Hotline Miami (PC) review

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There is a plot intertwined amongst the levels in Hotline Miami, but it is a vague and bland one.  You play as an unnamed man who receives messages on his answering machine, sending him to certain addresses to “take care” of the residents within.  Upon reaching the location, your character puts on a mask and enters the building to brutally murder everyone he finds inside.  In between these levels, you get small scenes that are meant to slowly add up to something.  However, you must find secret collectibles throughout the levels in order to get the “true” ending and actually make some sense of the proceedings.  For those who don’t do this (like me), the story really never amounts to anything.  It just manages to be weird and moody, giving barely enough of a carrot on a stick in order to keep you going from level to level.

Gameplay is the meat of the experience in Hotline Miami, and it is quite unlike anything else on the market.  You play from a top-down perspective with the ability to punch/swing your weapon/shoot your gun, throw your held weapon, and take down any knocked down enemies.  Your goal is to clear every stage of enemies without getting taken out yourself.  This can be quite difficult, however, as you are extremely fragile and the enemies are plentiful.  It becomes a challenge of managing various rooms and enemy patrol patterns, a strange mix of puzzle and action gaming.

It starts off as a fun and tense experience, where you carefully try to avoid pulling too many enemies and getting overwhelmed.  When things are going well, it all moves with a speed that is unmatched in any other game of its type. Being able to restart a level pretty much immediately certainly helps.  It’s very easy to get into a rhythm where you just mow down enemy after enemy and plow straight through an entire level with no problems. The adrenaline rush is pulsing through your body (helped by the intense groovy beats) and everything is great…until the later levels.

Very quickly, the difficulty jumps up substantially; this is where Hotline Miami starts to reveal its rough edges.  As the number of enemies increases, the game becomes MUCH harder to wing and instead starts to rely on precise trial-and-error gameplay.  One would think it would be possible to eventually learn the patterns and manage through any level, right?  Well, this isn’t actually the case.  Enemy AI doesn’t seem to be set in any way–sometimes, you’ll have a guy who hasn’t moved out of his room in twenty attempts suddenly decide to poke his head out at EXACTLY the wrong time.

Even worse is that the rules of the game don’t seem to be very consistent.  Guns are meant to be the last resort, as they are loud and attract a bunch of attention…except when they don’t.  Sometimes, firing a gun several times doesn’t attract any other guys; other times, one single shot has the entire level’s worth of guys breathing down your neck.  The number of bullets to kill an enemy also seems somewhat random.  I was able to kill three guys with shotgun blasts on one attempt and only one on the next.  It’s hard to plan how to take out a room when you only have two shots in your gun and no idea how many enemies that will actually kill.

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To top all this off, the controls were a bit too touchy for my liking.  You can freely aim with the mouse (or right analog stick), but this cursor often felt like it got stuck for me.  I would try to turn and shoot an approaching enemy, clearly moving my mouse accurately, and watch in annoyance as it didn’t quite make it there for no apparent reason.  Aiming the melee weapons can also be rather frustrating–they have such small hitboxes that I often found myself missing entirely and ending up on the floor.  All of these gameplay issues come together to make an experience that starts fun (and occasionally returns to) but eventually devolves into a maddening trial-and-error gameplay loop that rivals some of the worst stealth games out there.

It’s not all bad, though.  The atmosphere in Hotline Miami envelops you in a psychedelic, 70s inspired haze that is entrancing in a way I have never seen before.  Everything from the bright neon color palette to the pounding, AMAZING soundtrack draws you hypnotically into the world of the game and makes it hard to break free from when you’re finished.  This is a strikingly gory game, as well, featuring brutal kill animations and gallons of pixelated blood.  It was enough to make me a little squeamish at times, even with its simplistic graphical nature.  My one (small) complaint about this aesthetic is that it made certain levels hard to understand from a gameplay point-of-view, particularly any level with (nearly-invisible) windows, which can be shot through.  Otherwise, this game is a audio-visual masterpiece.

I could spend hours watching and listening to Hotline Miami–I just don’t want to play it.  While the gameplay can be exciting and entertaining in the beginning stages, it quickly devolves into frustrating repetition of trying to find the correct path through an area, while also praying that the AI cooperates enough to let you make it through unscathed.  It all felt much too unpredictable for my liking; all too often, I felt like I executed perfectly but failed due to an unexpected deviation in the enemy’s patterns.  Too quickly, Hotline Miami shifted from an enjoyable experience to a hair-pulling nightmare.  I’m sure there are those people out there who love this random challenge, but I am not one of them.

For those who aren’t fans of trial-and-error gameplay, I encourage you to stay away.  You should still pick up the soundtrack though!

