Review - Hotline Miami 2

27/11/2023

Darcy McBrinn reviews Hotline Miami 2

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Image by Denton Games Presskit

By Darcy McBrinn

TW: Mentions of physical violence

Originally released in 2012, the first Hotline Miami was a vibrant indie hit that supplied a well-executed and surprisingly thoughtful take on the rage game genre popular at the time. The game offers an intricately woven tapestry of new wave, synthetic 1980s nostalgia, infused with the difficulty and style of retro arcade classics, as well as a dose of unapologetic ultraviolence. All of this combined with the undercurrent of a sophisticated narrative concerned with morality, insanity, and even the very nature of video games, Hotline Miami was enriching to its core. So, it is unsurprising that the release of its sequel, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number in 2015 was highly anticipated.

Developed in unison by both Dennaton Games and Abstraction Games, the sequel takes place in an alternative history version of America, primarily in the crime-ridden city of Miami during the late 1980s to 1990s. A cesspool where killers, gangsters, and animal masked vigilantes run rampant. In a deviation from its predecessor, the game acts as somewhat of an anthology, jumping sporadically between an assortment of characters who are all in some way connected to the first game’s protagonist, Jacket.

However, before diving into the narrative maelstrom that is Hotline Miami 2’s story, what ultimately defines a game is its gameplay, which in every respect is a marked improvement upon the original. Its foundations remain the same, with the sequel choosing to build upon the original rather than reinventing itself. Whilst meandering around the levels can lead to a slow, and at times frustrating experience, the gameplay thrives in a rapid fast paced playstyle, all while presented from an unconventional top-down perspective. Hurtling through levels is an incredibly fun and rewarding experience, and this fast-paced approach is aided – in the vein of Super Meat Boy – by the infinite lives and instantaneous ability to respawn. Dying doesn’t feel like a setback, but only another chance to leap straight back into the frenzy. Hotline Miami 2 utterly flourishes in this sense of intensity, and the intensity is impressively sustained throughout the game’s 27 level duration. Almost every level offers something new, a unique twist or gimmick, that constantly keeps the gameplay fresh – be it a new character, enemy type, mini boss, weapon, or subversion of the game’s conventions. This tension is routinely paid off with a great sense of catharsis every time “FLOOR CLEARED”, and ultimately “LEVEL CLEAR”, appears on screen. This feeling of accomplishment is aided by the relaxing music that plays over the score screen.

On occasion however this feeling can be more so a sense of relief, as some levels in the game unfortunately go on for too long. This often creates a prolongation which leads to what would have been a challenging but rewarding experience descending simply into frustration. Whilst the player has infinite lives, in the Hotline Miami games exiting a level causes all checkpoints to be erased. Unless you want to reset the level, it must be beaten in one sitting. In these instances, the game transforms into what is essentially a digital hostage situation, as the player is forced to angrily bang their head against the wall until completion – with this sort of level becoming more and more prominent as the game goes on. Of course, it’s natural for the game to get harder as it progresses (otherwise it would get boring and repetitive), but sometimes the challenge is confused with merely making levels longer. The 12th level ‘Deathwish’ is a clear example of a longer level that can be engaging both in terms of narrative and gameplay. Yet this level serves as an the exception and not the rule. Later in the game most of Ritcher’s levels – starring the rat masked menace of the first game – show that short but dense stages are more engaging but just as challenging as their stretched-out counterparts.

The controls and inputs are incredibly sharp and responsive throughout, and while this is a necessity in a fast-paced game like Hotline Miami 2, it remains a satisfying experience nonetheless. But this cannot be said for the frustrating physics of the doors throughout the game. Whilst these doors are intended to help the player, allowing them to knock over and incapacitate enemies, they are often a hindrance. The mechanics are too sensitive, and the slightest touch can cause the doors to act erratically (sometimes even without the player’s input), often leading to both the disruption of combos and the general flow of the game.

In complete sync with the blood pumping gameplay is the music, an aspect of the franchise that is as fundamental as its violent plotlines. The music feels like less of a backing track and more like a rhythm that conducts the flow and intensity throughout.  ‘Hotline Miami Theme’ by Benny Smiles and ‘Le Perv’ by Carpenter Brut are two of my personal standouts from the soundtrack.

Hotline Miami 2’s most clear deviation from the original is its newfound assortment of characters – rather than the original’s minor boons – which allows for a constant stream of variation in playstyles that keep the game fresh and exciting. The alteration in style also compliments individual characters, whose unique mechanics are interwoven into their plotlines. The first introduced – and most engaging – of these fresh faces are the masked vigilantes called the Fans, composed of Corey the Zebra, Tony the Tiger, Alex and Ash the Swans, and Mark the Bear. They are a gang whose idolisation of Jacket – the protagonist of the original Hotline Miami – has led them to re-enacting his murder spree. Each carries a unique ability (a trend that largely continues with each new character),. The combo character of Alex and Ash is easily the most fun in the game. Their functions are split in half as the player controls the chainsaw-wielding Alex, whilst her brother Ash follows automatically behind, firing his gun on the player’s command. By combining the melee and range combat into one character, Alex and Ash nicely reinvents the playstyle of the game, fully indulging in the chaotic frenzy that Hotline Miami thrives in, which is only aided by the vicious absurdity of Alex’s chainsaw.

