The thing I love about the current digital Renaissance in PC gaming is the sheer quantity of games that you would never, ever see in the creativity vacuum known as the mainstream console market. This is a new frontier for developers who aren’t afraid to wander out of bounds and do things that might frustrate the average gamer. Case in point: Hotline Miami from indie studio Dennation, an ostensible retro, top-down hack-n-slash drenched in both blood and neon, and set for a release later this fall on download services.
Although billing itself as a bloody actioner, Hotline Miami wouldn’t have a chance of catching on in the regular game market. I mean that both as a compliment first and foremost, but also as a measured criticism. Who knows, maybe I’m too mainstream, but this game really caught me off guard, and frustrated me almost as much as it thrilled me.
You start the game as a possibly-not-entirely-sane hitman being interviewed by three animal headed figures in a dingy Fincher-esque hotel room. These strange creatures ask you about the jobs you’ve done for them, and your character process to flashback to a sequence of assassinations he carried out. It’s almost as if your character is some coke-addled psychopath, sentenced to relive his own blood-soaked murders and deaths in an eternal neon purgatory.
And purgatory might not be an entirely ill-suited word for this game. To be frank, Hotline Miami is one big, incredibly violent lesson in trial and error, with a healthy dose of twitch reflexes to go with it. You’ll quickly learn that as soon as you step into a building the whole game is about strategically dismembering your enemies, and they surround you on all sides so you’d better make your shot count. The thugs you are tasked to messily dispatch are incredibly fast, armed to the teeth and routinely outnumber you 10 to 1.
What’s more, you always start empty handed. You might find a melee weapon right inside the door, but when you’re up against a dozen crack-shot henchmen toting shotguns and M-16s, it is crucial to corner a guy, beat him to death and appropriate his weapon as expediently as possible. In that regard, Hotline Miami is almost as much about luck as it is about reflexes and planning; you’ll usually die a handful of times just starting a level. Luckily, the game lets you instantly restart any floor right after dying.
The game’s visuals are done entirely in that unmistakable 90s mode-7 pixelation, which makes it simultaneously evocative of the 16-bit games and grainy, snowy VHS tapes that dominated that era. You can tell that Dennation is a huge fan of 80s Miami Vice movies, and recent homages to that period like GTA Vice City and the Ryan Gosling movie Drive. The oversaturated pastel colors and lurid, drippy chiptune soundtrack only heighten the surreal setting and atmosphere; before every raid your character dons a rubber animal mask of your choice, and after completing each job you visit a red-headed stoner dude who holds down a surprising array of part time jobs, and always serves you on the house. For a pixel-art retro throwback though, Hotline Miami is deliriously grisly, showing pixilated thugs getting mutilated, having their throats slit, and otherwise maimed and blown away.
The gory, visceral punch of this game is what keeps you going as you power on through the mounting frustration and are yet killed for the umpteenth time. This game is almost gleefully unfair; wake up the building with a single gunshot and attacks come at you from all angles—through glass, doors and often aggravatingly from just off-screen. What Dennation has done here with Hotline Miami is the exact opposite of even the most violent hand-holding, tutorial stuffed shooters common on shelves today. Making this game so unrelentingly violent isn’t necessarily daring, but making it stylistically gory and also so unforgiving took serious guts. That said, I need more time to wrap my head around it—Hotline Miami might have style to spare, but it also might be a little too difficult for its own good.