Dennation’s spastic kill frenzy game, Hotline Miami, is a neon induced addiction, and a constant throwback to retro videogames and 80’s blockbusters. It is a game that stands out due to its feverishly cool presentation, disorienting plot, and immediate compulsion. I found myself mesmerized not only by its vibrant color palette, but also its gameplay, which demands every fiber of your attention.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the game’s stylishly bombastic presentation. It is an eccentric meld of neon nostalgia (much like 2011’s film, Drive), and a top-down retro ascetic reminiscent of the original Grand Theft Auto. While its graphical elements cling to past greatness, they end up feeling fresh and exciting; not dulled by the videogame antiqueness that is integrated into every pixel. This is not just a homage that is riding on the backs of giants. It is something new and exciting that can stand on its own two feet, or drive them into a face repetitively.
This visual bombshell stands alongside an incredible soundtrack. One that is full of lush synth-pop that emphasizes the 80’s vibe effortlessly. It is a soundtrack derived from the past, but it is also infused with modern electronic music. Its repetitive tendencies throw you into an in-game trance, as it helps you find the courage to retry and retry again, all while bobbing your head to a fantastic rhythm. Even if you don’t play this game, I urge you to check out the soundtrack via SoundCloud.
At first glance, the game’s graphics seem simple and minimalistic. But, under greater inspection, each character is uniquely adorned, and the gaming environments are littered with in depth props. This attention to detail, which makes every pixel count, adds constant character to the game space. It results in a miniature world that, while simplistic and unreal, appears alive, rather than stagnant. Arcades will pop with whirring lights, clubs will provide seizure inducing dance floors, and apartments will appear grimy and lived in. It is an atmosphere created from a collection of minute touches, rather than large effects.
Hotline Miami is gruesomely intense, and the aforementioned attention to detail also carries into the grisly character animations. Whether you are driving your foot into a goon’s face, a drill into his skull, or drawing a knife across his jugular, it is all happening in a smooth and fast fashion that drives the pixelated graphics into a horrid realm of violence. It reaches a level that seems almost unachievable by pixelated sprites. Although, normally this level of violence would make the most unattached gamer squirm, the retro presentation helps create a barrier between you and the violence; leaving you with a slick murder fest that seems immensely graphic, yet shockingly cool and fluid.
The fluidity of the animations lends greatly to the pliancy of the gameplay, both of which help the player flow from kill to kill. When done right, the execution of numerous goons is seamless and exhilarating. This murderess finesse is the real reward that you starve for in Hotline Miami. When it comes down to it, it makes you feel like a badass, an unstoppable assassin, or a relentless butcher. It is a style of gameplay that relies on the tactical understanding of your surroundings. Scouting out the situation is essential, and keeping tabs on your enemies is just as important. This is because one hit from an enemy will drop you. The game demands that you be meticulous in your execution, and this is at the crux of the games rewarding nature. It is brutally punishing, but immensely gratifying. The unforgiving nature of the game adds importance to even the minor actions, making you think before you act.
The game also has guns, lots of guns. But firing a shot will alarm the goons, usually causing disaster. You must choose when to implement a barrage of bullets effectively, and also note the enemies carrying firearms, because they will shoot you, and they won’t miss. Which items the enemies are carrying will greatly influence your decisions. It’s important to tackle a group in a logical order, taking down the more dangerous enemies first.
Formulating plans greatly relies on enemy patterns, and which items they have equipped. Enemies are predictable until alerted, and pinpointing their movements is critical to success. It is a style of gameplay that fans of the stealth genre should enjoy, but I would not necessarily describe Hotline Miami as a stealth game. It is more of an action game that relies on player awareness, while deterring carelessness.
While the gameplay is simple and refined, it is not without its flaws. These are mostly due to in-game bugs. The enemy AI can become confused and remain oblivious to your actions. They can also get stuck on various props and doors. At one point, I had the floor textures disappear for an entire level. While these bugs are present, they don’t rob the game of its charm and enjoyment. The time between deaths is so brief; you won’t feel too upset at having to retry a section, even if it’s due to a bug or inconsistent AI.
