Hotline Miami Review: retro kill-’em-up is unforgivingly bloody and brutal

Have a rodent problem, a noisy neighbor or even some ghosts? Who are you going to call? No, not the Ghostbusters, this is not the 80s. Okay, actually, technically it is but we`re still not calling the Ghostbusters. Instead we have a maniacal serial killer on the loose, just waiting for a call before going on another murderous killing spree.

Welcome to the world of Hotline Miami, a game created by someone who had too much cocaine while watching Scarface, where the entire point is to kill people. It sounds like any other video game but even Hitman was less about killing people than this game, and that’s saying something.

The game is as simple to play as a NES game because it looks exactly like one. The graphics are as bare minimum as needed but it compensates by being as over-the-top as possible when it comes to blood and gore. I`m used to playing games now with graphics like Tomb Raider but there is something more visceral and primal when you mercilessly slit the throat of an 8-bit person, and seeing the fountain of blood that makes Johnny Depp’s death in Nightmare on Elm Street look like child’s play.

While playing the game I had flashbacks of NARC on the NES. For those who don’t remember that game it was an over-the-top, in-your-face game about a couple of NARC cops walking the streets killing criminals dead on sight and blowing them up with missiles to bloody effect, all the while getting drug needles and other stuff shot at them. Remember kids, don’t do drugs. Hotline Miami has that same in-your-face style with everything about it, from the killings, deaths, and the difficulty being set to the Nth degree. It is a game that is bold enough to kill you within two seconds of starting the first stage, and leave you wondering why is my head splattered against a wall? What just happened to me?

The meat of the game is you have to kill every enemy in the area to advance to the next one. Sounds simple but you have no life bar and one hit from anyone kills you. This requires a lot of trial and error and the developers have no qualms about taunting the player as there is a Trophy for dying 1000 times. This requires a lot of time and luck depending on the stage. Some stages are short, others are long, and some even have a boss. It is nice there are checkpoints at the end of each area so you don’t have to throw that controller through the screen in frustration, although it does make you want to do so anyways.

Thankfully there is no load times to speak of when you die, and with infinite lives it is a masochist’s dream. You don’t have to wait at a loading screen, possibly letting you contemplate switching games. The variety of weapons also helps keep things fresh, giving players an extra incentive to keep replaying stages to get the points needed to unlock the next one to build up a fun arsenal.

The story of the game is original and a little eerie, part of which is due to the acid-trippingly great soundtrack that accompanies the game. You’re a guy who gets phone calls from random people and then you go kill everyone at the address given. The End. Okay, there is more to it but I won’t give any spoilers because it would ruin the psychological narrative weaved by the game’s writer. But it gives just enough story between each stage to make going to the next level worth it for those enraptured by the narrative.

The downside is the difficulty of the game. It is an homage to the insanity that were NES games but that comes with a price. If you feel like putting a fist through the wall because of the amount of deaths received during the beginning stages then it is a recipe for a coronary as the game progresses. This game has no middle ground. It will either be loved for the difficulty or a regretful waste of $10 because of it as well. A simple difficulty setting would have fixed that but alas there is none in the game. A prologue stage helps you get acquainted with the controls but after that the difficulty spikes due to the enemies and weapons available to them.

A major problem encountered was the constant freezing of the game when at the end of a level. I could just be very unlucky but be forewarned so you’re not surprised when having to redo an entire stage. For those who already enjoy the game it won’t even be a blip on your radar, but for those who enjoy only the story and loathe the difficulty, it’s enough to encourage you to toss your controller and rage quit.

Genre-wise this game can be termed an action puzzler because of the shortness of the levels and while the game is all about killing, it has you constantly planning the most efficient way to do them like a puzzle. Each stage has a grading score which helps give the game replayability, as well as puzzle pieces to collect for some secret content. However, once the game is done there is nothing left but trying to maximize your score. Like old NES games the amount of replayability is down to how much you want to go through the game again — just like trying to do a speed run of Contra.

Dane Smith is the Japan editor for PlayStation Universe. When not out on the streets of Nagoya wondering why no one is looking for a Yakuza-style showdown, he can be found cracking open the newest RPG to hit the shelves. You can follow him on Twitter or read some of his past musings.



The Final Word

Hotline Miami is a treat for hardcore lovers of NES-era titles, but its insane difficulty and lack of replay value may not appeal to everyone.