A brutally difficult top-down shooter with a narrative and atmosphere yanked straight from a David Lynch film, Hotline Miami is a game like few others. The story revolves around Jacket, a silent hitman who dons animal masks before slaughtering his targets. What starts as a traditional video game set-up quickly unravels once it becomes clear Jacket’s silent acceptance of these demands speaks to an unspoken trauma.
The visual presentation is consistently trippy, with Jacket repeatedly confronted by masked figures commenting on his actions. Are these people somehow involved, or are they even people at all? The fact Jacket wears these masks suggests they might be his own hallucinations. Colors flash along the edge of the screen with every kill, and later chapters mess around with ideas like having the entire screen twist to simulate dizziness. The soundtrack consists of frenetic electronic songs which only adds to the hallucinatory experience.
The gameplay is highly addictive. While challenging, the levels are quick enough to never be frustrating. With each of Jacket’s masks offering different advantages, there are tons of ways to tackle each stage. My preference is to sneak around and melee everyone I can; guns can be quicker, but they can also draw bigger crowds. Jacket is as fragile as any enemy, so every encounter is tense, especially once the game starts mixing in guard dogs and portly men who are immune to melee damage and can survive a few shots. Instead of having an inventory system, Jacket simply uses whatever is available. This tends to force the player to fight their way up to the better weapons.
Horror in video games can come about in many ways. The traditional survival horror genre goes for the obvious with a protagonist facing off against evil creatures. Hotline Miami is one of a rare class which goes for dissonance between player and character. Playing as Jacket feels wrong, but the experience is so strong that you’re going to continue, even as the world collapses around him. While video games have been established as a medium for interactive narratives, few games realize the potential for discomfort by only offering the protagonist the wrong path. Where such a story in any other medium would likely be an emotionally distant character study, Hotline Miami forces you to play along in a psychopath’s sadistic game.
Short and to the point, Hotline Miami mixes together chaotic gameplay, a soundtrack consisting of nothing but hypnotic bangers, and a dizzying narrative into one unforgettable experience.