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Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f (Vita) review

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I love rhythm games.  Few things give me as much of a thrill as nailing a section of particularly tough notes.  That moment when a song hits the chorus and the note patterns pick up always sends shivers down my spine.  I can’t get enough of this genre.  Like most people, I fell in love with the Rock Band series, spending hours strumming a plastic guitar to a variety of tunes.  However, I always wished that I didn’t need to pull out a giant extra controller just to play them.  I wanted something that let me use a normal controller, similar to how I had played Dance Dance Revolution for hours with one.  Finally, my dreams have been answered.  Even better, they’ve been answered on the portable Vita.  Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f is a fantastic rhythm game that I can play on my Vita with no extra hardware required.

Gameplay in Project Diva f is typical for the genre.  You choose a song from the 38 available (six of which are bonus songs, purchasable in a $10 DLC pack), pick a difficulty, and try to hit as many of the notes as you can before the song is over.  There are standard notes and held notes, as well as dark notes that require you to hit both the direction on the d-pad and the standard button at the same time.   Also, there are special star notes that require you to swipe the touch screen.  Various sections of the song challenge you to hit all the notes in that section–doing so earns you bonus points.  After you finish a song, you are scored on how accurately you hit the notes and how many of them you hit, with ranks varying from failure to perfection.

On the Vita, Project Diva f feels great.  Since the developers knew the refresh rate of the screen, they were able to set the audio/visual delay to be perfect.  Tapping along to a series of notes always feels in-time and rewarding.  While the variety of notes is simple, the creators do a great job of mixing things up with challenging note patterns and tempo shifts to keep things engaging.  The flashy music videos that play in the background can also add to the difficulty, as notes will sometimes be hard to see through the various colors and moving images.  By the time I made it to Extreme difficulty, I was forced to have perfect mastery over the controls and the ability to read what was coming quickly in order to react.  It’s far from the hardest rhythm game but it packs enough challenge for all but the most die-hard rhythm game fans.

2One of the largest factors in determining whether or not you’ll like Project Diva f is if you like the music or not.  Vocaloid music has particular cadences and instrumentation that may not be to everyone’s appeal.  I highly advise listening to some songs on Youtube before making a purchase, unless you have heard the music before and know it is to your tastes.  Those who stick around will find a great variety of songs that range from the slower, mellow God-Tier Tune to the breakneck pace and shredding guitar of Senbonzakura.  It isn’t the largest collection of songs, meaning those who spend a lot of time with the game may tire of the selection, but I feel it packs enough longevity for most players.

In addition to the rhythm gameplay, there are a few other things to mess around with.  Project Diva f features an area called the Diva Room where you can interact with the various vocaloids.  These interactions range from mild things like giving gifts to somewhat creepy ones like rubbing their heads with the touch screen.  You can also decorate these rooms with items purchased with your Diva Points (earned from playing the rhythm portion of the game) or change the vocaloids’ outfits to better suit your tastes.  It all works well but likely won’t interest the lion’s share of people due to its shallow and slightly voyeuristic nature.  If you have no interest in the game’s trophies or in playing house with the vocaloids, you don’t need to spend much time here.

Also noteworthy is the Edit Mode.  This mode lets you take any of the existing music in the game (or any MP3s you have on your memory stick) and build your own tracks to play later.  You can edit everything from the camera movements and the dancing of the character to the note patterns that play over the song.  This is an intensely deep mode that resembles a video editing program in complexity.  Once you’re done editing, you can save the data and even upload it online for others to download and play.  It’s a great mode for those who like to be creative; fans of the rhythm game portion of Project Diva f, however, will likely give it only a few minutes before forgetting it even exists.

Finally, there is the AR section of the game.  While you can watch the video for any song in the game through the Play mode, AR mode lets you watch special augmented-reality concerts using the Vita’s camera.  By printing out the special AR card, you can bring Hatsune Miku to life and watch her dance to eight songs on your desk or table.  It’s a cute and interesting novelty, worth seeing once or twice to laugh at how silly it is.  Also in this section is the ability to take pictures of the various Vocaloids.  You can put them in a variety of poses and outfits before taking as many pictures as your heart desires.  Obviously, this mode caters to a very specific subset of players–if this is something you’re interested in, you know it already.  Otherwise, you will likely ignore this section entirely.

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f has a lot of extra features that I don’t care to spend any time with.  Outside of grinding trophies (earned the platinum!), I didn’t bother with the Diva Room or Edit Mode.  Still, even with all this extra “useless” content, I’ve still managed to spend nearly twenty hours with just the rhythm portion of the game (which I know thanks to a playtime clock).  Outside of a few stinkers, I have yet to tire of the game’s soundtrack.  Every day, I boot the game up again and try to earn a better ranking on another song or try a harder song on the game’s Extreme difficulty.  This is a game I see myself playing for a long time to come, in between my other games.  It’s a fantastic rhythm game that I can play anywhere: exactly what I’ve been hoping for all these years.

A girl named Luka…

NOTE: I apologize for the terrible quality of the images, but I wanted to have pictures of Luka.  I had to take these with my tablet off my TV, and this was the best I could do.

