Hotline: Miami is Dennaton Games’ first stab at the gaming world and while the stab may not be a big one, it certainly leaves players remembering the wound.
The game features a pixelated “retro” style which is all too common among indie developers. However, this could quite possibly the first game in which the style has any right to be there. It’s filled to the brim with 80’s charm from its music, right down to its weapon choices.
The menu opens with a nice, relaxing Hawaiian theme with the classic Miami image of a car driving down a road lined with palm trees either side. As it is an indie game which was created using Game Maker, there are obviously limited options, so much so that there isn’t even an options menu. The title is shown in Russian as well as English which confused me initially but was soon explained in a very roundabout way, much like the rest of the game.
The story begins with you being taught the basic mechanics of the game by a homeless person, however it’s unclear as to whether it is actually part of the story or not. There seems to be quite a few dream-type sequences that are left to the players interpretation. In this tutorial there is a clear attempt at humour in which the hobo will repeatedly ask you if you’re smart enough to complete any of these basic tasks. While amusing the first time, it wears thin after he repeats the same joke about six times. At this point it also becomes evident that there is no voice acting in the game, which could quite possibly be for the better. Overall, the story is very dark and the tutorial does well to support this theme, with you being taught how to effectively murder people in a variety of ways. The story then presses onward following a basic formula. You wake up in your apartment and find a mysterious message on your answering machine detailing the location of your next “assignment.” Once completing your killing spree you will collect an item from a location, usually a video store or liquor store, and then return to your apartment. The game will follow this pattern for roughly half of the story, until it starts to take a dark turn. The story soon dives into twisted visions of disfigured acquaintances and distorted worlds. There is quite a surprising amount of depth to this indie game’s story and a lot is left to the player’s own interpretation. Just simply finishing the story leaves you with a multitude of theories swirling around in your head.
The gameplay of Hotline itself is extremely fast paced. It uses a top down perspective similar to that of the old Grand Theft Auto games. Each level layout will present you with a series of rooms and enemies stationed throughout. There are two categories of weapons in Hotline, melee and firearms. The melee weapons can be thrown to make up for the range handicap, but usually expects you to get up in the enemies grill to do any real damage. These weapons will provide an accurate, satisfying and gory effect when you land a hit. Firearms can blow chunks out of enemies at long range, but suffer from extremely limited ammo and noise which attracts all nearby enemies. Hotline has AI unlike any other. Upon coming into a room, any enemy with a melee weapon will charge you like an enraged bull. Given that every hit in this game is an insta-kill both ways, you will need to have some pretty good reflexes to put him down. Enemies with guns have an extreme field of view with even faster reaction times than melee enemies. Your only hope of killing these marksmen is approaching them from outside anything that could be considered peripheral vision or rushing them rapidly with melee.
Due to the fast paced nature of the game, improvisation is king in most situations. You will find yourself backpedalling through piles of your bloody handiwork, throwing pipes at pursuers and spraying whatever ammo you can find their way. There’s no game I’ve played so far that makes you feel like such a badass upon speedily murdering an apartment complex full of Russian gangsters. I often found that because the enemies tend to rush you, it was easier to simply stand in a doorway and bottleneck them into whatever weapon I happened to be using.
One of the major themes within the game is wearing the iconic animal masks. These are chosen at the beginning of the level and provide different bonuses when playing. They can be unlocked by scoring high within specific levels. Certain weapons randomly spawn within the level and the amount which spawn increases as you unlock specific weapons. Unlike the masks, these weapons are unlocked by accumulated points over all levels. With each chapter being selectable from the main menu, both these factors add a fair amount of replayability to the game.
Upon initially playing the game, I noticed what looked like screen tearing and started to worry that it was my monitor. I later found this to be a nice in-game effect that adds a little spice to that 80’s monitor feeling. Along with rainbow coloured backgrounds that pulsate to the beat of the incredible soundtrack, the only thing to rival the gameplay is the game’s presentation. In the hospital, a stealth-based level, there was some very good use of twisting and blurring effects on the screen to represent the character’s distorted mind.
Hotline: Miami features quality that is unseen in many indie games, this is especially impressive considering it is Dennaton Games’ first one. While it does suffer from certain indie game clichés, such as some lack of depth, it makes up for what it lacks with satisfying gameplay and a real stylish feel in every aspect.
The game takes a fair degree of skill to start enjoying and you may find yourself getting a little frustrated if you approach it with the same mentality as would with many other games. Hotline provides a fun experience that naturally makes you feel skilled for finishing each chapter. However, after roughly 5-6 hours of play you may find yourself getting bored due to some unhealthy doses of repetition.