It's 1989. You wake in a dingy bathroom. The lights are out, flies hover lazily around the broken furniture. A guitar wails over plodding bass strums. Staggering into the living room, you find three masked men sitting, waiting. They seem to know you. They speak in riddles, their animal faces betraying no humanity. You've apparently done terrible things. Do you remember? Time flashes back. You receive a coded phonecall, it tells you where to go. The drive takes no time at all. You pull on a chicken mask. Why? There you'll slam a door into a gangster's face, knocking him senseless before spreading his pal's brains with a stolen baseball bat. Techno thuds away, adding a pleasing rhythm to the bloody action. This is Hotline Miami, and you won't have played anything quite like it before.
A top-down sort of shooter with a very retro sense of style, bringing to mind a more innocent era of videogame violence, Hotline Miami is a little tricky to describe. Not the look so much: imagine the bloody 80s haze of Vice City built in the original GTA engine and you're close. Nor the action, which mixes the twitchiness of a bullet hell shooter with Hitman's brutal improvised violence, and Canon Fodder's simple “kill everything” objectives. The punishing difficulty brings to mind Dark Souls as well, another game where frequent death is as inevitable as it is rewarding.
And Hotline Miami is a game built on death. Missions have you hitting up a building full of thugs on the strength of an answerphone message. The identity of the caller is a narrative mystery, but the objective is always the same: Everyone in this building must die. There are many more of them, they're better equipped than you, but you'll still have to kill them all. Of course, just as it would be if you attempted to take down scores of armed gangsters by yourself, rushing in isn't always the best approach. More often than not it'll result in a swift and messy death at the wrong end of a crowbar. A playthrough can be over in a flash of blood and noise. This isn't quite your standard shooter, you have to take the time to plan things out.
Being aware of where enemies are, and taking them on in manageable numbers, is key. Stealth, melee kills, and patience will serve you much better than an itchy trigger finger. You can spend a long time planning out every move before you make it; Outside a room with two gun totting baddies. Boot in the door to knock down the first guy, quickly throw your knife at his pal with the shotgun, before sprinting over to grab it and blasting the first now getting to his feet. The noisy shot will attract others, so you'll stand behind the door and calmly blow away everyone that runs in. Of course, while you're standing thinking this out a dog will sprint up from behind and tear your throat out. Fuck. Hit R to retry.
Because of this, each level is as much a puzzle as it is an action set-piece waiting to happen. Take in your immediate surroundings and patterns begin to form. Tread carefully and you'll be clearing rooms as cleanly and efficiently as a SWAT team. Well, I say cleanly. As you'll be able to tell, Hotline Miami is an almost unprecedentedly violent game. Blood sprays the walls as you split skulls to pieces, limbs vapourise with a single shotgun blast. The violence is brief, bloody, and brutal, almost sickening despite the retro visuals. Half dead villains will desperately try and crawl away, some end of level characters will beg for their lives before you gouge out their eyes. But there is no mercy, everyone has to die. And when all the floors are finally cleared the action halts abruptly, the music swirls into an ambient fuzz as you stagger back to your car, past all the pools of blood and guts and staring eyes. It's the closest you'll come to regret.
But that's quickly forgotten when the action is so damn satisfying. Few titles will ever make you feel as slick as Hotline Miami when things go right. Whether it's as a carefully laid plan comes together, efficiently smashing your way through enemies faces with absolute precision, or when you frantically improvise your way through a series of blundering kills, you're in the zone for the duration. Neon combo messages flash up as you speedily empty a room, the technicolour visuals pulse and warp with the pounding music. Every death you suffer, and there will be many, just makes it all the more satisfying when you eventually triumph; bloodily battering that bastard with the pipe that's killed you ten times in a row to beat the level. And as your car drives off, and your kills are tallied up and scored, you can enjoy a satisfied smile. It may grow wider with the unlockable treats, including various named animal masks, each of which gives you a different quirk. This might be starting with a weapon, lethal door slams, or longer combo chains. They add some extra strategy to the open-ended action, and give completionists an excuse to chase some high scores.
All the atmosphere on offer owes a great deal to the soundtrack, which in many ways is the true masterpiece here. Oozing with retro cool, from the slightly sinister, off-key ambience of the menu melody to the brutal electronic beats during your assaults, you realise that Hotline Miami wouldn't be half as brilliant without those tunes. The action takes on a measured rhythm as you start to match hits with beats, lacing together with the cocaine fuelled 80s style perfectly. A decent set of headphones can add a whole new layer to a playthrough, and with the repetition of the action and the sounds looping again and again and again you mind might start to melt alongside your character's.
That's where the story comes in. A surrealist trance of nameless characters and warping reality, perfectly charting the steadily decaying mind of a killer. The normality between missions clashes with the violent rampages. You'll visit video rental stores and pizza places, happily chatting with the bearded worker who calls you his friend. A love interest rescued early on hangs around your apartment, saying nothing. But cracks soon start to appear. The consequences of the violence catch up with you, human elements in your life fade away. There's a lot to be said for a a surrealist narrative, one that makes you want to keep playing in the hope of having your questions answered. It's part of what made Mikami and Suda's Killer 7 so compelling, despite the fact that you so rarely had any idea what was going on.
In fact, you could be forgiven if you mistook Hotline Miami for a Suda title. It shares his surreal sense of style; from the brutal, almost comic violence and collectables of No More Heroes, with similar hack and slash rhythmic combat of Lollipop Chainsaw, to the twisted narrative and macabre atmosphere of Killer 7. Swedish developers Dennaton have done a great job throwing together something so compelling from such a simple engine.
It ain't perfect. Simple WASD controls come across as shockingly fiddly at first, though you'll quickly adjust to the twitchiness. Enemy AI will see your foes fail to spot you lopping their friend's head off mere feet away, or loudly busting in on them while they're taking a piss. Glitches abound as well, with disappearing weapons and flickering walls often the order of the day. These are forgiveable. Less so is the occasionally unfair level design, with perfect playthroughs often spoiled by the same unseen enemies again and again; or the wickedly unbalanced boss fights, which leap out of nowhere and offer screen-breaking moments of frustration. It's short too: I blasted through it in about four hours. Maybe too short for some, though the replay value is there. If not for the high scores, then at least for the fun of it.
But you won't be thinking about the flaws. You'll be too focussed on the sickeningly addictive violence, the satisfying savagery of the kills. You'll be taken in by the beautiful 8-bit portrayal of an 80s underworld, all seedy clubs and drug fuelled pulses of colour. You'll be attempting to make sense of the twisted narrative, a feverish nightmare of masked killers and revenge. Your ears will be busy with the brilliance of the soundtrack, as it flows over the action and builds an atmosphere of absolute cool. In a year that's seen so few quality releases Hotline Miami stands out as something special. A delightedly demented orgy of ultraviolence and retro style. It's the modern-day videogame-nasty: cheap, brutal, and fun as hell.