Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of the dual joystick genre and Hotline Miami doesn’t do much to change my opinion; especially the Vita version of the game. Hotline Miami is a top-down dual joystick action and slaughter game developed by Dennaton Games. It attempts to mix extreme violence and stealth with a bizarre story alongside an art style and soundtrack that was definitely influenced by ‘80s gaming culture; and in the credits Dennaton Games specifically thanks a 2011 crime drama called Drive in the credits.
You take control of an unnamed protagonist for most of the game as you play through the various chapters and levels. For most of the game the protagonist will be waking up in his apartment only to receive cryptic messages on his answer machine, which sometimes can be kind of humorous. One for instance is about someone needing a babysitter that night and gives you an address. However, once you leave your apartment and get into your car you’ll be going to punish these “children”. Every few chapters in the game you’ll be shown a small cutscene with three animal-like people (a horse, a rooster, and an owl) in a room talking to you about your life and what’s going on in it, but each character has their own personality that almost cancels the others out. Their different personalities end up leading the conversation in circles.
Just before starting a mission you’ll have the option of which mask you want to wear before entering each level. Each mask is of a different animal and has its own separate name, which from what I could tell didn’t play into the story at all. Each mask also has its own “special ability” that it gives to user. For example, Don Juan (a horse mask), gives you an ability that when you kick doors into enemies it instantly kills them rather than just stunning them for a few moments. Rufus, the elephant mask, allows you to survive one bullet wound, which comes in handy since the game is based around one hit kills with weapons. However, choose wisely because once you choose a mask to use, you’re locked into using that mask for the entire level; even when you die and have to restart the level. There are 27 masks to unlock, some of which won’t be unlocked until your second play through.
After choosing your animal mask you’ll be tasked with navigating through a building to do one of three tasks; eliminate all the enemies, defeat a boss, or find specific key items. Each level is broken up into a couple of section in which you’ll need to eliminate everyone to proceed to the next level section. Throughout the level you’ll have access to a large assortment of both melee and ranged weapons to take out the enemies. Though you won’t start the level with a weapon unless you use a specific mask that allows you start with a knife, there will be weapons randomly spawned around the level and you can knock down the enemies, kill them, and take their weapons. At the end of each stage you’ll be graded based on your performance; this rates your time on the level, your variation of killings, and amount of exposure, amongst a number of other variables.
It’s hard to really tell how to increase your score or modify your approach to get a higher score other than getting through a stage faster for a time bonus or killing several enemies in quick succession to get combo bonuses. However, going for these combos often has you sacrifice the flexibility score since the best way to get these kills in succession is to use the same weapon rather than using different types of attacks and weapons. You’re also rated on the killings, which seems less variable since you’ll have the same amount of enemies every time you play a stage, and in order to proceed you have to kill everyone. There are two ratings that I’m really sure how your methods affect your score: boldness (which I can only assume is related to the amounts of time you are exposed or have face to face fights) and mobility. Since you already get a time bonus for completing levels quickly I can’t really tell how the mobility is affected by your gameplay.
The protagonist will then have to use his resources (the animal mask and the amount of weapons these mobsters leave around) to handle challenges through either stealth or straight up brute force. The AI varies from time to time, making some of the enemies move in different patterns each time you die; making them highly unpredictable. Though, that’s not the only misfortune I experienced with the AI. While normally an AI that varies would be seen as an innovation to increase the difficulty and ratchet down boredom, it seemed as though when the AI would change course it would cause them to get stuck in a spot that made it near impossible for you to proceed rather than just simply walking a different route. It would also sometime cause errors in their path that would cause them to see you through a wall or even get stuck in doorways; which would cause you to instantly die from their attack when you kicked open a door rather than killing them or knocking them out.
I don’t quite understand how the stealth part of this game works. No matter how fast or slow I moved behind an enemy they always knew when I entered a room and would almost instantly turn around and kill me. Also, there were a number of times where my weapon would go through an enemy, but it wouldn’t kill them and would wind up with having to restart the entire section. On top of that, the amount of times where the enemy would spot me while off of the allotted screen and kill me was ridiculous; which didn’t seem as much a challenge factor, but rather poor level design.
The story behind the game is kind of crazy. Well, what parts of it I could understand anyway. The narrative in Hotline Miami is certainly not the driving force of the game. Often, the events of the game aren’t necessarily in chronological order, which you can tell by the date showed at the beginning of each day. As you progress through the game the protagonist’s version of events becomes increasingly distorted. After the completion of each level the protagonist will go to either a bar, pizza shop, video rental shop, or mini-market, and at first the same bearded guy seems to run each shop. However, later on you start to see haunting images of the protagonist’s slain foes scattered across each of these shops, and your bearded friend that keeps you updated on the news of the killings throughout the city suddenly disappears and new cashier runs each of the shops. He isn’t as nice, often kicking you out of your favored leisurely stops.
All in all Hotline Miami is a dual joystick shooter with a massive amount of violence and 2D gore, but has more than a fair portion of AI issues that made the game less enjoyable then I would have liked. Hotline Miami takes some chances to be interesting with the use of the several masks that either gives you an advantage or handicap that can be changed from level to level, a surreal story that you wouldn’t see anywhere else, and a seemingly complex rating system for each level that is affected by how you approach each stage’s combat. However, there seemed to be a number of times that the AI would get stuck in walls, and an even greater number of times where it looks like you struck an enemy but your weapon would go right through them without killing them; allowing them to kill you instantly. When you pick up Hotline Miami expect to die a lot and probably get frustrated a lot, but if you can look past all of that I would say it’s worth checking out; just make sure to play it on the PS3 and not the Vita or you’re in for an uncomfortable cramping experience.