The protagonist will unlock a wide array of masks throughout his killing sprees, adding a maniacal twist to the already psychotic game. These masks, each in the form of an animal, provide bonuses to the player. The tiger mask, entitled “Tony,” enables the player to perform faster executions; while the “Rufus” mask, an elephant mask, lets the player survive one bullet. There are over twenty masks to unlock, and they all vary in their specialties. Masks are unlocked after completing a stage, or by finding them on dead bodies. It adds a layer to the game that encourages experimentation and exploration, which helps add a bit of replay value. While most of the powers are unique, some are disappointingly underpowered or useless. I found myself sticking to only a handful of masks because they were more useful than the others. Even though some lack the punch, it’s still nice to have options.
Not to mention, these masks help define a story that is deeply ingrained in the mind of a killer, and the psychological trauma involved with murder. Mysterious characters will contact the protagonist throughout the game, via phone and in the flesh, adding context to the story. It is a narrative entrenched in questions and secrets, and it is immediately captivating. It provides the thread on which to pull, which allows the sweater to unravel, and there you sit, transfixed by the mess it creates. While the plot is at times contrived and convoluted, it is, for the most part, a great experience that encourages you to push forward. That being said, it is not an easy story to digest, and it will have you contemplating its sporadic layers even after the credits have rolled.
If you described Hotline Miami to a friend, it probably would not sound majorly enthralling. But, its gameplay is surprisingly unique and refined. Its meticulous slaughter sprees are addictive, and require deep concentration. The fluid, violent waltz of death is an incredibly smooth and rewarding experience that is tied together by an unforgettable presentation. Hotline Miami might be the slickest game I have played all year, and it is only heightened by one of the year’s finest soundtracks. On top of all this, the game’s story elements are the final touch that will draw you in. When it all boils down, Hotline Miami is a chromatic pleasure of a game that will entrance you with its psychotic inclinations. It will keep you contently stomping skulls and pursuing violent combos, all while making you feel cool.
I’ve currently been expressing my furtive tendencies as I divulge in the shadows of recent stealth games. These titles, both of which are great, have reopened a compulsive itch for the shadows, and the undetected, nonlethal playthroughs. It’s a style of interaction that demands the uncanny attention of the player. It’s gameplay that relies on planning as much as execution. So what makes the stealth genre tick, and which components are necessary for an unmitigated game that not only excels in covertness, but draws it forth from the player?
The two games which provoked this train of thought are Arkane Studio’s Dishonored and Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja (both are stellar titles of which I highly recommend). These titles have helped me break down the three quintessential steps of the stealth genre. In most great stealth games, these steps aren’t mandatory, but when done right, the game elicits them from the player, and failure to succeed in these steps leads to personal disappointment that’s only rivaled by the paralleled success of flawlessly executing them. The player, as they project themselves onto the sly protagonists, will subconsciously take these logical steps in order to achieve undetected success. I would like to take this process out of the shadows to dissect it in the light. So raise the alarm; it’s detected.
The first step is that of the map maker. The player must establish the obstacles through reconnaissance. This recon step is the initial process of pinpointing hostiles, mapping various routes, and above all, noticing the patterns in the enemy’s movement. It’s important to be thorough, as missing a crucial component –such as overlooking a stray enemy– can lead to disaster. Many stealth games hinder your scouting capabilities with limited vision, or fog of war. While first and third-person titles don’t necessarily need a fog of war, due to the fact that the player’s sight is already limited to what they’re looking at, it can greatly augment games where the player’s line of sight goes beyond the controlled avatar. Mark of the Ninja was in an abnormal position with its 2d layout. Fortunately, Klei made a great call of judgment by implementing its unique fog of war system. This system limits your line of sight in order to make it even more difficult to memorize patterns in the environment. It’s a great mechanic that tests your cognitive abilities on the fly, as you can only see what is in the room you immediately occupy, or look into. All that aside, it is paramount that you know the key positions on the game’s interactive stage. This gameplay step is present in many games that don’t encompass the stealth genre, but it’s very important to note, as it leads directly to the second step: planning.
