I wasn’t certain that a sequel to Hotline Miami could properly capture the essence and excitement of the original. The first Hotline Miami seemed like lightning in a bottle: a stylish, macabre masterpiece that came seemingly out of nowhere and shook things up dramatically. Though Hotline Miami 2 largely sticks to its guns, the few ways in which the game departs from its predecessor are drastic enough for it to stand out just as much.
Hotline Miami 2 takes place in the seedy underbelly of Miami in the ’80s and early ’90s. The gameplay is simple: enter an area and dispatch enemies as quickly and brutally as possible. Enemies typically go down in one hit, but so do you. This leads to some very tense moments along with some very frustrating, very sudden deaths. Hotline Miami 2 is maybe the most punishing game I’ve ever played, with some levels taking me over a hundred attempts to complete. However, the pure adrenaline rush of finally beating a difficult level often outweighs the frustration, and dispatching enemies in increasingly brutal ways is still fun as ever.
The things Hotline Miami 2 carries over from the original are both good and bad. The gameplay remains largely unchanged, though a few special character abilities, such as dodge-rolls or the ability to carry both a gun and a melee weapon shake things up a bit. The actions still feels just as solid, with guns and melee weapons having the “punch” you’d expect, along with the flashy presentation of the combo meter and score counter. However, also brought over from the original are the bugs. Enemies will often get stuck on doors or clip into your sprite, adding some unnecessary confusion into the already-hectic gameplay. The aesthetic is generally unchanged, though the pixel art looks marginally sharper. Still, the neon-soaked color palette and the shocking violence continue to excite and disturb. The game still feels incredibly fresh, despite its sequel status.
A big difference between Hotline Miami 2 and the original is the story presentation. The original game was extremely minimal in its narrative and let you deduce what was going on for yourself. Hotline Miami 2, however, lays the story on thick. Every chapter has a good 1-5 minutes of plot attached to it, which I would’ve really disliked had they not presented it so well. I assumed I would prefer the “less is more” approach of the first game, but Hotline Miami 2’s tale of multiple characters’ stories weaving into each other is absolutely gripping. The surreal, non-linear storytelling may leave you with more questions than answers most of the time, but it helps dial in the tense and foreboding mood. On top of the surreal presentation, story beats are incredibly dark and downright gruesome at points. There were some scenes that made me cringe and grit my teeth. The game even takes a turn towards straight-up psychological horror at some points, and though the violence is certainly ramped up tremendously in the gameplay, the story doesn’t rely on cheap thrills to deliver a great story that is equal parts gripping and disturbing.
Any discussion on Hotline Miami has to mention the soundtrack. Hotline Miami already had a fantastic selection of songs backing it up that largely contributed to its excellent aesthetic, but I’m amazed that the sequel manages to top it. All 20+ songs absolutely belong here; there isn’t a single weak track. The music is such a huge driving force in the game as it always effectively sets the mood. I can say with confidence that Hotline Miami 2 is my favorite video game soundtrack of all time — I really can’t praise it enough.
Though dying over and over again is a part of the Hotline Miami experience, there are definitely some parts where the game feels cheap. Levels are considerably more gun-centric than those in the first game, which means that death can come quicker and from afar. Sometimes death can come from completely off-screen, with enemies seeing you before you could possibly ever see them, and in these cases I feel it’s a fault of the game, and not myself. I understand that difficulty is part of the game’s charm, but there’s nothing fun about dying and not understanding why.
Some levels just have so many enemies and rooms that it just becomes a little too much to handle, and it led to me using cheap tactics like bottlenecking enemies in a doorway rather than running in and thinking on my feet. Other areas will funnel you down a singular path rather than giving you options and letting you tackle a level your own way. There are certainly a few levels that simply aren’t well-designed. Long hallways lead to cheap deaths from enemies out of your sight range, while windowed rooms allow enemies to spot you in places you would think were safe. There are simply too many ways at which you can be shot and killed instantly, and I often found myself backed into a corner rather than working my way through the level fluidly. Thankfully, the game mixes up the setting in some interesting ways that make some poor design choices a little more tolerable.
Frustrating enemy AI and inconsistent level design aside, the Hotline Miami magic is still very much intact in Hotline Miami 2. I was afraid that the sequel would undermine the uniqueness of the original, and I’m happy to say that Hotline Miami 2 still feels groundbreaking. Hotline Miami 2 excited me in the same ways as the original, just with everything dialed up. More story, more music, more violence. I wouldn’t have it any other way.