Pixel artists should really stop trying to make retro demakes of modern video games and movies. I get it, it’s fun to do pixel art, heck, I mess around with pixels every now and again. But you can only appreciate so many pixelated pictures of the movie Drive before it starts getting old.
Besides, what’s the point in making images like that when there’s a full game around that brings that pure pulpy retro feel forward, complete with skull-crunching finishing moves? Okay, so maybe Hotline Miami doesn’t feature car chases, but with such an amazing visual style, that time setting, and a vicious protagonist sporting an iconic white jacket, it’s hard not to feel the people behind it drew some inspiration from the movie.
One thing that Hotline Miami has over Drive though, at least for me, is this almost creepy awareness of the desentization of the constant hyper-violence. The game both bluntly and subtly makes you aware of the brutality of your actions through not only the story, but also through some cool visual effects after clearing the levels. Once a level is cleared, the groovy music stops playing and you suddenly find yourself walking back to the start of the stage. All the bodies of the people you killed still lying there.
It creates a very intense confrontation. First you’re pushed into killing entire floors of armed people in the most brutal and efficient ways you can think of.
Say that there’s three people in one room. One is pacing back and forth in front of the door. One standing near the door. Another is standing on the opposite side of the room with a machine gun.
One way to deal with them is to slam the door open to hit the first guy, punch the second guy, pick up one of the weapons they were holding and throw it at the third. You’ll have to be fast to finish them though, knocked down doesn’t mean they’re dead. You’ll still have to kill them after they go down.
Which leads to more frenzied choices. Obviously, you’ll want to finish the guy nearest to the gun first, then maybe throw the gun at one of the first guys if you can’t finish them in time before getting up again. You could fire the gun, but the noise would cause the rest of the guards to rush to the room.
So maybe that whole start isn’t the best of ideas. Maybe you should quickly pop into the room and then run back through the door, drawing them all towards you so they’re closer when you beat them down, one by one, in close quarters.
There’s not much margin for error. Fuck up once and you’re dead. Death means replaying the entire floor all over again.
Now imaging dealing with three different floors like this. Killing groups of people spread over a large number of rooms per floor. There’s this constant pressure, this constant rush, and a constantly up-beat soundtrack to help you get into the groove.
And then it ends. The second you score your last kill, the music stops. Time to walk back through the bloody hallways and rooms.
It’s simple and yet effective.
The sudden quietness is chilling.
In between missions the main character seeks distractions to take his mind off of it. As gory and upbeat the game is during the missions, it’s the total opposite in between them. The story doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to making you feel terrible about enjoying all the things you are doing.
But as much as the story questions your actions, the game mechanics themselves reward you for it. You get scored for your takedowns and kills. Getting combos for quick succesful kills. Extra points for being reckless and bursting in. You unlock different rubber masks for performing well enough, each with their own abilities. And there’s hidden collectables on almost every stage, making the game a lot more replayable.
What makes the gameplay really shine is the difficulty of it. Trial-and-error is what this game is based around. You don’t have any health. One hit is enough to end it for you.
Early on in the game I faced a lot of floors where I was forced to repeatedly play through the same segments over and over again until I’d finally fought my way through them. Each and every single time, when the music stopped playing, the first thought that came to me was “Damn. That was HARD!” On more than one ocassion, I’d realize I was holding my breath for a really long time, completely drawn into the situations the game put me in, trying to plot my moves to take out the next group.
Only to have a similar feeling the very next stage. And the one after. As well as the one after that.
Until somewhere near the end where I suddenly realized how much more complicated this game had become since I started playing it without really changing anything about itself. The way it builds up in difficulty is done so gradually, for the longest time it felt as if the exact same amount of pressure was put on me on every stage.
A difficulty curve like that is rare, especially these days. Most major releases have a difficulty curve that goes straightforward and never really goes up or down. Some have a difficulty curve that, as it introduces more weapons and moves, goes right down from the starting point. Not to mention the difficulty brick wall type of games.
I’m really glad there’s games like Hotline Miami floating around. There hasn’t been an action game that has excited me and pressed all the right buttons the way it does since Viewtiful Joe. And that is really saying something.
My only real complaint about this gem is its length. I played through the entire game in one sitting. My second sitting I went for full completion, which is something I usually don’t care for.