To me, the second step in this methodical system is the longest, and easily the most thoughtful. Once the initial recon is complete, I can contemplate and rethink many aspects. This is when my plan begins to formulate. This is the step that the developer must focus on, because it is the gateway to the gameplay, the catalyst to the action. The emphasis of malleability is extremely important. The recon reveals the options, and now it’s up to the player to decide their course of the action; if the player feels that they aren’t creating and constructing a customizable and unique plan, the magic will be lost. Therefore, the developer must present a game space that is riddled with obstacles, but also with options. Then they must provide a robust toolset to the player, and leave it up to them to decide how to tackle the situation. If the game’s space is linear with only one correct path, it wouldn’t be rewarding, because it would rob the player of the sense of discovery that is brought forth by the copious scheming; the success would feel controlled and restrained, instead of self-orchestrated.
Both Dishonored and Mark of the Ninja excel in option oriented gameplay. The two developers deliver a healthy supply of arresting approaches for the player to explore. They also provide tools to experiment with. This allows the player to learn which tactics suit their gameplay habits, and it helps create an individualistic experience. Take Mark of the Ninja’s varied approaches for example; the developers have a tendency to give you many options in order to tackle a single room: the player can decide to go under the enemies, over them, or even straight through them. The situation can be manipulated in various ways that go beyond navigating the environment; players possess various tools that interact with the enemies. These range from the brutally lethal, to the profusely silent and harmless. All of these options not only capture the player’s attention to form an immersive experience, but it also captures their tactical imaginations.
Now that the player has scouted out the situation and has brewed up a plan, it’s time for the final step: execution. There’s nothing more rewarding in a stealth game than to watch your plan go off go off without a hitch; your maniacal symphony of shadows operating smoother than cogs coated in whale oil. This is the payoff, but it also holds a hidden step. This final situational step is adapting to the unknown. It requires the player to react instinctively and intuitively on the fly, because no matter how long you plan, unknowable things will arise. Situational problems such as an unexpected guard, a newly introduced gameplay mechanic, or a hollering alarm all have the potential to materialize in the middle of your scheme. These forgotten, missed, or just plain surprising elements keep the players on their toes, maintaining a sense of excitement. It’s important to throw a wrench in the gears every now and then, because sometimes things are more exciting when they’re out of the player’s hands.
To me, these are the three main steps that are vital to the stealth genre. They derive from the player’s choice, and expand their mind. They don’t twist anyone’s hand, but supply options and tools instead. Arkane Studios and Klei have exceeded my expectations by implementing these steps into their games flawlessly. It’s a gameplay style that’s exciting, engaging and demands experimentation, but above all, it’s thought provoking.
The system scanners are down. The pixelated overlay of you ship is nothing but a dark veil, but you can hear the destruction. The crackle of fires, the scuttle of hostile alien life, it’s an ensemble of unknown dread. Your noble crew is deceased, lost in action, with the exception of the pilot, alone at the helm. It’s time to act.
This is Mathew Davis’ and Justin Ma’s independently developed FTL: an intergalactic parade of disaster, only kept in check by your competence to manage your shuttle and crew. My understanding and capabilities are developing with every playthrough, with every lost crew member, with every ship’s destruction. Space in an unforgiving place, with inconceivable surprises waiting after every faster than light jump, and to make matters worse, there’s a rebel force relentlessly pursuing you through space’s cold depths, putting the pressure on after every jump; you must move forward, regardless.
The game’s harsh simplicity is its crucial component. Your craft consists of a handful of ship systems (the system scanner helps you see what’s going on inside of your ship, weapons keep your guns operational, shields, well, you get the idea). Both you and the enemy ships can target these components. It’s critical that you keep your pivotal systems online in order to take down the hostile forces. Upgrading and maintaining these vessel segments is at the crux of FTL’s gameplay. Upgrading these components also adds an amazing amount of depth. You assign points using scrap, and there’s no right way to allot your upgrades. With so many deaths (lessons), it’s important to try new tactics in order to find out what works according to your play style.
