The first time I came across Hotline Miami was at the Eurogamer Expo last month in London, UK. I played their demo for a few minutes and was nothing but mildly intrigued by the gameplay. I wasn’t really anticipating it much after trying it out at Eurogamer but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway once it’s seen its release. When I finally got the game, I did not put it down until I finished it…twice.

Hotline Miami is a 2D top-down action shooter developed by Dennation Games. “2D top-down action shooter,” however, is such a limited sounding genre. It definitely doesn’t encapsulate the whole essence of Hotline Miami. Eurogamer once described it better by calling it a “top down fuck’em up.” Trust me when I say that this statement is 100% accurate.

Hotline Miami works a lot like an action movie where the protagonist assaults a crime syndicate HQ and single handedly kills everybody inside the building then leaving without a scratch. You move through different levels filled with armed goons and attack dogs and are expected to kill everybody in the building. You kick the door down and the door knocks out the enemy behind it, you steal his 2-round shotgun then shoot the two guards across the room before they even turn around, enter the next room, throw your empty shotgun at another enemy, run towards him while he’s knocked down, finish him off by gouging his eyes out. Sometimes plans like these are well thought out but in this case it wasn’t.

Life is absolutely dispensable in Hotline Miami. All it takes for you to die is one bullet or one hit from a baseball bat. The same applies to enemies with bosses as exceptions. Your one life dictates that each level sweep must go flawlessly otherwise you’ll have to start the level over. The fact that it is a top down game enables you to see what is behind closed doors in surrounding rooms. While this does leave a bit of room for planning, your plans don’t necessarily carry out the way you’d like them to. The more you run through a stage, the more you learn enemy positions and patrolling patterns. However, the patterns can sometimes be inconsistent and enemies won’t necessarily be carrying exactly the same weapons with each restart.

The game comes with a few boss fights that feel a bit forced on. It takes a number of restarts to figure out which strategy to use but even if you do know exactly how to kill the boss it still takes a bit of trial and error to successfully beat him. The boss strategies aren’t that clever either but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to get through.

After each stage comes a summary page of how well you did. You are rewarded for executing quick consecutive kills. The game encourages you to be as reckless and quick as possible. The points count towards unlocking new masks which give specific powers, like faster movement or more ammo, and new weapons. I didn’t really understand the point of unlocking new weapons, though. All melee weapons practically work the same way except sharp weapons are lethal when thrown. The only difference between guns is the splash damage (or lack thereof) and ammo capacity.

The control scheme poses a minor problem in Hotline Miami. It uses the standard WASD keys for movement and the mouse for controlling line of sight. While the game relies on constant respawns to gain strategic information on the map, the game doesn’t let you see too far ahead in each level. The game does provide you later with a giraffe mask that enables you to look farther ahead but for a game that depends a lot on accurate skill shots you’d think they’d make it slightly less of a hassle to aim properly.

The way weapons work in Hotline Miami almost makes it a stealth game. Melee weapons are silent while guns make a lot of noise. However, the stealth aspect is completely optional. It all depends on your play style. You can go through most levels with nothing but a knife and kill everybody without causing as much chaos or you can blast through the doors and steal the first rifle you can find unleashing a storm of bullets in every room. Both play styles have their advantages and disadvantages but the main point here is that they both work and they’re both fun.

Hotline Miami puts you in control of a mindless killing machine set in what seems like an unstable reality. The protagonist seems to be living a double life; a normal one and another drenched in blood. He goes about his day like any other normal person would. He has pizza for dinner, frequents bars and often rents out movies at his local video shop. On the side, he talks to mysterious figures wearing animal masks and receives phone calls that instruct him to assist in mundane jobs that act as covers for mass murders. The line between these two lives eventually gets blurred and his normal life ceases to exist.

The main premise of Hotline Miami is violence. In fact, violence is what seems to be the ultimate driving factor of the game. You can’t progress to the next stage unless you’ve killed everybody, you can’t interact with any objects in the game except for weapons and quest items and while you do get some social interaction it is very limited. It seems like the only way the player can interact with the world is through violence. With each head smashed by a steel pipe and each room cleared out with a barrage of bullets comes a strange satisfaction. It could all go horribly wrong if not for quick reflexes and a go-with-the-flow state of mind.

Hotline Miami was created with the GameMaker which is now available on Steam. The game’s overall theme plays homage to Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive. The graphics are vivid 16-bit retro style that just screams the 1980s. Perhaps the most striking 80s feature of Hotline Miami is the soundtrack. Composed by the creator of Lone Survivor, Jasper Byrne, the music is heavy and hazy with 80s synthesizers that make the game feel somewhat euphoric and dream-like. Not only that but all the levels, including the short plot sequences, are transfixed on a foggy solid color that make it seem like the world outside doesn’t exist unless you’re within it. The screen angle is not quite static either; the screen slightly sways side to side giving it more of a dream-like aesthetic.

The game is regrettably short. It’ll take nothing more than 4-5hrs to sweep through it depending on how well you play. There is also not much replay value in the sense that nothing new comes up in the second time you play through it but regardless, it’s still fun to revisit each level to do things a bit differently. Hotline Miami definitely strikes a chord in me in a way that I didn’t know any 2D top down shooter could.