Have you ever had a game, movie, or television show that you enjoy, but you feel bad about enjoying? A guilty pleasure if you will. This game is one that fits that description. It has led me to putting off giving my thoughts on it because while I like the game, the violent and gruesome content leaves me feeling rather guilty about enjoying the game. So with that mixed introduction let me give my thoughts about the game.
Before I get to the story it should be noted that this is a violent game. It is rated M and is definitely not one for the kids. Also to try to explain this story I’ll be presenting some spoilers. I’ll try to mark where major spoilers start.
The story of this game is both simple yet very complicated at the same time. How is this possible? Well you start out the game as a nameless character, whom players of the game have started to call Jacket, due to the jacket he wears. This character is one of the two characters that you can play in the game. As events go on and particularly as you play the second character, you learn that you may be dealing with an unreliable narrator in Jacket. What you’re seeing in Jacket’s story may not be exactly what happened, but you aren’t really sure what is real and what isn’t. This starts even at the beginning as you start off the game with in a dream like sequence where you’re talking to three masked characters about who you are.
After this sequence you start in Jacket’s apartment and he has a message on his answering machine. It’s saying that a package of cookies has been dropped off for him. This package contains a rooster mask and instructions to go to a certain location, eliminate those there, and recover a briefcase. After you complete this mission, you start each level at your apartment getting a new message on your phone to do a new job. In the process you learn that the people you’re killing are connected to the Russian Mafia.
Over time you rescue a woman from the Mafia and you take her back to your apartment. You appear to start a relationship with her and she continues to live with you while you continue to get the random phone calls and eliminate the members of the Mafia. This sets up the basic story for the game, but thing get complicated.
*Spoilers from here on so if you want to experience it for yourself skip ahead.* Things start to get complicated and surreal after an encounter with a character players have called Biker, due to the fact he wears a biker helmet. At the end of one of your missions as Jacket you get a call to go to the phone company and as you do this you find all the workers killed and find Biker who starts to fight you.
After this battle you start to have weird hallucinations after each level and even in your apartment. This all comes to a head after you are almost busted by SWAT at the end of one of your jobs. You continue to do jobs after this, but one day you come home to find your girlfriend shot in the bathroom and her killer sitting on your couch, who then proceeds to shoot Jacket as well.
After getting shot you find yourself in a dreamlike replica of your apartment, where it is revealed that Jacket is actually in a coma at the hospital. After waking up and escaping the hospital. You return to your apartment, assault the police department to get at your girlfriend’s murderer, and eventually go on to take out the boss of the Russian Mafia. So it all seems pretty straightforward right? Maybe a little weird with the whole weird dream sequences and hallucinations, but that can be explained away by the fact the events are being remembered while in a coma right? Well that would be the case if it wasn’t for getting to play as the Biker.
After you beat the game as Jacket you start playing as Biker. Biker has a different disposition than Jacket in that he’s starting to question the phone calls that he’s been getting and looking to find who is making the calls in the first place. You do a few jobs with Biker and eventually you find yourself as the Biker in the confrontation that happened between Jacket and Biker. In this scenario the Biker wins easily and continues on to find who is making the calls. It actually leads him to one of the building that houses the Russian Mafia that you visited earlier with Jacket, however unlike Jacket, Biker notices a janitor and follows him. In doing this he finds out that the janitors are the ones making the phone calls. Depending on if you’ve found the collectible letters in Jacket’s missions you receive different explanations from the janitors as to why they’re doing this. They either say that it is out of boredom or as part of a patriotic group to destabilize a Russo-American coalition (if you find the letters and figure out the code for their computer).
So after playing as Biker you’re left to figure out how much of the game is what actually happened. Did both Jacket’s take and the Biker’s take happen? But then how does one explain the two different accounts of the battle between Jacket and Biker? Are they alternative accounts (like a what if the Biker won story) or did parts of each story actually happen? The game doesn’t give you these answers and you’re left to do with the pieces as you will.
The gameplay could be described as fairly basic, but difficult. The game basically follows a pattern of an introduction to a level that takes place at your apartment. You receive the location that you’re going to go by listening to your phone and can find little story hints and changes to your apartment over time. When you get into your car outside your apartment you’re taken to the location for that level.
In the main level you have to navigate your character through a building and eliminate all the enemies to progress. As Jacket you can pick up a number of weapons to do this job. You can have melee weapons, throwing weapons, and even firearms to take on the enemies that are in a level. You can also use doors and your fists to knock enemies down and finish them while they’re unconscious. In addition to that you wear different animal masks. You can collect more by finding them in levels or by earning a minimum amount of points in each level. These masks will give you certain abilities that makes things easier like making you be able to kill people with one punch or making things more difficult like the mask that reverses your control scheme.
