Try 1: Open door, punch, grab, execute, turn around, shotgun blast from nowhere, dead.
Try 2: Open door, bang, dead.
Try 3: Open door, punch, grab, execute, grab knife, 180, throw knife. Breathe. Open next door. Bang, dead. ARGH!
Try 4: Open door, punch, grab, execute, BANG, dead. WAIT, he didn’t do that last time. Aaaaww.
Try 5: Open door, dog, mauled, dead...
Hopefully I’m beginning to paint a picture, and it shouldn’t be a pretty one. It's closer to the kind of mutated, bloody abomination you see in a horror flick. The painting by the hell spawn six-year old that crying, inconsolable parents have to take to the teacher, you know.
Jonatan Söderström (AKA Cactus) and Denis Wedin’s upcoming new indie title Hotline Miami is dark if we’re going to put it mildly. Its neon, pixelated eighties world gets into your head like a bad (yet strangely addictive) dream. A little blast and you’re hooked, absorbed and probably a bit disgusted with yourself.
Just a little longer, just a couple more tries…bang, there goes another hour.
The game starts with a quick, cold tutorial delivered by a scruffy-looking dude in a seedy back alley. Immediately, the game’s atmosphere hits you and you’re drawn right into the filth of it all.
The controls are simple but versatile: left click to punch or fire, right click to grab a weapon from the ground or to throw the one in your hands.
A quick bash of spacebar will grab a downed opponent and position the protagonist above his body. This allows you to perform a finishing move with a left click or three using your fists or whatever else you happen to be clutching at the time.
Movement is controlled via WASD, aiming is done with the mouse and cursor (and boy is that aim important), and that’s about it. There are a few other moves but it would spoil the joy of discovering them if I gave them away here.
Oh yeah, “R” restarts. You’ll need that. A lot.
The control system is efficient and fluid, which is good because it’s essential with this sort of action. You’ll need to get used to it pretty quickly as this is some twitchy-ass gameplay with little room for error.
A not so subtly disguised answering machine delivers messages between levels that the main character picks up. This is the hotline, and it’ll ask our guy to do something menial. You know, grab the groceries or put out the cat, but you know what they mean, and so does he.
Before you enter a building to commit a series of horrible sins you’re prompted to choose an animal mask to wear. Each mask boasts a particular bonus: one will grant speedier walking, another gives you a random weapon, one makes all the dialogue French. And so on.
The objective tends to be pretty simple: kill every living soul; dog, human or otherwise (I don’t think there’s an otherwise but you never know, the build I’m on doesn’t quite have all the levels that’ll ship in the retail version). Those people are armed to the teeth mind, and judging by dialogue hints and the odd bit of telling scenery they aren’t the nicest of folks (the dogs seem pretty grumpy too, they won’t leave a second before ripping your throat out).
Points are rewarded for stringing kills together in short spaces of time and a grade's given based on your style and execution.
Progress works as such:
- Slaughter everyone on the ground floor.
- Slaughter everyone on the second floor.
- If there’s a third level, slaughter everyone there (and so on).
- Leave building and get in car.
Wedin and Söderström set the game in Miami in part due to its history of having a such a violent underworld that dealt in a lot of drugs in the eighties, another reason seem to be that the colors suit.
Wedin’s pixel art really compliments Söderström level design, adding detail only where it’s necessary (there’s literally nothing outside the buildings and the interior décor is pretty minimal). While it’s not the only gory, giant pixel-based title around, and way far from being the first, there’s something visceral about its particular brand of blood and guts that stands out from the blocky crowd.
There’s a constant morphing pulse to Hotline Miami’s visuals, a dark beating heart that keeps the screen tilting and warping relentlessly from side to side. It’s hypnotic, and reminiscent of some weird old homebrew DOS games.
Levels are presented from a top–down perspective, a la Smash TV, Alien Breed, Loaded and the like. In contrast to its older influences, the ease at which the enemy will slaughter you and the accuracy and speed required sometimes makes this title more akin to the modern day twitch-shooter.
Hotline Miami will no doubt be categorized as a top-down shooter (which it can be, at times), but guns certainly aren’t always necessary and stealth is often of the essence.
You’ll will find a whole host of projectile-based weaponry left over by the deceased if you choose to use it but I’ve barely used them at all; they are loud and attract far too much attention. Said attention brings with it quick and gruesome death at least nine times out of ten. Restarts needn’t be encouraged any more than necessary. No, for me it’s all about the knives, baseball bats, scissors, crowbars or sword if I’m lucky.
Shooting is fun though and it can work, though be warned, it’s a hardcore way to play, especially seeing as there’s no way to pick up ammo. If a clip runs out, you best quickly hurl it at the next thug running at you with a shotgun and hope he’s alone.
A few levels in you’ll notice there’s barely any dialogue. When you are treated to a few words they’re usually ambiguous, daunting hints at some kind of dark, bigger picture. And they’re probably coming from men in animal masks.
Part of Hotline Miami’s appeal is attempting to work out how, why and what is going on in this man’s life. Why the animal masks? Why do those dudes have control over the main character? Who is the main character?
There are short, seemingly insignificant scenes between levels that tend to add a bizarre pacing to the game. The animal-headed creep meetings and dark slaughter-infused levels are sandwiched between pleasantry-filled trips to the pizzeria or video store.
Long, tortured tones accompanied by creepy minimal percussion are used for level endings and the short intersections between house visits. In contrast, the action of the levels proper is usually overseen by unashamedly four-to-the-floor, lo-fi electro that echoes the repetition you’ll inevitably be experiencing.
There’s something about the moment you kill the last guy in a level. The music instantly jumps to a far darker tone than that of the upbeat track that accompanied your mission. It feels like remorse.
Hotline Miami’s eighties-inspired soundtrack boasts respectable mix of electronic artists including Lone Survivor creator Jasper Byrne, California-based artist Sun Araw, Boston producer M.O.O.N and French retrofuturistic (his term) act Pertubator.
The music is quite frankly great, and is just as addictive as the game itself, though listening to it outside playing is, for me, a little like hearing the Title Music From A Clockwork Orange, i.e. I’m conditioned to immediately think of ultraviolence.
Wedin and Söderström have cited the movie Drive as an influence, and it shines through in the music, tone and (minimal) storyline. The cold, calculated delivery of the protagonist’s killings is certainly akin to that of Ryan Golsing’s character in the striking 2011 film.
Hotline Miami is something very special and well worth a look if you’re okay with its decidedly adult themes. If you’re under 18, a little squeamish or easily offended then you’ve been warned. The game comes out October 23rd and is available to pre-order with 10% off on Steam right now.