Each level in Hotline Miami begins with a choice – which rubber animal mask will you wear? Pixelated, sort of goofy renditions of a variety of animals are represented, from tigers to insects. Which would you prefer? It's a powerful and completely cosmetic decision in a game that's all about simple, fast action mechanics and surrealist narrative.
As you may surmise from its title, Hotline Miami's artwork uses a variety of bright pastel and hot colour shades, often in gradients. It also, however, uses its palette as a gross irony to its extreme content. From a top-down perspective, you invade homes filled with equally precise killers, and it's your duty to waste them all before they do likewise. There are a variety of makeshift bludgeons and firearms, and each offensive option is incredibly powerful. From pipes and baseball bats to shotguns and SMGs, just about every weapon in the game will unceremoniously end an enemy in one hit strike of gore. Punches and thrown weapons may only knock a foe down, leaving you to perform an up-close finisher that typically leaves him brained on the floor. Your character is equally as vulnerable, and so the game aggressively flows in favour of improvised, swift violence against rooms full of bad guys that can kill you in an instant. As long as you don't make too much racket, you can wait behind doors before entering the next room, but slow and deliberate strategy isn't the key here. As soon as you cross that threshold all hell will break loose, and it's up to some fast footing and precise delivery of your blows to survive.
When all's said and done, you exit the house and enter and unending, murky gradient of 1980s tones, enter your car, and take off to a grading screen where the game encourages fearless behaviour and attack variety. I usually scored pretty poorly completing a level for the first time, but I found myself coming back and running speedier bloodbaths for B and A-grades. Whatever that says about me.
The framework around the action is even more unsettling than that, believe it or not. Between killings, you can walk around your grim apartment before eventually answering a covert call to don your mask of choice once again. A jaunty hippy type seems to be everywhere at once, working pharmacies and pizzerias to impart you the cryptic details of your next job. After a couple hours trying missions from the beginning, middle and end of the story, I can't say I have a firm grasp of what's going on between the creepy dialogue and grotesqueries just yet, though I certainly have some theories I'll enjoy probing further. A special mention to the incredible audio work for really pulling me into this sick world; featuring music from Jesper Byrne (Lone Survivor) among many others, the distorted, warbled sounds swirl around your head as you play, and the effect is both cacophonous and completely symbiotic with the other pieces of the game.
I spent a couple of hours trying to crack the surrealistic shell surrounding the game, and I was entertained the entire time. The game's nightmarish tone and presentation reminded me of David Lynch's digital masterpiece Inland Empire or the Terry Gilliam version of Fear and Loathing; works that ramble around their themes without pinning them down as a frighteningly authentic mirror of human reasoning and suffering. It also, of course, reminded me of the 80s-dazzle-met-with-horrific-violence present in last year's fantastic Drive. Combined with its swift, brutal gameplay, this seems all but destined to be a polarizing cult hit. We'll know for sure when Hotline Miami releases digitally through Steam and Good Old Games on October 23rd.
I'll be the one in the bug mask.