You directly control various aspects of your ship: system power, the crew, and the various weapons you possess. It only appears manageable at the start of your journey, but once your ship is riddled with wildfire, hull breaches, and aliens that have their phasers set to kill, it becomes a scene from an interstellar version of Titanic. Doing your best to maintain a ship during a pessimistic battle is a thing of beauty, even if you end up dying. The game never ends on a dull note, but on a punishing last stand.
Maintaining a ship is more than making repairs and firing your weapons; it’s also about the placement of your crew. Many of your ship’s systems can be enhanced by having a crew member manning its corresponding computer. For example: place a crew member in the ships faster than light drive to have it charge at an increased rate, in hopes of insuring an escape, or have a crew member at the helm to augment your dodge rate. It’s a real blessing that the developers allow you to pause the screen in order to dish out commands, letting you place your crew in a manner that will aid the battle at hand, whether it’s escape, a bludgeoning assault, or tanking your shields. These stations become a burden to command as your crew becomes preoccupied with putting out fires and making repairs. The plethora of demands forces you to prioritize according the task at hand. Should you ignore the fires and weapon repairs in order to maintain your shields and jump drive to escape, or is it more important to focus on the offence and repair your weapons? This need to prioritize influences the gameplay greatly, and manages to make the player feel as if their decisions are the difference between life and death.
The weapons that the game supplies come in three forms: lasers, missiles, and drones. Each of these uses its own unique ammunition, but mixing and matching in order to form an effective offensive strike is paramount. Knock down a hostile ship’s shields with a burst laser, ravage it’s systems with energy diminishing electricity, and then drive home the destruction with a missile. Then again, every player has their own tactic, and it’s important to try new things and experiment with the mechanics at hand. This combat flexibility is one factor that makes FTL’s replay value so robust.
While combat is a major aspect of the game, the gameplay would fall flat without the roguelike quality of its randomly generated solar and galactic maps. This is the meat of FTL’s dialogue and story. Every jump into an unknown territory is met by a randomly generated event, giving you context through text prompts. These events vary from battles, stores, slavers, colonies resisting a plague, shipwrecks, and much more. This randomization adds an element of surprise and mystery to an already vast galaxy. While these events are numerous, the time spent playing this game is massive, so they will become more and more repetitious with every playthrough. This is one of FTL’s major shortcomings, but they did add a great variety of random events that should remain fresh for the majority of your time spent with the game.
Pixelated overlays and nostalgic visuals are the game’s graphical mainstay. It’s not an achievement in visual technology, but it’s a design that’s charming. Its cuteness forms a comedic juxtaposition with the game’s gut-wrenching situational difficulty, and effectively makes you feel more at ease with it. If the game’s graphics were impressive, violent, and dark, it would almost feel too unbearable and bleak. Luckily, the overall character of the darling sprites lightens the overall mood, making the gameplay less taxing on your nerves.
The replay value is only enhanced further by an unlockable catalogue of ships that vary in layout, equipment, and crew, which all influence the gameplay immensely. Alongside these unlockables are various achievements that range in difficulty and convenience. Overall, it’s an immense package for the $10 price point.
FTL stands out because of its comprehensible gameplay mechanics that couple with its roguelike qualities and intensive difficulty, rather than its graphical prowess. Jumping from sector to sector with diminishing fuel and ammunition reserves in search of a store can be nerve racking, but above all, exciting due to the game’s randomness. It’s a concoction that provokes excitement from chaos, and it demands multiple playthroughs in order to find a playstyle that suites you. Its roguelike mysteries only lend to its rewardingly tight, intense gameplay, and this drives home the demand for replay. It’s a steal for the price, and I’d suggest it to any gamer. So, go out and give it a try.
Civilization V has made a monster out of me. To be completely honest, I began my game with earnest, peaceful intentions, but boy, things change rapidly. My pacifist ways soon gave way to primal aggressions that reflect actual diplomatic dynamics that are, to be honest, paranoid and violent.