On the other side of the Fans, the opening character Corey is one of the least appealing of *Hotline Miami 2’*s characters. Beyond lacking a distinct personality, her unique roll dodge ability is almost impossible to use effectively. The command to trigger the roll dodge and to finish off downed enemies is mapped to the same key, and as such when using her you’ll often accidentally trigger Corey’s ability which actively hinders the player. This makes her easily one of the least enjoyable characters, especially given how exciting the rest of the Fans are.

Perhaps the most unique character in the game is Evan Wright, a journalist obsessed with finishing his tell-all book on Miami’s masked killer plague. Unlike the rest of the cast, Evan is appalled by murder, and his gameplay reflects this. Evan is unable to use lethal weapons like guns and knives – picking up guns allows Evan to disassemble them, both neutralising the weapon and contributing to the player’s combo. This means what would have been a disadvantage becomes a benefit. Moreover, unlike other characters, Evan can only use blunt weapons that merely incapacitate the enemies rather than brutally killing. Evan’s good-natured demeanour instils a distinctive dose of grounded humanity in an assortment of characters that range from damaged heroes to unhinged maniacs. He is a character that the player can fully identify with which cannot be said of the rest of them. However, whilst Evan’s sections offer a unique pacifist angle in the otherwise blood-soaked story, as the game progresses the novelty of his sections begins to wear thin. His levels simply lack the visceral adrenaline and bloody flair that the other characters enjoy, and often it is Evan’s levels that I find myself replaying the least.

Alternatively, Jake, who dons the cobra masks, is by far the least interesting character of the roster. Not only is Jake underdeveloped, but he is also the most disconnected character from the rest of the story, making it hard to become invested in his personality or narrative. This is especially lacklustre alongside characters such as the Henchman or the Pig Butcher, both of which have less presence than Jake but who’s brief appearances impart both genuine emotion and a lasting impression upon the player. Even gameplay wise Jake is simply less interesting than his colleagues, as his first unique ability is one of the least transformative in the game, whilst his second and third are just the Henchman and Tony’s respective abilities of a silenced firearm and lethal punches recycled.

Routinely the most impactful character is the recurring presence of Richard – the iconic rooster mask from the first game – who visits the characters in discord-fuelled surreal sequences, berating them for their actions and warning of the damned path they walk. These sparring moments create  unease, which is only intensified with each subsequent reappearance.

However, the nonlinear arrangement of the story, more often than not, simply confuses an already intricate narrative. Unlike other prominent non-chronological narratives like Pulp Fiction or Memento, in which the audience can decipher the order and follow the story properly whilst watching it, Hotline Miami 2 is simply too jumbled, almost requiring a YouTube explanation video to understand its plot. Dates are given at the start of each scene to frame it within the timeline; however, these are brief and it's almost ridiculous to assume the audience will not only read them in time, but also retain specific information from every scene. These dates can be especially egregious as they are shown quickly after the shocking conclusions of the previous scene that the player is still processing. Despite the overarching story feeling complicated, the individual narratives are still engaging enough in isolation to keep the player gripped throughout.

Finally, the art style of the game is phenomenal, offering a vibrant pixel art graphical style with a radiant neon glow that is simultaneously modern in its detail whilst also harkening to the retro video game aesthetic of the story’s era. While this is the same as the first game, there has been a distinct elevation in the crispness of the graphics, allowing each environment to be enriched with character and detail in a way the original couldn’t quite achieve. Hotline Miami is now a world that feels alive and lived in, in tandem with the ludicrous scale of its violence, its aesthetic paradoxically accompanies and grounds it. Despite this style, the blood and gore remain boldly visceral whilst also being lent a sense of modesty that allows the gore to be more palatable for a wider audience of players.

In all, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is a brutal, punishing, and arduous journey that I loved from start to finish. It is a brilliant game which serves as an equally brilliant sequel to the first instalment. Whilst the game has its recurring flaws  these are localised to specific characters or levels, and rarely outstay their welcome. It is a tough experience that is by its nature frustrating, but ultimately one that rewards dedication and perseverance. It is a game fuelled by accomplishment, triumph, and guided along by an ongoing fascination with the vivid and varied world it constructs. It is a narrative throttled by themes of bloodlust and apathy, exploring the psyches of protagonists who are utterly detached from the destruction left in their wake. Despite its difficulty, and even eight years after its release, Hotline Miami 2 is an experience that I always find myself coming back to, and one that I recommend to those that enjoy a good challenge, a good art style, and an excellent bit of music.