“Brilliant” is a word that perfectly describes most of Hotline Miami. The game is full of tiny touches that make it feel vibrant and alive, even when it’s strewn with the bodies of the dead. There are background details that tell you more about the story than the game itself does. Every kill animation is unique and lovingly crafted. The controls are tight and smooth, allowing you to be completely immersed in the experience of mass-slaughter without thinking about what you’re physically doing.
You play some guy who gets innocuous phone calls that are actually coded messages instructing him to drive to a specific location and kill everyone there. There are a few twists along the way but I won’t describe them for fear of spoiling the experience, suffice to say that when they happened I said to myself, “Brilliant.”
When you get to the scene of your imminent murder spree, you’ll pick a mask to wear—each of which confers a unique benefit for using it—and then, well, you’re left there, weaponless and alone outside the front door. It’s the only way in and once you walk through you’ll be greeted with a tough-as-nails battle to the death against overwhelming odds.
Your character is fragile. A single hit with a weapon or bullet is all it takes to put him down. Thankfully the same is true of your victims, so combat boils down to who is fastest on the draw. If you die—and you will die a lot—it’s no big deal because you can restart the level instantly, losing very little time since each level only takes a few minutes to complete.
There are a variety of tools available for your work, from melee weapons for up close and personal kills, to your standard array of firearms for long-distance wetwork. Using guns are risky, since the noise will draw the attention of all opponents in the vicinity, making them instantly swarm your position.
There are some other strategies you can employ as well. Throwing a melee weapon will temporarily stun enemies. If they’re behind a door, kicking it in will achieve the same effect. You can sneak up on people who are looking the other way and occasionally use an open window to bypass entrenched opposition. What you can’t do is come up with an optimal strategy that works for every level. Some can be completed with stealth and care, while others may require a bit of bold maneuvering. The amount of subtle variation the game offers in this regard, as well as the way it forces you to constantly think on your feet is, yes, brilliant.
It takes a while to get used to because everything is just enough off-kilter to disorient you. Your character doesn’t walk so much as glide across the screen, pirouetting to face the mouse cursor with the speed and grace of a ballet dancer in spite of his pudgy, balding physical appearance. Enemies will ignore the dead bodies they come across, as if seeing corpses casually strewn about the place were the norm. The aesthetic itself, the ugly electronic music and neon-heavy art style, is initially off-putting as well. But once you delve into the meat of the story, you’ll see how fitting all these discordant aspects are and, if you’re like me, use that B-word yet again.
There are moments of non-brilliance, though. Two set-piece “boss” battles are frustrating. One, which requires you to maneuver in a tiny area with no cover or weapons while fighting off shotgun-wielding opponents and dodging Molotov cocktails lobbed by an invincible character required at least twenty attempts to complete. The other, which I won’t describe because it may be considered a spoiler, I was only able to beat by cheaply exploiting gaps in the game’s AI and mechanics. From what I’ve read on the forums, most other people did the same.
Also not brilliant is how the game overstays its welcome. The main story comes to a nice conclusion, but is then followed by half-a-dozen more levels that try to explain some things that didn’t really need explaining. These lead up to a second ending that comes as close to the fourth wall as possible without actually breaking it. I would have found it cute if I were 18, but my 30-year-old eyes just rolled. Those who are particularly observant can unlock an additional “secret” ending that somehow manages to be even more unsatisfying than that second one.
Additionally, there are no options for customization. You can’t change the resolution, choose to play in a window, or toggle vsync. The initial launch version had no way to change music and sound effect volumes in-game, nor was there any way to change the default controls. Both of these were partially fixed in a post-release patch. You can now change the music volume, but not sound, and remap movement, but not anything else.
Conclusion—Is It Worth The Money?
It’s tough to say if Hotline Miami is worth the money. I certainly loved it and wouldn’t feel ripped off if I paid the $10 cost out of my own pocket, but the presence of frustrating boss-battles and lack of configuration options really turned me off. We’d pillory a AAA developer for such oversights; should we give an indie dev a pass simply because of his or hers “indie” status? You’ll make your own decision about that, but I’m going to say yes, it is worth the money. Hotline Miami’s brilliance far outweighs its drawbacks.