I started my Civilization’s foundation in a peaceful and deliberate fashion. I was careful not to tread on anyone’s toes, while remaining honest and good willed. My people were fed and content, the builders were busy and happy, and my productivity was skyrocketing; it was truly golden times (with many golden ages).
My one cog in the machine that wasn’t up to snuff was my army… it was dismal. Don’t get me wrong, I had an army, but it was beyond frail. To be honest, I didn’t think I needed one. People liked me, and my people were enjoying my rule. Hell, they even embraced my religion at home and in foreign lands. All seemed well, that is, until the incident.
A lone prophet wandered into my capital, sent from my neighbor to the east: America. And wow, did he preach. His sacrilegious ramblings had converted my prosperous capital! I was less than thrilled. You see, me and Mr. Washington had been on great terms. I gave him marble, he gave me salt, and hell, I even declared to the world that we were friends. The next step was clear, and I did what any mature adult would do: I sent a prophet straight to his capital. An eye for an eye, I say. On my journey to the American capital, I noticed something: While I was busy spending all of my productivity on wonders, food, and passive infrastructure, America had been running a war machine, pumping out nothing but soldiers. The funny thing about these troops were they were all stationed on my boarder, upgrading and rotating shifts; this war machine was aimed in my direction.
Ignoring his tremendous militaristic advantage, I preached and converted his capital. The bigwig was not impressed with my sermon, actually, quite the opposite; he was agitated and had no problem displaying his aggression by demanding that my prophetic lectures cease immediately. I can pinpoint this moment as the origin of my paranoia, a paranoia that grew and grew with each passing turn. So, in response, I turned my war machine on full tilt. I watched as my army grew, and my citizens’ unhappiness propagated. It was tense, and my tolerance towards America was fragile. In the end, Washington’s diplomatic swagger was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He demanded, not proposed, that I give him marble, no salt in return. This abrasive bullying was ridiculously blunt. So I devised a plan and put my troops into position.
My army was inferior, but I surveyed the chokepoints, the bottlenecks. My plan was simple: declare war, let him come to me, then harass him until the whole situation concludes in his succulent surrender. This would obviously teach Washington a lesson, while securing my military bravado, thus allowing me to continue my peaceful rule. Unfortunately for America, I’m not the Gandhi I thought I was.
The plan worked surprising well, and Washington plead for surrender, but for some strange reason, I continued to pummel his cities. As his cities fell, other rulers denounced me for my villainy until I twisted his arm and demanded resources, and he delivered. But, having the world against me only perpetuated my antagonistic paranoia, and so began my race towards nuclear power.
Fast forward to the end game. Most Civilizations fear (or hate) me, I’ve nuked the majority of my surrounding cities, and not one world leader can do anything to stop me. So, what happened to my moral integrity? In a sense it was lost to in a horrible disarray of negative emotions that effect the world stage in real life. Emotions such as fear, paranoia, power lust, a thirst for revenge, and the need to be on top initiated many of my actions, heavily determining the way that I played the game. The worst part was that it felt good to not only be on top, but to be dominating.
Some critics feel that a diplomatic victory is too hard to obtain in Civilization V, but maybe this difficulty was a conscious decision made by Firaxis. It resonates with human nature at a basic level, and drove me, as a player, to understand some of the most basic emotions that propel political agendas in the world that I live in.
My foray into the Dark Soul’s universe has elicited many emotions from me: frustration, fear, anxiety, anger, but the most satisfying is the gratification gained from your own competence, but all through this rich spectrum of emotions, my attention, as a player, was at an all time high. The game demands your involvement at all times, every fiber of it. This isn’t the kind of game that you play with a snack, or even a beer in your hand, because the amount of focus that it requires is unparalleled in modern video games. I mean it; there isn’t even a proper pause button.
This attention oriented gameplay is really what Dark Souls is all about. Without it, you wouldn’t learn from your mistakes. I don’t know how many times I’ve died in other video games –I’ve been playing for over fifteen years, so I’m assuming a butt-load– but I can recall many times that I’ve learned nothing from my failures, other than to just try harder. In Dark Souls, it’s more than that.
