The subtitle of Hotline Miami 2 should read “Wrong Decade.” The arcade-style scoring system, synth-driven soundtrack, and Miami setting all express developer Dennaton Games’ devotion to the ’80s. But this aesthetic mindset happens to distract from the game’s more substantial allegiance to that juvenile streak of the ’90s wherein explosions of gore and criminality in games were interpreted as mature, cool, and, by some parents and politicians, corrupting. That attitude is already represented in the 1995 PlayStation game Loaded, a twitchy and bloody shooter that Hotline Miami most resembles, in addition to Mortal Kombat, Steel Harbinger, Carmageddon, and numerous other games of the period. This sequel’s pretentious haze of violent ugliness, like that of its overrated predecessor, doesn’t deserve to be praised for “high-octane” action or characterized as an example of Lynchian surrealism.
Hotline Miami 2 reveals its lack of conviction from the get-go with a message asking whether you would like to skip a scene of “sexual violence.” Never mind that the cartoony top-down graphics don’t depict violence or sex that well in the first place; the half-assed censor shows that any supposed artistic statement by Dennaton isn’t that important to this retro kill-a-thon. The toothless necrophilia/rape scene in question is part of a Pulp Fiction-like routine in which the story, from chapter to chapter, goes from one clichéd, demented protagonist to the next, including a morally bankrupt actor, a writer who gets caught up in violence, and masked killers. The dialogue could have been written by a mean, drug-addled 12-year-old. During a talk-show interview, the film actor speaks about favorable aspects of his performance in a new movie: “Kill kids. Strangle them. Beat people’s heads in.” Does Hotline Miami 2 actually think this bland adolescent banter is provocative? The constant reminder that you can skip scenes suggests the real point is in killing people, not reading this dime-store junk.
With its murder sprees, Hotline Miami 2 wants to upend audience expectations through protagonist switching. In the first Hotline Miami, you mostly play as a single main character, and as you advance and score points, you gain access to masks that grant special abilities and find new weapons during the killing segments. While Hotline Miami 2 keeps the basic score system of its predecessor (where combo kills, exposure, varied weapon use, quickness, and other factors result in higher scores), its multiple protagonists have differences that can make scoring more or less difficult, depending on how well you adjust to certain characters. The ability to wear any mask, use any weapon, or maintain a consistent style is gone. This change means that some will miss smoothly obliterating mindless chunks of flesh from level to level as in the original. Others will relish the new challenge. In any case, the populist appeal of high scores is drowned out by Dennaton’s uncreative approach to blood and guts. If the Hotline Miami duo comments on game violence, the message is for players to remain stuck in the 1990s and oblivious to the retreading and repackaging of old violent thrills. At least the kids playing Mortal Kombat 2 in 1993 knew that game’s fatalities were relatively bold and new.
Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami 2 is available now on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, and Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux.