I've you haven't noticed, I've been going through some very pacifist games. I needed a game with some violence. I knew full well about this game, and that's why I chose it. Hotline Miami might have gone a bit overboard, but I don't care.
You get a cryptic message on your answering machine, telling you to go somewhere and kill everything that moves. This is usually a nightclub, but could also be a hotel, or apartment building. Before entering, you choose a mask. This will give you a bonus, for example, you have killer fists, killer door slams, start with a particular weapon, move faster, or (my favorite) silent guns. Once selected, you break in, and the killing begins.
The levels were challenging, but not impossible. The game (mostly) revolves around a one-hit kill model. One whack of a crowbar, or take a bullet: you're dead! (So is anyone else!) This made me play conservatively at first, but once I get the hang of it, figuring out exploitable patterns became second nature. It has an excellent "be challenged and overcome it" reward loop with an acceptable difficulty curve. I must have got killed by the third guy two dozen times, only to get killed by one of the last guys just as many times, but I didn't get frustrated. I sometimes swore, but I kept trying.
You will usually have to punch the guy at the front door, and take whatever weapon he's carrying. If you're clever, you can use the door to slam him into the floor. Enemies can be knocked out, but they need to be finished, usually by bashing their head into the floor, stomping on their face, or slicing their head open with a large blade. If you don't tend to them, they get up, and grab a nearby weapon, and make themselves dangerous again. Use guns at your peril, as all nearby enemies will hear it, and will rush you immediately.
After the level, there might be more floors to clear. As this game poses as old school, this game has a few bosses. They need special tactics to take down, but they will all require 2 solid hits to bring down. Once all those are clear, your score gets counted. In the future, you might be able to use a new mask, or a new kind of weapon might drop.
The graphics are pixel art. While I have some issues with games that use pixel art in high definition, Hotline Miami does it to good effect. The game world rotates back and forth slightly the entire time, giving you the impression that you're always on drugs. I'm not sure what else could power these sustained violent outbursts.
Effects are over the top. Enemies squirt blood out of everything every chance they can get. Get blown away by a shotgun, and expect other things to get blown (ripped) away, too. Look closer, and you'll sometimes see some severe bruising. The sound effects aren't much (befitting the retro aesthetic), but they work. The soundtrack is entirely licensed from indie synthwave musicians, and I'll probably be listening to parts of it for a long time.
There is a story going on, but is vague and mysterious. Cutscenes involve a dark room with three other people asking why you're here and what you're doing. Between every level, you go to a pizza place, video rental store, bar, or convenience store. In every one, there's this guy who looks an awful lot like the guy on the cover art to the sequel. I get the hint that there is some schizophrenia going on (the voices tell you to kill people). However, your victims appear to be mobsters. It's dark and psychotic, and I like it. The ending turns the surreal all the way up, and I LOVE SURREAL. I'd love to tell you about it, but I love it so much that I'm not going to spoil it.
Going into this, I expected a good time, but I got something more than that. If you want a retro styled game with super high levels of violence and gore, Hotline Miami provides.