By Harris Allgeier
Staff Columnist

In 2012, Digital Devolver released a surprising indie smash called “Hotline Miami” for Windows and the Playstation 3. Highly reminiscent of 2011’s neo-noir crime drama “Drive,” “Hotline Miami” is a cocaine-fueled neon bloodbath steeped in 80’s atmosphere. Throughout most of the game’s story you play as an unnamed man referred to only as Jacket. One day, after murdering a homeless man, Jacket begins receiving cryptic messages on his answering machine instructing him to conduct assassinations; these messages are accompanied by hallucinations of three men wearing animal masks who appear in Jacket’s run-down apartment, judging him for his actions and posing cryptic questions.

Played from a top-down perspective and presented in a pleasing pixilated style, “Hotline Miami’s” gameplay consists of going through various buildings floor-by-floor and eliminating waves of hired goons, policemen, and drug lords. The combat is absurdly fast and brutal. You’re presented with choices from a wide swath of melee weapons and firearms each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Guns are obviously more effective but will alert every henchman to your presence. The thing that makes “Hotline” so satisfying is the quick brutality of the combat; most enemies die in one or two hits, but so do you. Each encounter requires careful planning and lightning-fast execution. You’re going to die, and die a lot. Fortunately what could be a very frustrating level of difficulty is offset by the fact that when you die, you can restart the floor you’re on instantly. A death will only set you back a minute or so of progress, encouraging experimentation with different tactics and strategy.

Every level also begins with the choice of a mask. For a reason that’s never articulated, over the course of the game Jacket amasses a large collection of animal masks, each of which imbues him with a different ability. Will you wear Brandon the Panther to get a burst of extra speed? Or what about Aubrey the Pig for access to some extra firearms? The masks provide a welcome additional layer of strategy that can dramatically affect how you play each level.

In addition to the flashy retro visuals, “Hotline” boasts an impressive soundtrack featuring nine different artists including M.O.O.N., Jasper Byrne, and Scattle. The songs all feel era-appropriate and, in addition to being incredibly catchy, do an excellent job of making the player feel right at home on their coke-fueled murder rampage.

The story in “Hotline” is incoherent and vague, but it seems largely intentional, designed not to tell a specific tale but instead to provide a compelling riff on the meaningless insanity of violence itself (even if the actual gameplay makes said violence incredibly entertaining). The game does a surprising job of taking you through Jacket’s descent into romance, madness, and revenge all with a minimal amount of dialogue. A few words of advice though, do not try to find the complete ending. Diligent players who hunt through the game for a collection of puzzle pieces may stumble upon a secret ending that more fully explains the reason for the puzzling phone calls and assassinations. This “real” ending ultimately undercuts the game’s central themes regarding the senseless brutality of existence, and provides an explanation far less satisfying than anything the player’s imagination can conjure.

Additionally, while the core combat of the game is fast, discomforting and unnervingly satisfying, there are a few boss-style encounters that end up being more frustrating than they’re worth (the only way I was able to beat the game’s final encounter was thanks to a timely glitch that rendered me invincible) and one forced stealth level that is both incredibly difficult and severely slows down the otherwise breakneck pace of the game.

That being said, “Hotline Miami” is a wonderfully strange and unique title, simultaneously enrapturing the player and disgusting them with style, speed, and their own capacity for violence. It’s well worth a play and a steal at only $10.

The Elm

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