Chop, bludgeon, shoot, die. Chop, bludgeon, shoot, die. While this cycle of extreme violence is the bread and butter of Hotline Miami (minus the hypnotizing beats and colorfully hazed 16-bit pixels), Dennaton’s cult classic was damn near perfect, merited by both its synergistic novelty and sublime execution on the top-down, twin-stick shooter sub-genre. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, however, is nowhere near as modest or as lean as the original as it’s characteristically manic in every way shape and form. It’s talented, charming, attractive, and a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s also overly ambitious, tangibly incohesive, and carries on for far too long.
Dennaton takes a temporary detour away from its respectable psychologically cryptic narrative by chronicling the events that take place immediately after the original Hotline Miami. Instead of controlling one amnesia-stricken avatar, Wrong Number places you in the shoes of multiple characters throughout multiple time periods between the mid ’80s to the early ’90s. Each character carries their own baggage, perspectives, and occasional freakish agendas that influence their actions in the story. In many ways, Hotline Miami 2 is a character study that is mostly successful.
Naturally, as a game that’s more about its characters than the mask killings themselves, Hotline Miami 2’s story is more transparent than the first. But that transparency isn’t pervasive throughout the narrative however, as the game ends with even more questions that its deep dives into trippy and hallucinogenic psychosis don’t quite answer. We end up meeting another crime boss who’s taken the helm in commanding the bald, white blazer wearing henchmen, but it isn’t clear how they fit into this particular story. We’re given some form of conclusion after the “Pig Butcher” scene (a scene that’s given a content warning and can be skipped ala Modern Warfare 2’s ‘No Russian’), but it still doesn’t satisfy its incredibly uncomfortable context.
With that said, Hotline Miami 2’s thick atmosphere stays true to the first, and is more than enough to fill the many voids left in its story. The choice 16-bit visuals that make up its unwavering top-down perspective are even more effective than the first game, with more expressive violence and more interesting settings that contribute to the overall plot. But above all else, the flavorful soundtrack completes its saturated style. It occasionally skews more hip hop than the original, and all in all is masterfully strung together orgasmic, thumping beats and slick, sizzling synths. The presentation creates this awe-inspiring atmosphere that resembles the grungy crime dramas of the ’80s that were also, coincidentally, narratively nonsensical but stylistically pungent.
Nonetheless, the developers’ concerted efforts in storytelling have a significant impact on how Hotline Miami 2 is paced and controlled. And despite its ambition, it’s ultimately not a positive one.
Wrong Number iterates on the mask system from the previous game – where each mask grants different abilities – by distinguishing how each of the story’s characters play. It’s a bit more comprehensive in characterizing their differences than the simple “Killing Throws” and “Lethal Punches” of the first, though these too still do exist. You’ll end up controlling a duo where the leading man wields a chainsaw while the other uses firearms. You’ll also refreshingly take the role of a guy who’s Hotline Miami’s version of Batman, inflicting non-lethal blows and disarming guns instead of using them. It’s an attractive system in theory that’s reflective of the game’s narrative, however it does bear some glaring issues.
A large part of Hotline Miami’s improvisational combat loop is being able to pick up the weapons of your fallen enemies and use them against them. However, here you’ll find characters with specialized skillsets and weapons, particularly firearms, that cannot pick up new weapons unless they completely run out of ammo. This opens you up to a number of tough-as-nails situations in an already difficult game where you’ll often find yourself completely out of rounds right in the middle of a firefight. One set of levels in particular, that prove to be Hotline Miami at its absolute hardest, strip your character’s ability to pick up weapons at all, and instead has you refill ammo at designated locations. It’s far more difficult than it needs to be, leaving more conservative sections a lot more fairly balanced.
These instances of specified character traits don’t come at the player’s choice, which amounts to one of Wrong Number’s biggest offenses. Unlike the original, there are only certain levels in which you can choose masks and other assets that give you different abilities. Yes, you are still awarded with these unlocks throughout the game; however, they feel detached from the campaign itself because they are designated to certain characters that the story only allows you to play as at specific times. It’s rare when you actually get a chance to pick how you want to play outside of the context of the tools you’re given. However, if you remove the issue of its lack of player agency, Hotline Miami 2 reads and plays exceptionally well.
The moment to moment action that Hotline Miami is known for is unchanged: the goal is still to kill – and in Wrong Number’s case, occasionally incapacitate – every living thing that flinches in your path, by peppering their brain matter on neon floors with crow bars, releasing their entrails with shotgun blasts to the stomach, and looking into a man’s eyes after you’ve turned his head 180 degrees – all while avoiding the same gruesomely instantaneous moral fates. Hotline Miami 2 literally bathes in its bloody glory by topping its predecessor as the most violent video game I’ve ever played. However, next to the constricted overhaul of the mask system – though more positively so – Wrong Number’s biggest change is how each stage is unforgivingly designed.
If you thought that the original Hotline Miami was hard, then you’ll think that Hotline Miami 2 hates you.
Wrong Number may feel cheap – and admittedly, it can be – once your intestinal track is spilled on the floor from a buckshot blast off screen, but it’s actually Dennaton’s brutal way of telling you, “Pay attention, dipshit”. Enemies’ line of sight extends much further this time around than your immediate field of vision. Because of this, using the camera is orders of magnitude more important than it was in the progenitor. The level design also gives various opportunities to case each floor for goons ahead. Empty rooms are recon havens that allow you to peer several rooms ahead just enough to see the potential instant fatalities that await. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number puts far more emphasis on pushing forward with extreme caution.
This sequel’s stages are also markedly bigger than before, which has surfaced in many gripes pointing to the frustration of having to play an entire level after being killed deep into criminal dens. While this is a fair assessment, the most trouble I’ve had in Wrong Number’s levels are the initial entrances where there’s a daunting thug patrol waiting to gun or strike you down – just as they were in the first game. Hotline Miami has always had a momentous design that weans the player into a groove the farther they progress. That hasn’t changed in Wrong Number; there are just more schmucks to obliterate.
But while I don’t so much find the increase in quantity an issue in Hotline Miami 2’s level and encounter design, the game’s bloated length is unquestionably harmful the game’s entirety. Hotline Miami’s thematic gameplay isn’t built for longevity. Rapid kills and instant deaths can be neatly packaged in a four to five hour campaign. Unfortunately, Hotline Miami 2’s expositional story drags on for at least double that, even if you’re good at the game. Dennaton tries its damndest to spice up the variety the longer it runs for with only minimal success, which takes the form of an insane prison break and an acid trip of a finale. But for the most part, Hotline Miami 2 feels like it does the same thing over and over and over again, expecting different results.
Typically I don’t like to commentate on the developers’ mentality, however Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number feels like an excitable yet unedited product of Dennaton’s success. Everything is scaled to be bigger, badder, meaner, and more outlandish than the first – a philosophy that’s almost always rife with caveats and shortcomings. The action is intense and far more demanding than the first game, which is certainly welcoming if you enjoy a stiff challenge. And while the story itself is respectably more ambitious and focused this time around, the manner in which it hijacks some of the game’s systems and inflates the game’s length far beyond capacity devalue an otherwise excellent and delightfully violent action game.