As Biker your options are much more limited. He comes with a knife and three throwing knives. You can’t pick up other weapons and don’t get to wear any other masks. It may sound boring, but it still manages to be pretty fun to try to do things with a much more limited way of going through a level.
Now maybe this sounds pretty easy, but what makes this game difficult is that all it takes is one hit, unless wearing a special mask, to kill you. Miss someone while trying to hit them with a melee weapon, they probably just killed you. Walk too fast and get noticed by someone with a gun, you’re probably toast. When you die, and you will probably quite a bit, you start at the beginning of the floor that you were on. So say a level has three floors, you’ll start on the floor that you died on, and not the beginning of the level. This will still be tough and will potentially be frustrating considering your skill, but it is achievable.
After the main level you’ll get an evaluation of your mission. The game keeps a points total and at the end it totals it all up adding in bonuses that you may have received for speed, kill combos, recklessness, etc. The points you earn give you a rating, can unlock new masks on most of the levels, and the points are also used to unlock new weapons. In addition to the evaluation you typically have a small bit of story after each mission that typically results in talking to a man with a beard and being given something for free, but this changes as the story goes on.
Hotline Miami Sound Machine – I found Hotline Miami to have some very catchy music. Not only is it catchy, but it just seems to mesh so well with the overall style of the game.
Subtly Beside the Wrecking Ball – A good portion of Hotline Miami is not subtle at all. It is colorful, noisy, violent, and fast paced. Yet despite this lack of subtly in the bulk of the game, there is a certain subtly that serves the game well. Finding clippings in your apartment about the mission you just did and what you really accomplished, the different changes to your apartment over time, and other little details just seem so well thought out and make the game that much more interesting.
A Satisfying Challenge – Hotline Miami is challenging as I’ve said, but I feel that it is a game that ultimately rewards skill and planning. Sure there are times where an enemy will do something unexpected from time to time, but overall having a plan helps accomplish each level.
Your Head A’Splode – I found the story of the game rather intriguing. It starts out a little slow. However, it is more the mystery of what you’re doing and why that can keep you going. Then things start to get weird, twists come and it really leaves you wondering what real and what isn’t in the story. At one point in the game Jacket’s head explodes in his dream. That can sum up thinking about the story. It’s interesting, but you’re probably not going to make complete sense out of it without exploding your head.
Violence With a Purpose? – The violence of Hotline Miami is a strange beast. There are those who indicate that part of the game’s purpose is to make you question why you do violence just because somebody tells you to, like when you play a game where you go and kill a bunch of virtual people because the game tells you too. It’s an interesting thought, but I’m not sure if this game is really intending that. If it is, I’m not sure it succeeds. It can make you think about it and I do think that the violence is an interesting aspect of the story, particularly as it parallels with other aspects of the game. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the violence makes the game interesting, but I’m not sure if it works as some great question about violence.
I Rate That Killing Spree “Needs Improvement” – I’ve never been a big fan of ratings at the end of levels or games. They do make sense in some games, but in games like Hotline Miami, Resident Evil, or Devil May Cry I feel they’re out of place. This is perhaps even more highlighted with the violent nature of Hotline Miami. It’s basically like they’re telling you that your killing spree of Russian criminals wasn’t quite good enough go back and try again. It just seems a bit messed up.
I Thought We Were Killing Criminals – Now for some just the violence of this game would make it detestable. I understand that. Most of the enemies are criminals and guys who aren’t too worried about killing others themselves so maybe you can justify things that way. However, one of the levels has you breaking into a police station and killing everyone there to get to the man who killed your girlfriend. This police station hasn’t been taken over by the mafia either, so yeah you’re killing police. Sure it makes sense to the story, but it makes you cross over from being a violent vigilante to crazed man looking for nothing but revenge no matter who gets in your way.
As I’ve already said, I enjoyed the game even if I felt somewhat bad by enjoying it. The game is a weird mix of bright, colorful graphics and blood and gore. A mix of simple concept and challenging execution. A story that starts off seeming so simple, but that veers off in unexpected ways. In many ways I feel like this game almost wants you to not know what to feel while playing it.
So what is my recommendation to you? I don’t really know. If you have no qualms about blood and violence in your media then really my main qualm about recommending Hotline Miami is nullified, granted I don’t often have too many problems with violence in media and for some reason this game bugged me a little more than some. However if you’re not usually bothered by it I’d say go give it a try. If you’re not a big fan of gratuitous violence, then pass on Hotline Miami. There are plenty of other games out there that you can enjoy that don’t have the level of violence this game does. I even have a number of them in the pipeline to give my thoughts on in upcoming weeks.