Miami and the 1980’s go together like peanut butter and chocolate, soaking the city streets in neon and dusting them with cocaine in a fashion that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who lived through—or are fascinated by—the decade. Michal Mann’s Miami Vice and de Palma’s Scarface were pastel-soaked looks at the blazer clad underbelly of Miami, and Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City aped the iconic city to parody perfection.
Hotline Miami, the first game from newcomer Dennaton Games, captures this neon-and-new-wave vibe while rendering the rest of the game in rough-hewn pixel art, an appropriate but uncomfortable stylistic decision for a game so mired in the 1980’s, as well as the deep psychological destruction it harbors. The artwork is just this side of hideous, with grimacing characters and stunted animations distorted by flickering lighting and wobbling camera angles. The game’s camera is also locked at a weird, dated overhead view that further accentuates the ugliness of the graphics. As genuinely unpleasant as the art is at times, it fits the ensuing nastiness perfectly.
That nastiness is a series of missions, left on your answering machine, which sends you on a trip to rack up a sizeable body count of enemies who want you dead for unknown reasons. These missions are given to you in either code or a thinly-veiled lie, requesting you “babysit” someone’s “children,” or some other ruse, all of which lead to a simple, brutal encounter where you use your wits, your fists, and pattern recognition to complete your objectives.
The game is brutally simple in its execution: you only need the WASD keys, the space bar, and each of the mouse buttons to move around the environment and massacre your enemies, although this simplicity in controls allows the player to focus on the split-second maneuvers that they will need to overcome your foes, who more often than not outgun you. Kicking open a door to stun an enemy, then run to them to execute them with a rapid-fire flurry of mouse clicks is purest simplicity in theory, but the combination of timing, speed, and plain damn luck make it a far more frantic experience than you would initially expect. You will die, and often.
But when you hit that perfect rhythm and manage to slaughter an enemy and pick up their dropped weapon to murder their team mate that is running at you, it’s a psychotically satisfying experience. There are countless random weapons for you to pick up, and their various outcomes are all shockingly brutal, from bursting a man’s skull with your boot to pouring boiling water over his face. The morality—or lack thereof—is off putting at times, as there is no rhyme or reason to the conflict, just pure feral kill-or-be-killed combat.
These horrific murders reward the player with equally horrific unlockables in the form of animal masks, which you don in order to unlock additional abilities that make the killing easier, at least technically. I cannot stress enough just how uncomfortable the game makes you feel overall, between the grungy graphics, the eerie music, the dreamlike story, and absentee morality. This is a game that puts you in a very uncomfortable place…and that’s what horror is all about.