As always, you can click on images to see larger versions. But be warned that they depict some grisly violence this time.

Hotline Miami made quite a splash when it was released two years ago. Critics loved its aesthetic, its pastel palette evoking the neon lighting of late ’80s Miami, its hard-hitting synth-heavy soundtrack sounding like what the late ’80s should have sounded like. To me, it was more notable as the first commercial game by Jonatan Söderström, better known as Cactus, who forms one half of developers Dennaton Games (the other half is Dennis Wedin, with whom I was not previously familiar). Cactus has a reputation for making strange, free games, something he’s been doing for longer than “indie games” have been things people knew about. But the hyper-violent tale of Hotline Miami seemed at odds with his earlier output, and honestly wasn’t that appealing to me. Eventually curiosity got the better of me, however, and I’m glad it did.

As soon as I started the game, I could tell Cactus was involved. The style of the pixellated character portraits, the subtle sway of the camera, the way everything is always in motion, even in the menus — these all immediately recalled Cactus’s style, and felt surprisingly familiar given I haven’t played one of his games in many years. The violence, too, wasn’t quite what I expected; infused with a strong strain of the surreal, it never truly feels as gruesome as its depiction.

Which is probably the intention. Hotline Miami is about a man who receives mysterious messages on his answering machine, with vague instructions and an address (e.g. “go deal with a pest problem at this address”, “we’ve set up a blind date for you at this address”, etc.). The man interprets these messages to mean that he should go to the stated address and kill everyone on the premises. Specifically, he dons an animal mask, enters the building unarmed, and proceeds to brutally murder everyone with his bare hands or whatever weapons he can get his hands on. It’s clear from the beginning that players are seeing the world from this man’s point of view, which is hardly the most reliable.

The violence, then, doesn’t feel as gruesome as it is because this man doesn’t view it that way. To him, murdering a room full of people with his bare hands in only a few seconds is not unusual, or even particularly troubling. In fact, it’s not clear if the murders are really happening at all. Something about them just feels wrong. Why is every victim wearing the same white suit, and why are they all heavily armed? Why do they come running when they hear the protagonist shoot a gun, but show no concern when their allies fire one? Why are they completely unperturbed when they come across an ally’s bloody, mutilated corpse, spread in pieces across the room?

These contradictory behaviors are just part of the overtly game-like system that governs Hotline Miami’s various levels. Enemy behavior is mostly predictable (although some randomness is included to keep things interesting), even though it doesn’t necessarily make sense. The actual action is lightning-fast, with death dealt or received in an instant. Flub an attack on an enemy and he’ll strike back, lethally, without a moment’s hesitation. This meant that I died a lot, especially at first, but the quick restarts got me back into the action with a minimum of fuss, and once I got the hang of things I was rewarded with brightly-colored pop-up text excitedly informing me of my combo bonuses and points accrued from efficiently murdering everyone in a room. Finish a level and a score screen is shown, grading performance in categories like flexibility, mobility, and boldness. Points earned in this way unlock new animal masks, which each confer some special advantage or disadvantage, and new weapons (including both firearms and close range weapons) that will start to appear in the levels, waiting to be employed in new and gruesome fashion. In fact, some weapons are mechanically identical, differing only in the unique and grisly death animations they produce.

And I should be perfectly clear: the deaths are grisly. Heads are smashed into floors and walls, shotguns tear through multiple enemies at once, knives spill guts onto the floor, limbs are severed. When a level is complete, it is left strewn with bodies, appendages, blood and gore. But all this feels separated from the mechanical nature of playing the levels, which can feel like puzzles more than anything else. Enter this room, kill those two guys, take his baseball bat, wait by the door for the patrolling guards to pass, burst through and knock one down, kill the other one, then jump on the first one and smash his head in, then dash to the next room before that other guy can shoot, throw the bat at the first guy in there and jump the other guy, take his shotgun, etc. Failure at any point means starting over, so the act of playing becomes one of learning systems, memorizing patterns, and practicing specific sequences of moves (indeed, a similar experience to the super-hard platformers I’ve written about on this blog). Soon, I was barely even seeing the violence I was dishing out. Which, again, is probably the intention.

The minimalist story that frames this all is appropriately surreal as well. Everything happens in a few select buildings, with exteriors fading into a pastel void. The protagonist occasionally speaks with personifications of his animal masks, who ask confusing questions. Some small hints about the nature of the killings trickle in, even as I wondered how much (if any) of it was actually happening. But I was pleased to see that the now-standard plot twist didn’t turn out the way I expected. There are a few problems with the story — the fact that the primary female character might not actually exist doesn’t excuse her cliched presentation, for example — but mostly it was weird enough and well paced enough that I remained intrigued.

And the music really is fantastic. Featuring tracks from a variety of artists, it nails the unsettling tone needed for the story sequences, and switches to some real pumping tracks once the violence starts. It’s also a perfect match for the aesthetic style of the game, an intentionally exaggerated misrepresentation of the late ’80s that fits the unhinged proceedings. Without this music the game would feel half-formed, missing a critical element. I don’t know if the tracks were reused from elsewhere or written specifically for the game (I’m guessing some of both), but either way, they’re perfect.

Playing Hotline Miami was definitely a singular experience. There’s something compelling in the sheer audacity of entering a building empty handed and killing a whole gang of armed thugs. Such a thing would never work in real life, of course, and it doesn’t really work in the game either, given how many times I died before managing to pull it off in each level. But when I pulled it off, the implication was that anything is possible, no matter the odds. That might does not always make right. That a single, unarmed individual can prevail over an army. All that is required is a complete lack of hesitation. A disturbing lack of hesitation.

In the end, however, I didn’t find Hotline Miami to be quite as amazing as some of the rave reviews suggest. The game systems work really well, but don’t quite offer the replayability that all the points and grades and unlocks imply; after making it through the game, I felt I had more or less mastered the combat and felt little incentive to return to earlier levels except to find secrets. But it is an excellent example of marrying game systems with aesthetic and narrative elements in a meaningful way — something that is surprisingly uncommon — and it is absolutely worth playing for that reason alone. And while it may not have changed my life, I still found it to be an excellent game, and I enjoyed it far more than I expected to.

Hotline Miami may be that rare ultraviolent game that you will like even if you do not like violence. Imagine that!