Imagine a human skull, blown inwards by the anonymous whoosh of a wooden baseball bat. Hear the blood spray outward with each sickening crunch, hundreds of drops emote singular pits and pats against concrete, linoleum, vinyl, and skin. Imagine this process, over and over, recursive and mindless. A numbing sensation takes control. Your vision is blurred, distorted, a casual swing of perspective that gives way to motion sickness. This time it’s not a bat, but a knife. And again with a brick. Now a katana. A frying pan, red hot. The process repeats nigh endlessly. Sometimes they need your fists. Turning their faces into hamburger asks for black and blue knuckles. Your arms always ache these days. Nearly everything aches these days. Pop some pills, grab a VHS, and get some sleep. This is Hotline Miami, and you live to kill.

In an impossible attempt to succinctly summarize Hotline Miami, it’s a top-down beat’em-up colored by a heavy eighties aesthetic in which the goal is to eliminate an entire floor of enemies as quickly and creatively as possible. Control is akin to other top-down shooters, that is, the player-character is rotated on a three-hundred-and-sixty degree axis with one stick (or the mouse) and actually moved in varying directions with the other. At times, the controls don’t feel as precise as they could be, largely due to the small aiming reticule and pixilated blur of the visual style, but for the most part, they work as expected. This freedom of movement, paired with the massive arsenal at your disposal, allow for some creative kills. And you’ll need to be creative; you’re a fragile man.

Hotline Miami is a difficult game, no doubt, but quickly establishes itself as a game to be experimented with via the variables at play: semi-predictable enemy AI, diversity of weapons, and, unlocked after each chapter, new animal masks. These masks are chosen and worn by the player before each level. They grant the player various perks, such as the ability to take an extra bullet or decapitate enemies with a simple punch. The abilities are fun and interesting to experiment with, but you’ll likely find a favorite and stick with it throughout the game and understandably so. Changing play styles is guaranteed to frustrate.

Bust open a door to knock a patrolling guard on his rear, take out his buddy with a brick from across the room, but soft! You’ve alerted shotgun guy—and he’s plastered the wall with your brains. An instantaneous reload numbs the frustration. The repetition is part of the puzzle. This time, the brick nails shotgun guy on his behind. You grab the gun, then take the former owner hostage and paint the room red. Floor cleared. A score rolls up, tallying the methods used and the time it took to complete the level. Meet a certain score requirement and new weapons are unlocked that randomly populate the levels from then on. My average score on a first playthrough was a C or so, but I never really got a good grip on what would improve my grade other than performing the level faster. Do I get points for diversity in weapon choice? Environment utilization? How exactly does the combo system work? Hotline Miami, despite its solid mechanics, communicates its systems poorly, which may frustrate less experienced game players or those looking to perfect their scores.

Imbued within the gears and cogs of Hotline Miami is an incredible audio, visual, and emotional aesthetic. Every color is appropriated to its closest neon relative, blood is copious and tends to contrast the otherwise domestic eighties architecture, the entire screen drunkenly sways back and forth—all of this comes together to communicate a dreading sense of moral dilapidation. The player character wakes, receives a subversive phone call alluding to a specific address, you head to said address, and decimate everyone inside. Oftentimes you’ll pick up a dirty VHS tape or grab some pizza before hitting the hay and repeating the process, no shower necessary. This character’s life is on the fritz and you drive him to his inevitable and wholly insane fate. However, Hotline Miami isn’t gloriously violent and decrepit for the sake of it. The game has something to say, and however subtle it may be, the message will reward those who pay attention and reflect on the act of playing the game itself. Why are you playing a game in which you ruthlessly murder thousands of people? What is the point? What kind of monster are you? Hotline Miami won’t beat you over the head (ha!) with the answer, but it’ll whisper nigh inaudible catalysts.

Underpinning, and in my opinion, serving as the linchpin for delivery of this aesthetic, is the best soundtrack in any game this year. Hotline Miami draws from a plethora of small electronic artists (Jasper Byrne of Lone Survivor fame included) and places them center stage. The music underlines every emotive experience; when the action is high, you’ll be accompanied by a heavy pulse. When you return home, recently sober, you’ll be accompanied by a repetitive psychedelic drone. Fact is, the music is good, and no amount of description will do it justice. Just listen to the soundtrack embedded at the end of the post.

With Hotline Miami, two-man Dennaton Games haven’t just put themselves on the map, they’ve hit 1980s Florida with such force that the rest of the map has caught on fire. While everyone else struggles to stop, drop, and roll, Hotline Miami sits atop its aesthetic throne, laughing maniacally. Though far from perfect mechanically, the supporting neon tent poles give the game an illusory invincibility. This isn’t my favorite game to play, but it’s most definitely my favorite game to be a part of. Rare is the game that gives one pause in their incessant implosion of human craniums to stop and really smell the day old pizza.

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