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I ended up being pleasantly surprised by Lightning Returns.  The previews for it looked strange, almost indecipherable.  Everything from the combat to the tone of the story seemed radically changed from the past games in the series.  It looked like an entirely different kind of game, one that might not contain what I had liked about the last two games.  I bought it with no small amount of trepidation, wondering if I had just wasted my $60.

After I started playing, however, I couldn’t put it down.  Few games manage to enthrall me as completely as Lightning Returns did; I couldn’t stop playing until I had consumed all the content it contained.  While I greatly enjoyed just about everything about the game, what really impressed me about Lightning Returns was its world.  It seemed standard and somewhat boring at first, but a certain side quest made me think about the world in a different way–hell, in a way I have never thought about any game world before.

To help you realize the meaningfulness of this side quest, I first need to give you a bit of information about the world of Lightning Returns.  After the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, an entity named Chaos has began to overtake the world.  Anything it touches vanishes into nothingness, never to return for the rest of eternity.  Every day, this darkness creeps ever inwards, claiming another town or village in its inexorable march towards annihilation.  Eventually–inevitably–Chaos will devour the entire world.

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For those who manage to (temporarily, at least) escape Chaos’ dark clutches, there are a few side effects to this new world.  No one ages, meaning death only comes to those who receive bodily harm or fall ill.  Everyone has also become infertile, unable to produce any new life to replace the slowly-dying population.  Because of these side effects, the only humans who remain after 500 years of Chaos are those who managed to be careful and lucky enough to survive.  This remaining population waits uneasily for the end of the world, when all humankind will simply cease to exist.

Now that you understand the world a bit, let’s talk about a girl named Luka.  While she looks like a child, it’s important to remember that she has lived just as long as anyone else at this point–500 years and change.  Luka stands outside the South Station in Luxerion (one of the last cities in the world) and sells her tears to passersby.  Through her quest, you learn about her past: an acting career, an unrequited love and his unfortunate death, and a new profession–selling tears to those who can no longer feel after such a long life

It’s a very simple quest, one that plays out automatically.  You simply visit Luka four times, paying her increasing fees each time, and the quest progresses naturally.  Luka realizes she cannot cry for herself anymore, her heart just as hard and uncaring as those she cries for.  Lightning’s cruel but honest words draw Luka’s tears out, and the girl realizes that crying for money hurts her ability to cry for herself.  She vows to never sell her tears again.

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It’s a touching quest, with some excellent voice acting by Luka, but its meaning is not really why this quest became so consuming for me.  It’s not why I went back to see her at any cost, even when the game’s explicit time limit made doing so difficult.  I went back to see this girl again and again because of the questions her story made me ask about the world of Nova Chrysalia.

How do children who never age and never grow up adapt and fit into adult society?  Do they live with their parents for centuries, or do they eventually leave the nest and learn to live on their own?  Are they given typical adult jobs when they are deemed “grown-up” enough to work?  Should they still be called “children” or “little girl/boy” if they are hundreds of years old?  These were all questions that went through my mind as I spoke with Luka and heard her story.

However, there was one question in particular that I couldn’t stop thinking about: could (or should?) it ever be acceptable and normal for an adult and a child to enter a romantic relationship?  Luka mentions her acting teacher, an older man that she admits to being in love with.  According to her, he never returned her feelings.  As Luka says, “Even though we spent decades together, he never stopped treating me like a child.”  Did this man actually feel the same way and was just afraid to act due to the taboo nature of such a relationship?  Or was it impossible for him to see her as anything but a child due to her bodily appearance?

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Thoughts about this topic plagued my brain for days on end after finishing this quest.  I wanted–needed–to know if there were any other examples of this type of relationship in the world of Lightning Returns.  I went back and forth on whether or not a society like this one (or myself, for that matter) could eventually adapt to the idea of a taboo relationship such as this. Would a “child” be able to attain emotional maturity without going through puberty first?  Is it really pedophilia, just because one person is in a child’s body, if both parties are over 500 years old?

These are strange questions, I know, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.  I had known that no one aged in this world before talking to Luka, but it was her story that made me stop and consider what that really meant.  I started to ponder questions like the ones I mentioned above and think about the world of Lightning Returns on a grander scale.  Instead of thinking of the world as a game, I began to imagine it as a real place with real concerns and moral considerations.  Trying to understand this fictional world and its people was an intense fascination I couldn’t easily let go of.

I’m not the kind of person who usually gets invested in a world like this.  Most of the time, I blow through games so quickly that I don’t even stop to consider what it is I just did.  Lightning Returns didn’t let me do that.  It offered up a side quest so engaging and fascinating that I stopped dead in my tracks.  I was no longer concerned with finishing the game; I wanted to understand it and the world it had hinted at but not fully explained.  After Luka’s quest, I can never look at a game world the same way again.