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.
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!