The other day, while playing Dark Souls, I found myself standing on a narrow passage, a bottomless pit below me, preposterously overly sized axes swinging back and forth in front of me, and some cobra headed jackass throwing lightening at me like he’s in some sort of Zeus fan club. Now, knowing that I couldn’t reach Zeus’s number one fan, and knowing that his glory bolts would throw me off this narrow passage if I paced myself, I made a decision… a bad decision. I decided to make a mad dash; the problem was the blades were located on the far side of this walkway, so I couldn’t time it properly. By the time I reached these looming, swinging axes (that Paul Bunyan would have admired) I was off timed and I took one to the face, falling off the path immediately. Now, there’s a lesson here: I can’t time this properly if that scaly lightening pitcher is on that balcony. So, what’s the first thing I did after dying? I stocked up on copious amounts of fire arrows, and the next time I stood on the entrance of that passage, I rained fired on him, Hade’s style; it felt damn good.
I feel as gaming progresses, developers are expecting less from the player, intelligence wise, that is. Many developers bombard you with tutorial overlays, standard difficulties that feel watered down, regenerating health, and all too generous checkpoints. It’s refreshing to plunge into a game that does the exact opposite; it assumes I’m competent, and seek challenges. Yes, it can be stressful and tiring, but it supplies the player with immense gratification.
In a sense, it’s an ode to past video games, as it relishes in its meticulous difficulty curve in the most classic sense. Trial and error is key, and if you fail, you better learn from it. The unforgiving difficulty is a component that has departed from gaming, and it’s a mechanic that feels strangely familiar in Dark Souls, almost nostalgic. I missed challenges, and I realize that now.
I only knew two things about Botanicula when I purchased it: it was developed by Amanita (the studio behind Machinarium), and it had a funny title that’s easy to mispronounce and forget. What I didn’t know was that it’s a beautiful point and click adventure game, one that’s brimming with character and imaginative design. It seems that Amanita has a certain knack for creating vibrant worlds that conjure up curiosity, wonder, and humor.
The story begins as an ominous spider figure fumbles a final seed from atop a tree. The seed descends down the branches until reaching a quaint figure, which triggers a hallucinatory vision in this creature. The goal is then made clear: you must reach the ground and plant the seed. You quickly realize that you won’t be doing this alone, as you’re swiftly accompanied by four abstract creatures, and this is when the poking, prodding, and adventuring begins.
It becomes apparent quickly that this tree is swelling with curiously outlandish life. It’s a thriving home to eccentric plant personalities, and one that’s begging to be explored, as the vivacious visuals entice you to no end. I found myself gaping at the colorful backgrounds and foregrounds. I was immensely attracted to the overall aesthetic design. But, the visuals have more than just vibrancy and color going for them; they are truly unique and bizarrely imaginative. It’s a world that I’ve never seen before in any fictional, or non-fictional forms. This genuine uniqueness is one of Botanicula’s greatest strengths; it’s other great strength is it’s amazing audio design.
Amanita design hired DVA to produce the soundtrack for Botanicula, and it’s downright glorious. The sound design is a mixture of ambient tunes, and uplifting pop songs that couple with the gameplay effortlessly. The gameplay and audio unify at key moments to create sheer, unprecedented euphoria in the player. I found myself smiling at certain scenes as the music uplifted my spirits. The level of joy is pretty damn fulfilling, and it kept pushing me to explore the world and all of its nooks and crannies.
I rapidly fell in love with Botanicula, not for its tight puzzle solving mechanics, but for the world. Amanita design has crafted a world that draws forth such joyful emotions from the player. They’ve achieved this pleasure by combining unique artistic design, vibrant characters, beautiful audio compositions, and soothing exploration mechanics. Amanita design continues to dazzle and excel at concocting unique game worlds. They’ve successfully grabbed my attention and I’m patiently awaiting their next game. I’m sure it will be astounding and, above all, unique.