Although I missed developer Dennaton’s Hotline Miami when it first launched in 2012 on PC, I did finally get to play through it when it finally came to PlayStation Vita in 2013 and absolutely loved it. It was fast-paced brilliance in game-design, a top-down ultraviolent “fuck-‘em-up” that managed to feel so different than any game out there. There was a certain finesse required to getting huge combos in order to get that oh-so-satisfying A+ at the end of every chapter, and managed to perfectly hit the sweet spot of skillful challenge but not impossible. Throw in one of the best soundtracks of all-time and an abstract yet uniquely intriguing story and what you get is a perfect game, and one of my favorite games of all-time. So Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number quickly became one of my most anticipated games out there, and I was eagerly anticipating seeing where they would go next. As it turns out, Hotline Miami 2 goes everywhere and yet nowhere. Dennaton throws so many new ideas into the formula in an attempt to close off the series in a grand fashion that they completely missed what made Hotline Miami so enjoyable in the first place.
At face value, Wrong Number appears to offer just more of the same when it comes to Hotline Miami. The retro graphics are still there, the soundtrack is still a pretty great electro-synth mix from various artists, and the controls are basically the same. The subtle changes they do make are admittedly logical progressions to the gameplay for what could have been done in a sequel, chiefly among them being the removal of the signature mask system. No longer do you choose an animal mask from up to twenty choices at the beginning of each level that gets you a select ability; now depending on the level, there’s a contextual set of up to four characters (some of which repeat abilities between sets) and often not even a choice at all. For example, levels have you choose between one of three gang abilities, three snakes, four animal masks, or just give you a character depending on where you are in the story.
The new characters’ abilities are fairly interesting from a gameplay standpoint too: the Writer doesn’t use guns but can disarm guns so they can’t be used by others, the Soldier can’t pick up guns and can only pick up ammo from ammo crates, and there’s one pair that actually is two characters controlled simultaneously. Core gameplay tweaks like these no doubt influenced the story to feature so many characters instead of masks. The main issue is that none of them are any more helpful than any of the masks offered in the original Hotline Miami. They demonstrate the new restrictive game design of the game, forcing you to play in a certain way rather giving you a choice of how you want to approach a level. The new abilities are interesting ideas that often are more frustrating than not, and had they been offered as masks in the original I doubt I ever would have chose them. Take the Soldier for example: contextually his ability doesn’t make any sense, and one of his guns is a sniper rifle, probably the most un-Hotline Miami weapon there is. Eventually you just pop out from behind cover to take shots at people, and other levels literally become cover shooters. The Writer, although interesting, goes against what Hotline Miami is at its core. The mask mechanic from the original was so compelling because it felt like you could create your own path to work towards the A+ goal; here that whole element just isn’t there. As a result, it’s much less compelling to retry the levels again for a better score since you’re only offered the same choice every time.
The real problem with Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, however, lies in its level design and as an extension, its difficulty. The areas are often massive, sprawling stages, with many open areas and multiple floors to deal with. Case and point, the level selection screen abandoned the simple blueprints from the original in favor of cassettes. There’s way more windows to deal with and heavy enemies and dogs appear much earlier and then much more frequently. Basically, it’s as if the developers heard the feedback on the original of how the game was really hard and took that to the extreme. The thing is, though, Hotline Miami wasn’t really a hard game, it was a challenging game. Actually going through the levels was even fairly simple; there was just a refreshingly lot of skill involved in getting huge combos to A+ the chapter. Skill is almost completely replaced with luck when enemies with gun patrol outside of the screen area and you get shot from enemies you can’t even see. One particular level features gun-enemies at the end of a long hallway, and the only way you could hope to pass was if they were looking the other way when you started walking up, else you’d just get shot from off-screen. As a result, drawing enemies out becomes a much, much more used strategies than before. The levels are just way, way too hard to get through, and because of random chances like those described and many questionable deaths, the game seriously stops being fun very early on. Going through each level became more and more of a slog as this design kept on.
This might have been somewhat forgivable if the game’s story, which too is much ambitious and at the forefront of the game, had been at least somewhat compelling. And towards the beginning, it actually is. The levels were still relatively small and it was interesting meeting all the new characters before, during, and after the events of Hotline Miami, and wondering how they would all connect. But as the levels became more sprawling and the story grew ever more senseless, it really became hard to care what was going on. There’s at least four, maybe five subplots running throughout the game and, even after finishing it I barely understand what was going on. Hotline Miami’s story worked because it was abstractly vague, and served as a context for the gameplay. It was interesting to follow the story of the nameless protagonist and see his descent into madness throughout the game. In Hotline Miami 2, it’s almost as if the gameplay is an excuse to tell the story, which in an attempt to have its cake and eat it too, tries to fill in all the details around the events of the first game whilst remaining abstract, and it just doesn’t work well enough to want to keep playing through the levels for.
The real nail in the coffin, however, is that the game is seriously buggy. Enemies frequently glitch out and whenever a dog hits an open door, it just spins around in circles indefinitely. One time the game just crashed whilst on the third and final huge floor of a stage, and another level after I’d already finished all three floors of a stage, the scores just never loaded. Both times I was forced to replay all three floors over again, and honestly, the second time I seriously considered just quitting the whole thing. The biggest offender was when during around the seventh and eighth stages, the game became unplayable when it thought the character was in the center of the stage, meaning the right stick could only move the reticle to points around the center of the stage. I managed to beat the first stage like this, and only after I restarted the second stage did the controls go back to normal. Plus throughout the game, there are many, many questionable kills from melee enemies and dogs, and enemy behavior is often seriously undeterminable. Sometimes you can shoot into a room and enemies won’t respond to you, other times an enemy looking the other way past a hallway and two sets of windows will turn back and kill you.
Playing Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number really made me appreciate the genius behind Hotline Miami so much more because it made me see that they could how easy it could’ve been to mess it up, and how they really nailed the level design and gameplay on the first try. In many ways, it almost feels the games should’ve come out in reverse, and Dennaton could’ve seen the criticisms of Wrong Number and really improved the series in every way. But alas, since that’s not the case, that means Wrong Number turns away from everything that made Hotline Miami great. As a sequel, Hotline Miami 2 is a disappointment in almost every way. As its own product, Hotline Miami 2’s only accomplishments are its admittedly pretty good presentation and that it works (for the most part). Dennaton said they wanted to include many new ideas in this game to properly close off the Hotline Miami saga, and they certainly did. What they lost was what made Hotline Miami, well, Hotline Miami.