Mainlining Hotline Miami

Fantastic Arcade is probably one of the best kept secrets of the game industry. It is an indie video game spin-off of the annual film festival Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and unsurprisingly, it is rather fantastic. It’s definitely not the biggest gaming event what with only 22 official game selections and a handful of Sony titles on PS3s and Vitas being shown and, at its busiest, barely making the backroom of The Highball bowling alley feel cramped, but boy does it have everything else going for it.

The games across the board are just fantastic. These are the cream of the crop indie games, previewing titles like Super TIME Force from Capybara Games and Proteus from Ed Key and David Kanaga (some released games were there, too, like Lone Survivor and FTL). And most of the developers are actually on-hand. You can just walk up and talk to the Vlambeer guys and ask them about Luftrausers or watch Terry Cavanagh beat Super Hexagon‘s Hyper Hexagonest mode over and over again without breaking a sweat. And the panels and game commentaries are so spectacularly candid that you feel like you’re watching their therapy sessions.

And that’s not to mention THE DANCINGULARITY.

So even among Pid and Where is my Heart?, imagine my surprise when a game sticks out like a sore thumb beacon of quality and intrigue. The two-man development team Dennaton traveled all the way from Sweden to show off their upcoming title Hotline Miami, and holy crap am I glad they did.

Hotline Miami is a top-down action game that revolves around…a guy. In the 80s. It’s hard to pin down what he is exactly as the developers were “intentionally vague” about the story (despite appearances, he is not a hitman and not a psycho killer). At certain points, it seems like people wearing animal masks creep into your consciousness and ask you deep, thought-provoking questions about what you’re doing, so maybe you aren’t even really killing people. I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does.

The closest they would get to a definitive answer was saying that the game is heavily inspired by the 2011 film Drive. During their panel, Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström mentioned that there is a clear point where the movie could have gone one of two ways, and whereas Ryan Gosling’s character chose one path, Hotline Miami will go the other. When the driver walks up to that pizzeria with that mask on, instead of walking away, imagine that he just goes in guns blazing.

And much like Drive, Hotline Miami plays in a similar fashion of mindful but instinctive, pressure-filled scenarios punctuated by intense violence. Played with a keyboard and mouse (at an upright arcade cabinet, of all places), you use WASD to move around and the mouse to aim and fire and pick up and drop weapons. You’ll have your choice of a myriad of weapons such as knives, shotguns, axes, scythes, swords, axes, crowbars, and so much more.

And you’ll need all of them. Each stage starts out with you listening to a cryptic but suggestive voicemail on your answering machine (something along the lines of “there’s an open house you should check out” or “some pests need terminating“), jumping into your DeLorean, and driving to the location of the impending massacre.

Once you get there, you’ll choose between several animal masks with names like Dennis and Aubrey, each one granting you a different ability or power-up like increased walking speed or starting with a knife instead of just your bare knuckles. After you do that, it is, for lack of a better word, on. You have to clear each floor of the building before returning to your car and driving off to see a bespectacled, long-haired dude at various food or service establishments (yeah, don’t ask).

But that clearing action is where the meat is at. You move your Axel Foley-inspired guy around at what feels like Quake-level speed trying to eliminate the Miami Vice-ish thugs patrolling each floor. Each guy can go down in one hit from a weapon or can be knocked down with your fists or by busting through a door, but the same goes for you. Just one pellet from a single shotgun blast can kill you or kill your enemy. Die and you’re immediately sent back to the start of that particular floor.

And you should expect to die a lot.

Dying is part of the learning process in Hotline Miami. For the most part, enemies start out in the same places albeit with some minor, random variance, so it eventually becomes a brutally bloody and nigh masochistic puzzle game. Each intersection of hallways becomes a process of elimination as you decipher what situations can be handled with what you have. Firearms are loud and will draw attention, but with enough rounds or proper positioning, that could be exactly what you want as thug after thug blindly runs through the doorway. Melee, however, is silent and appropriately primal, allowing you deal with each enemy at your own pace and on your own terms.

Don’t mistake this for being a stealth game, though. While you will occasionally find yourself hiding behind walls or creeping up behind a slacker guard, there aren’t many stealth systems in place. Seeing the dead bodies of fellow white-suited foes does little to alarm anyone, nor does seeing doors mysteriously open and close or weapons being thrown around the room. The point of this game is to be fast and efficient and brutal.

It’s almost operatic in that way. You’ll eventually lock down how you want to proceed in any given situation after a few initial creeping walkthroughs and either through impatience or practice, you’ll start to really zip through the first half of a floor. I mean, you’ll really be cooking, stopping for really just about nothing. Not even your own death is worth a moment’s hesitation from neither the game nor yourself.

But then you’ll start to catch earlier and earlier timings on patrol routes, so then you get into the mindset that you can’t possibly slow down or you’ll mess it all up. It’s a race against yourself to make sure everyone gets an axe to the face, and by the end, you’ll be like flowing water; cold and indifferent but fluid and powerful. You will feel, in all senses of the word, cool.

The sensation you get from being a pseudo-Ryan Gosling is only heightened by the thumping electro soundtrack. Currently a melancholy, 80s-tinged mixtape of artists like M.O.O.N. and Pertubator, the game will also feature music from Lone Survivor creator Jasper Byrne. Each ambient bass hit and stringent snare tap will eventually bump along through your veins, pushing and pulling all your gooey innards as every single bit of the game is mainlined into the very core of your being.

Once you get into the rhythm of things, you reach the same mind space as if you were playing something like Dyad. You get to that place in your head where things become primeval, animalistic. It’s almost the exact opposite of a composed, structured strategy game; everything is reactionary, and yet to get to that place, Hotline Miami demands an incredible amount of forethought and consideration from you or all you will get back is one failure after another.

And really, that’s the only way to get the big scores and the high marks. And I can’t wait to grade this dark, funny, sadistic, bloody, surprisingly philosophical, neon-filled game.

Look for Hotline Miami on Steam later this year.

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