Hotline Miami is disturbing on several levels, and vague on an equal number. There’s no clear answer as to who you are, why you’re doing any of this, or who’s asking you to do it. You’ll be asked if you like to hurt others, to which you’ll answer, “No, of course not, only a psychopath likes to hurt people.” At which point you’ll proceed to the next level and repeatedly violently murder the same few enemies until you’ve killed them efficiently enough to win. It raises the question of why we enjoy killing in games and violence in media in general. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun to play. If the messages in Hotline Miami are any indication, I may be damned anyway, for enjoying it.
The gameplay in Hotline Miami is simple. Controlling the player-character with WASD and aiming with the mouse, you’ll strategically, or recklessly, move through levels in order to take out enemies, which can be accomplished with a variety of tools. The options boil down to three categories; fists, melee and firearms. Each type of weapon has inherent pros and cons; killing with your fists often nets the most points but takes the longest (requiring a finishing move), melee weapons offer a quick and silent method and the best balance (and can also be thrown as less effective long-ranged alternatives), and guns get the job done quickly but are loud and will alert other enemies. The gameplay hook is in the difficulty and constant loop of quick death and revival. You can, and will, die dozens of times on any given level, but you’ll always be thrown right back into the fray (fully restarting the area in which you died), so there’s never a dull moment.
My only real problem with Hotline Miami is its controls. They simply don’t feel intuitive enough for the quick and precise motions you’ll need to enact to play effectively. They’re workable, but far from optimal. The option to play with an Xbox 360 gamepad is afforded, though I didn’t get to try it, and can’t say whether or not it’s an improvement over the mouse and keyboard.
Hotline Miami wouldn’t be the same without its electric soundtrack and its slick, neon-centric visual design, which borrows from Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. The soundtrack is a mix of psychedelic and electric, bass-heavy music, not all of which is original to the game, but fantastic nonetheless. Hotline Miami’s visual style is awash in neon pinks and purples, reminiscent of Drive and it’s 80s film inspirations. The now iconic scorpion jacket even makes a cameo, and Refn is specifically thanked in the credits of the game.
Hotline Miami is a neon delight on the eyes and a rhythmic delight on the ears. It offers an unexpectedly interesting story with more than a few subversive messages, none of which seems overreaching. And although it may cause you to question why you enjoy it, the fun isn’t diminished. Hotline Miami is a unique experience, and one deserving of your time.