012′s most important game. What’s your reasoning? While that’s a big call, I’m inclined to agree with you.

Tristan: Hotline Miami is haunting. After finishing the first few chapters — leaving floor after floor of apartment buildings, offices (wherever the hell I was), covered in blood, body parts and entrails — my primary concern at first wasn’t who these people were and why I was asked to kill them, it was my score. Before long though, those questions I was talking about before start to take hold.

They may not be answered in the most satisfying way when it’s all said and done, but even in spite of some truly horrifying scenarios, the first thing I wanted to do was jump right back in.

Every aspect of the game is designed so well, and they each come together to form this vile, loathsome creature that won’t let go. It’s ugly, it’s punishing, and its just shy of perfect. For just shy of ten dollars, you’d be hard-pressed to find something so masterfully-conceived.

Alex: Absolutely. From the pinpoint controls, the grotesque spree-based test of situational awareness, the memorable soundtrack, the psychosis-effected exposition, the way it takes it takes moral advantage of your increasing skill…I think it’s just another shining feather in the indie cap.

It’s funny, though. Hotline Miami is one of the very, very few games that are exactly what parent groups and social activists have been assuming the medium is primarily composed of. The hyper violence, that Columbine-esque rampage mentality. However, unlike most other titles that feature contentious levels of murder and death, Hotline Miami makes you feel some semblance of… I don’t know, remorse might be too strong a word, but it did put a spotlight on what a lot of video gaming is composed of. It’s not preachy about it, probably cheekily quite the opposite when you get your style report card at the end of a mission, but it makes you think. Even for a second. The last game to do that, and on a much lighter level, was Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. But Hotline Miami, well, that’s just another thing entirely.

Any final thoughts?

Tristan: Remorse paired with a sense of helplessness, maybe. Where most stealth games encourage non-lethal encounters or avoiding enemies altogether, Hotline Miami demands that you leave no survivors. Even in those few cases where your target begs for mercy, you need to pull the trigger (or worse).

That’s probably why the whole package is so effective: it takes no prisoners and wills you forward even when you’re not sure who’s on the other end of the line. But you still need, and perhaps more importantly, want to answer that call.

Alex: Pick up the phone and prepare to get your hands dirty, whoever the hell you are.

Hotline Miami is available now from Steam and GOG.com. A review copy was provided to Games Are Evil by the publisher.

Highly recommended.

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