Wednesday, October 9, 2013

#19: Hotline Miami - Some of That Good Old Fashioned Ultraviolence

It might seem a tad strange to begin my own review by borrowing the words of someone else's. However, with a description as fitting as the one made by Sophie Prell over at The Penny Arcade Report, I feel I might be excused:

"Hotline Miami is the split second between an inhale and an exhale. It’s the rush that comes from planning, thinking ahead of how you’ll react once that door in front of you is busted open and the white-tux, bald-headed baddies are heading your way."

Brutally murdering bad(?) guys in Hotline Miami is simple yet rewarding in a way that even the most visceral and eye-candy-bloated triple-A action games fail to achieve. Barging from room to room and ruthlessly cutting down your enemies with increasing efficiency, players have only the most basic control functions combined with a hair-thin margin for error. It's twitchy, reflex-driven, with a hint of sadistic plotting.

Good job, everyone is dead!
The brilliant art and sound direction shines even brighter through the limitations of pixel art and 8-bit bleeps. As you don different unlockable animal masks that grant unique powers, you'll witness blood spattered against every imaginable surface, shades of neon and dirty light at every turn. It draws heavy and obvious inspiration from Drive and Miami Vice. In particular, the psychedelic soundtrack merits a listen or three even if you never touch the game.

Your journey through this trippy, hazy tale of an unstrustworthy narrator will become ever more perplexing. While some have hailed Hotline Miami for its story, I believe that the story and the message of Hotline Miami are two subjects that need to be divided.

The plot struck me as a deliberately incoherent trip designed purposely to leave the player confused. It resulted in a tale akin to those magic eye illusions on children's cereal boxes and magazines: if you look but don't focus too hard, you'll see something cool. From what I can tell through some basic background research, the story may very well have no correct interpretation. Some people appreciate this narrative trick; I tend to feel betrayed.

As you might guess, you ordinarily do not survive even one bullet.

Separately and more importantly, however, Hotline Miami makes the player feel uncomfortable. The game doesn't glorify violence, and it doesn't even reward it; it's simply necessary to play. Everyone on each stage must die, full stop. There's an unease that settles in, I hope, with every player as they plumb further into the depths of Hotline Miami. With that unease comes this question: "Why am I having fun doing this? Do I even care what reason I have?" Unlike, for example, the Uncharted or Assassin's Creed series', no effort is made to hide the player from the fact that they're assigned to murdering dozens of people at a time.

At only $9.99 and available on PC, PS3, and PSVita, Hotline Miami brings a lot to the brain-splattered table. Though I played it on PC with an Xbox 360 controller, its blistering pace and short sessions strike me as perfectly suited to a handheld; if you've got a Vita, you have little excuse for not picking it up.

4 out of 5