N ot many games have the player don a rubber chicken mask and stab enemies through the heart with a broken-off pool cue, but not many games encourage the same amount of brutal sadism that "Hotline Miami" does. Set in an '80s version of the titular city, done-up with a pixelated NES veil and drowning in neon flair and hyperviolence, "Hotline" is a hell of an indie gem that offers up surreal escapism at a breakneck speed.
The goal of each stage in "Hotline Miami" is to kill everyone else. A top-down view lets you plan out your assault around corners and into parallel rooms, but planning tends to take a backseat to trial and error. "Trial and error" here equates to opening a door, having your head blown apart and instantly restarting from the beginning. It's quick; looking back on what went wrong often takes too much time. And with every attack against you being a one-hit kill, there's ample opportunity to try again. And again. Zero downtime between a mistake and a retry amplifies the addictive nature of the game.
Also driving on the gameplay is an incredible soundtrack of '80s electro beat music. Throbbing neon tones lend really well to the buildup of tension as you progress through stages knowing that you can and will be dying very soon. I couldn't shake a connection with the 2011 movie "Drive" after noticing the hyperviolence and music similarities; it's also hard to tell due to the top-down view, but I think the protagonist is wearing that same damn scorpion jacket.
Combat and controls are about as simplified as they can get. The mouse points you in a direction, the WASD keys walk your silent protagonist around. Punching enemies with the right click will knock them down, but they have to be finished off with a tap of the space bar. These finisher moves are where "Hotline" gets really grisly; each weapon has its own coup de grace, ranging from beer bottle stabbings to baseball bat executions. And with several dozen weapons, there's a lot of gore to go around.
Violence is obviously a centerpiece to "Hotline," but it's made all the more effecting by the pixel graphic art style. Horrible things are happening onscreen, but everything come off as so absurdly over-the-top seen through the 8-bit lens that it's hard to not find it funny. At the same time, it is so deeply depraved that it's hard to not be affected by it.
The game's surreal setting and story help keep it grounded in an un-reality suitable for all the violence. Our nameless player-controlled hero is often wracked with hallucinations, or thing that may well be. Every mission is kicked off by a phone call asking you to do some menial task (like fill in for a sick co-worker, or do some pest control) at a location, and you promptly show up and kill everyone there. After each stage, you go to the convenience store and pick up some chips, or go rent a video in short scenes that further muddle the whacked-out sense of what is and isn't real.
Doing well in a mission unlocks new weapons that can be found scattered around levels, as well as various rubber animal masks that you can don for added bonuses. The mask I found myself using most often was the "Don Juan," a gray-faced horse that made hitting enemies with doors lethal. Every mask has a different function and animal appearance, and choosing whether to go into an apartment complex dressed either as a unicorn or a grasshopper named Carl again adds to the well-established weirdness.
The story takes a bit of a backseat to the violence, but it's still there in whispered tones. "Hotline" does a lot in the way of raising questions, but very little to answer them as things progress. It all feels very mysterious and drug-fueled. But what it lacks in closure it makes up for in the world that it crafts, and though the hyperviolence is certainly not for everyone, it's worth checking out if you can appreciate it for the absurdity it offers.
Sam Nixon is a self-proclaimed video-game nerd who writes reviews for the Daily whenever a rad new game is released.