Review – Hotline Miami

Killing without consequence is something that video games seem to share with action movies. Regardless of how heroic a protagonist is supposed to be, they usually leave a wake of dead bodies. In reality, each of these deaths would have serious repercussions, from families robbed of father figures who made questionable decisions to severe problems with the law. But according to shooters, henchmen don’t have lives or connections. They just exist to shoot and be shot.

I’m not saying this is a problem, though that’s up for discussion. I’m simply saying it’s a weird quirk of video game logic and human storytelling in general. Heroes kill people, not because the ends justify the means, but because that’s just how things go. Don’t question it. Don’t question your actions. Don’t question whether what you’re doing is justified.

There are, however, games that do ask you to question it. While Spec Ops: The Line seems like the most cited objection, I prefer Hotline Miami, which may be the best game to ever ask the question: “What kind of monster are you?”



Hotline Miami doesn’t give you much to go off of. You play as a mute, nameless protagonist that has come to be known as “Jacket” among fans and even in some official capacity. Jacket is a ruthless killer who answers cryptic phone calls that tell him of the location of his next targets. Or, no, wait, maybe he’s an everyman who’s been coerced into killing by a mysterious organization. Or, no, wait, maybe he’s a hero who’s been pushed too far and is out to solve the crime problem caused by the Russian mafia.

Do you like hurting other people? It’s sort of up to you to decide what you are. Are you a hero, a monster, or just doing what you can in your circumstances? That’s for you to figure out because the game doesn’t really tell you.

What is unavoidable, however, is that the game itself is an ultra-violent murder-thon. In essence, it’s a dual-stick shooter made in the die-and-retry formula. You’re placed on a stage floating in shifting neon nothingness, and you have to kill everyone on that floor. You have no choice.

To hurt other people, you’re given a massive array of weapons, as well as your fists. A lot of weapons you’ll wind up picking off of the recently deceased, and you can also temporarily incapacitate enemies by throwing your weapons across the room at them.

Be careful, though. Enemies are just as deadly as you are. Just as you’re capable of ending them with a single swat, you too can be taken down as easily. This is where the die-and-retry gameplay comes in. It’s easy to make a simple mistake and wind up a bloody mess. With a click of the button, you’re put at the beginning of the floor, ready to make another attempt. The difficulty comes from having to get your assault absolutely perfect.


Normally, I’m not a fan of die-and-retry, but Hotline Miami is the closest I’ve come to actually liking it. There’s something really satisfying about finally getting a run perfect: opening a door to knock someone down, launching your weapon at a goon across the room, and quickly bludgeoning a third before anyone even knows what happened. Sure, it can be extremely frustrating when someone blasts you with a shotgun from off-screen, or when the last guy on the stage gets a lucky shot on you, but such annoyances are typically short-lived.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t get annoying. The game gets pretty tricky the further in you go, and it can become a lot to deal with. Sometimes, it’s best just to put the game down and try again later.

Pictured: You monster!


Yet, frustrations aside, the gameplay is a lot of fun, but it’s not even Hotline Miami’s most notable asset. What really sells it to me is the bizarre aesthetic, ambiguous story, and fantastic soundtrack.

I’ve already touched on the fact that you don’t really know what your rampage is all about. Hotline Miami asks a lot of questions of you, the player, and doesn’t provide a lot of answers. Do these people you’re fighting deserve to die? That’s up to you, and you’ll have plenty of time to think about it. After the fighting is done, the pounding, high-energy soundtrack screeches to a halt and is replaced by an eerie hum, like the ringing in your ears. Rather than just ending the level, you’re forced to walk back to the car through your bloody carnage.

It’s not going to make you feel guilty if you do just enjoy the slaying, nor does Hotline Miami wag a finger at you for simply playing the game, but it implores you to think about it. The gentle swaying of the levels as they float in a neon ocean, the uncomfortable tracks that play while you’re in the relative safety of your apartments between levels, the cryptic interludes; it all plays in service of having you think about your actions.

Or you can ignore it and just enjoy the game. That’s always an option.


So, whether you like being a bit introspective about your digital murder-spree or just prefer to play the game itself, there’s something for you in Hotline Miami. While I’m more drawn to the themes of moral ambiguity held up by excellent visual and audio design, there’s no denying that the game itself is simply fun to play. It’s fast-paced, provides a lot of options to perform your killing spree, and doesn’t waste time.

Yet, despite the gameplay being a typical ultra-violent murder-fest, the narrative is anything but standard. Leaving large swaths of the plot as ambiguous, it leaves it up to you to ask questions not only about what’s going on, but also about what you’re doing. It’s not often that a game can force that sort of introspection without finger-wagging or sacrificing gameplay to do so. Because Hotline Miami manages to, it deserves to be celebrated.

As a side note, I performed this review on the port released on Switch. During it, I encountered a lot of majorly disruptive glitches that forced me to replay entire levels from the start. I never encountered these problems in other versions, so I’d recommend either waiting for a patch or going for a different platform.


This review was conducted on a Nintendo Switch using a digital version of the Hotline Miami Collection. It was paid for by the author.

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About Zoey Handley 233 Articles
Zoey made up for her mundane childhood by playing video games. Now she won't shut up about them. Her eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer. A lover of discovery, she can often be found scouring through retro and indie games. She currently works as a Staff Writer at Destructoid.

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