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Review: Hotline Miami makes you kill in its candy-colored world without remorse

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Hotline Miami is a game about cold-blooded murder, and at the heart of all of the killing is a soulless protagonist. You take on the role of a mask-wearing killer, essentially donning the guise of death yourself and never really having all the answers. All you know is that you need to kill or be killed, and in the world of Hotline Miami, executing such bloody, heartless acts makes for one of the most compelling, cathartic, and satisfying experiences to come along in video games all year. Is it sick and twisted? Oh, yeah. But is it rewarding as all hell? Definitely.

The year is in 1989. Florida is a land of brightly colored environments, and it’s up to you to add to all of that neon color by spilling blood and leaving stains of red practically everywhere. You never really understand what’s going on in the game world. You receive phone calls from different individuals and are asked to perform certain jobs. Sometimes you need to do a little cleanup duty. Other times, you need to tend to some guests. In other instances, you’re in talks with a lonely singles agency, and it’s up to you to impress your date for the evening. Or so it seems.

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Hotline Miami is rife with mystery from beginning to end. Whenever you get these odd phone calls, that’s usually your cue to head over to a building and waste everyone within. Between chapters you encounter a group of men wearing masks of their own who inform you that you’re performing some sadistic deeds and that there’s really no hope left for you. This hardly provides any answers, but it’s this element of never really understanding what’s happening that makes Hotline Miami such a rush. The confusion, the mystery, the ambiguity — all of these components make the game even more horrifically brutal. Neither you nor your character really understand why you must kill, and knowing as much as the murderer whose shoes you fill creates a compelling player-and-protagonist connection.

Despite the powerful themes of death and decadence, Hotline Miami doesn’t tell its story through traditional means. You won’t get a bunch of snazzy sequences, and you’re often left in the dark. Instead, you discover your own twisted tale as you play. After receiving your instructions over the phone, you head on over to a location that’s flooded with armed thugs. It’s obvious these men are quite familiar with murder themselves. They’re no better than you, but they’re armed and traveling in groups, so it’s up to you to decide how to dispose of them all and how to survive the night.

The top-down camera angle allows you to survey your environment and plan the best attack strategy. You enter every new level unarmed and securing a weapon is completely pivotal to your survival. Sometimes, you can get the jump on a dude by running up to him and punching him, taking his weapon, and then destroying him with it. Other times, it’s not so easy. The world around you is a weapon and a hiding place. Hotline Miami forces you to creep behind walls, ambush your enemies, and even use doors to knock them down. Many times, you’re tasked with entering a room and simultaneously knocking down a gun-toting enemy, then rushing another guy who’s got a knife or pipe in hand and eliminating him. After that, it’s absolutely essential to your survival that you return to the dude you knocked down in the first place and slit his throat before he gets the chance to stand up and recover his weapon.

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Hotline Miami presents you with a myriad of choices, and sometimes the game is going at such a fast pace that you really need to think on the fly. Do you have to sneak around stealthily and methodically eliminate your targets? No, you can take a gun, shoot a dude in the head and then watch as his buddies swarm the room, all armed with deadly weapons of their own. You can either pick them off one by one as they enter the room or strategically retreat and murder them as you see fit. Hell, if you want to pretend you’re playing mind games with these guys, you can do exactly that. There’s an inherent thrill while playing Hotline Miami, and there’s something truly rewarding about surviving a room and seeing all of the devastation you’ve caused.

Of course, you don’t always survive. Hotline Miami is a tough game, and because you’re constantly outnumbered, you can expect to die a lot. Like, hundreds of times. Surprisingly, death isn’t frustrating in this game. You can look around and get a good view of your surroundings, so when your character is taken out, it’s up to you to devise a new attack plan. Facing a gang of goons head-on doesn’t always work, nor does lying in wait to get the jump on a dude. Hotline Miami keeps you guessing and plotting the entire time, and because of that, it remains entertaining the whole way through. While you’re always killing fools, the ways in which you can do so and the many approaches at your disposal make entering every new level a complete blast.

The wonderfully brutal gameplay is easily the heart of Hotline Miami, but the experience is decorated with candy-colored neon visuals. Everything is pixelated and is quite reminiscent of the NES era. It would be easy for a lot of folks to scoff at the idea of an ultraviolent game losing a bit of its luster due to its old school visual direction, but that’s not the case at all with Hotline Miami. Despite the fact that everything has a stylistically driven retro aesthetic, the game’s violence still shines through. Hotline Miami is as bloody, gory, and violent as anything you’d find on the current generation of hardware, and honestly, it’s a hell of a lot more stylish than most offerings.

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As if pulling off kills wasn’t totally exciting in and of itself, the game’s soundtrack adds a lot to the experience. Everywhere you go — whether it’s a club with flashing lights, a fancy restaurant, or a high-class apartment complex — you’re treated to an incredible collection of themes. The music is loud and exhilarating, and taking a katana to a gang of dudes while the music plays on in the background makes for an awesome ride.

Hotline Miami makes the act of dealing out punishment and death a completely enjoyable experience. The catharsis you feel as you kill hordes of foes is immeasurable. The satisfaction of your deeds as you head back to your car and witness the bodies of your victims is strangely immense. And the confusion you experience every time you get a phone call, interact with a character, or get treated to some pizza by a friendly pizza parlor employee is grotesquely intriguing. In its roughly four hours of length, Hotline Miami is one of the single most impressive endeavors of the last year. It forces you to kill without ever knowing why, and you can’t help but feel both a bit dirty and completely badass by the end of it all.

Want to talk about indie games, Kirby, or cheap pizza? Follow me on Twitter @dr_davidsanchez.

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David Sanchez David Sanchez is the most honest man on the internet. You can trust him because he speaks in the third person.
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