Developed by Dennaton Games and published by Devolver Digital, Hotline Miami (HLM) is an 8-bit indie flashback to 1989 Miami. Released Jun. 25 on Playstation Network and the PS Vita, Hotline Miami asks that you don your club jacket and step into the white loafers of Jacket, the game’s protaganist. As Jacket, the player will hack and shoot their way through the Russian Mafia at the request of a series of answering machine messages. These messages seem fairly innocuous- a hotel needs help with a VIP, an office needs help with the front desk because the receptionist left early, etc. Upon reaching the addresses specified in the messages it soon becomes clear that Jacket’s actual line of work may be something far more unsavory than temping. HLM leaves it up to the player to decide whether Jacket is a hitman or a delusional psychopath.
Mix ambient and techno with absinthe, add a tablespoon of 80’s electronica and a dash of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and you’ll have the soundtrack for Hotline Miami. HLM does something with its music that few indie games can; it provides a musically offbeat background that complements its 8-bit violence and over-arching storyline wonderfully. Sometimes twangy and sometimes a little bit pop, the music of HLM proves that memorable music doesn’t always mean paying hefty royalties. True to the format of an old-school Nintendo fighting game, the grunts and yells of bad guys as you pummel them with an Uzi or club do much to up the nostalgia quotient.
Though completing a level generally means painting it red with swaths of bad guy blood, what really stands out are the details. HLM consistently strives to push the 8-bit format to its limits with little things that make gameplay seem more realistic. Pausing outside a door, the player may notice a puff of smoke from the bodyguard on the other side. Just got home after a particularly bloody job, note the blood-stained t-shirt on the bathroom door and the blood in the sink. The developers of HLM evidently decided that low-res graphics should not mean that the bad guys forfeit their drug den complete with some blow on a glass table top. The rubber animal masks awarded upon completion of levels or for high level scores also add to the twisted ambiance of HLM. Prior to beginning each level, the player is able to select from one of their accumulated animal masks which act as HLM’s power-up system. Masks award perks like weapons or increased range of view and must be earned or found by searching levels. Unlocking new masks and better perks make the challenging gameplay of HLM worthwhile as better perks mean an easier time clearing a difficult level.
Browsing through the trophies list of any game will generally provide some big clues about a game. A trophy for collecting all the magic stones would be an indicator that for one reason or another, some magic stones will need to be collected. A trophy for weapons expertise usually means a lot of killing to get some expertise on those weapons. And if there is a trophy for Karma, expect to die…a lot. HLM will give you trophies for number of bad guys killed too but it’s the Karma trophy that stands out. Awarded for 1000 deaths, this is a trophy usually reserved for multi-player first-person shooters or an online RPG.
While melee weapons can be used often and frequently, guns are often necessary to the completion of a level. HLM utilizes an auto-aim feature for the core of its gunplay. Without the auto-aim feature, the player has a small cross-hair with limited mobility. Moving the cross-hair around is tricky and takes too long. Comparatively the auto-aim feature allows the player to select an enemy with the cross-hair like an auto-zoom. Once selected, the cross-hair and Jacket’s weapon will track the selected enemy until that enemy is killed. When this function works, it works well. Unfortunately auto-aim does not work much of the time. Clicking auto-aim will highlight the nearest enemy, not the one posing the most imminent danger. Jacket frequently dies with his gun pointed in the wrong direction, at an enemy in a nearby room instead of the enemy in front of him. Also, when confronted by multiple enemies, auto-aim must be clicked to highlight each new enemy. This is time consuming and not always effective as auto-aim will frequently highlight enemies who pose no imminent threat.
Hotline Miami does many things well. It is nostalgic and melodic and boasts a solid if sometimes confusing storyline. Fans of 8-bit third person shooters will appreciate HLM’s ode to the late eighties gameplay and atmosphere. HLM is a worthwhile play for those with inner-calm and the bits of plot revealed prior to each new level will keep the gamer intrigued about HLM’s protagonist until the very end.