Hotline Miami PS Vita Review
Hotline: Miami turned out to be one of the most pleasurable indie game surprises of last year, and while people are getting plenty excited about the just-announced sequel, the porting of the game to new platforms is getting even more people into this fantastic, bloody action game. Hotline: Miami on the PS Vita uses some fairly tight controls to deliver the same solid experience PC gamers have already enjoyed, and the console's high-res screen delivers all of the bright colors and trippy visuals that make Hotline Miami so unique. Now, aside from loading the game up on a laptop, Vita is the only way to play Hotline: Miami on the go, and fortunately, even nearly a year later this is every bit the groundbreaking game now as it was when it was released last fall.
Hotline: Miami is a top-down action game with neon-drenched retro visuals that shimmer, dissipate in waves, and shake as your character, a nameless psychopath who massacres thugs at the command of mysterious messages left on his answering machine, descends further into insanity with each bloody killing. Chapters of the game have the player entering a house full of enemies, some with guns and others with various melee weapons, and wiping out everyone on a floor before moving up to the next to deal with a new situation. Checkpoints come on every floor and deaths will occur quickly and often, so Hotline: Miami becomes something like a blood-soaked action puzzle game where you combine careful planning with frantic, wild swinging, especially when things don't go according to plan - and the little variations in AI patterns and behavior will ensure that you will be left panicking and fumbling at best in some situations, or just dead on the floor in others.
Your methods of death dealing involve quieter melee weapons and the more attention-grabbing gunfire that will alert enemies from multiple surrounding rooms. Melee weapons obviously require you to get close, but you'll get a kill for sure with a big sweeping arc of an attack, while gunfire needs precision aiming - which isn't terribly difficult on the Vita's dual analog sticks, but it might take some getting used to if you haven't spent hours forging your dual-stick shooter skills in the Geometry Wars crucible of calloused thumbs. And even once you have, it can still be difficult when multiple enemies start coming at you from different angles. Luckily, all weapons (including guns) can be thrown, too, making for some amusing kills and a chance to charge up on an enemy for a bone-crunching, top-down curbstomp. The game includes a selection of animal masks that players must choose from before a mission begins, and each mask bestows one small benefit - like added run speed, starting with a knife, lethal punches, or an easier eye for secret items. These masks can be a key part of a good strategy, and the selection grows as they are awarded throughout the game - dozens are unlockable in total.
The end result of all of this is a game that revels in having the player make a plan, and then throwing a monkey wrench in it at a crucial moment, and that's exactly what makes Hotline: Miami so much fun. It can be frustrating to die repeatedly, but the variety and frequency of gruesome deaths served up to the player never get infuriating. No matter how many times you try a room, you won't get identical results every time, so those little variations serve to motivate the player to keep trying new things. As you go through the game, the level design gets tougher, with windows that enemies can see and shoot through, along with the inclusion of fast-moving attack dogs and tougher brutes that can only be taken down with heavy gunfire.
All of this comes through in developer Dennaton Games' Scarface-inspired, drug-fueled visual haze that uniquely and effectively summons a vision of a seedy criminal underground in the 1980s. Even if you didn't grow up during that era, you'll still get that vibe, and the absolutely phenomenal soundtrack to the game by many artists - delivering retro vibes and fantastic synths unlike nearly anything you've heard before - will almost certainly drive that feeling home.
And then there's the story. Let's just say that right from the beginning, the game starts playing with the notion of who the main character is and why he's just following orders from a voice on an answering machine telling him to clean up dens of thugs and killers, and there are some interesting twists and turns on the way. Don't skip the dialogue just because this is a retro white-knuckle action game; spend the time in these sections to slow down, bring that heart rate back down a bit, and drink in the trippy atmosphere during these scenes so that the pacing has a chance to settle in a bit. Then get back into the swing of things with more thrown katanas and M4 rifle bursts.
On Vita, Hotline: Miami costs ten bucks and along with the dual-analog controls, comes with touchscreen functions for sliding your view outside of the normal perspective and locking onto enemies. I found that the touchscreen stuff worked pretty well once I got used to it and used two fingers - one from my left hand to pan the camera, and one from my right to tap on targets. (If you try to use one finger, the view snaps back to your character before you can tap.) If you really liked using the lock-on system with a mouse on the PC or Mac versions of the game, you'll almost undoubtedly find this a tad clumsy in comparison, but I didn't find it too much of a hindrance, and I was able to beat Hotline: Miami on Vita without too much trouble. (Mostly because I'd beaten and reviewed the game on PC previously so I knew the tricks in a few key levels.) The PS Vita port also has leaderboards using the game's rather elegant little scoring system, a new animal mask near the beginning of the game to play with, cloud saving, and Cross Buy with cloud save support between the two - so buying the game on either Vita or PS3 gets you a copy on both systems, and you can pick up where you left off when switching between systems.
Plenty of praise has already been thrown at publisher Devolver Digital and creators Dennaton Games for the brilliance of Hotline: Miami, and now a little more can be hurled at Abstraction Games, the guys that ported the game to Vita. I can't see a single way this port could have been improved beyond somehow expanding the game itself further, but as it is Hotline: Miami offers great value with several hours worth of pulse-pounding retro action and a wonderful atmosphere. This game and its wonderful soundtrack will linger in your memory for longer than most games within even double its $10 price point, and it turns out that the first mobile platform that Hotline: Miami has been released on is pretty much a perfect home for this excellent indie game. Buy this one without hesitation, especially if you haven't played it before.