The original version of this text was first published on FZ.se. It has been republished here with permission.
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: March 10, 2015
The sun is shining on the sandy beaches, the streets are lined with endless stretches of palm trees while beautiful, barely clothed bodies move elegantly over the steaming hot asphalt. When the dark of night settles over the city, drugs and drinks are enjoyed liberally in the garish shine of a thousand neon lights. Somewhere a man enthusiastically buries a chainsaw into another man’s torso. Welcome back to Miami.
Few games punch as hard as Hotline Miami. It was a dizzying, hypnotically violent saga painted in overexposed shades of blood red and neon pink. A spiralling journey into total, bottomless perdition. It’s the kind of slap that’s almost impossible to top. If you’ve felt it once, you know what to expect when the next one lands and there is time to brace yourself.
Wrong Number had me worried that Dennaton would be tempted to indulge in cheap shock horror in an attempt to top the impact of the first game, but I was surprised to find that the sequel is a relatively restrained affair. It follows the basic outline from its predecessor, maintaining its sense of tempo and precision perfectly. The weapons are still brutally satisfying when put to horrific use and the presentation is spot-on as ever. This time around the levels are roomier and there are fewer opportunities to safely hide away in a corner to formulate an attack plan. More often than not you’re thrown into big, open spaces that are crawling with guards and bloodthirsty dogs with little time to react before you meet a gruesome end.
I am constantly forced to stay on my toes to anticipate anything that could appear around each corner, but the expanded scope does lead to more unfair failures than I’d like. Several times I died because I was shot by a guard I couldn’t see through a window I couldn’t possibly have known existed. If you’ve spent minutes rigorously scrubbing an area clean, it’s particularly frustrating when you’re forced back to square one because your cause of death existed outside your field of vision. It’s exactly the type of unfair trial and error that the first game managed to avoid.
It’s not just the level design that has gotten more expansive. Wrong Number has a much heavier emphasis on story and character, clearly intent on finishing the series’ surreal intrigues once and for all. Where part one was a relatively straight-forward story told largely from the perspective of one character, the sequel decides to split the story into a sprawling narrative including several subplots and side-characters. Combined with the post-modern narrative, it creates a bigger universe but one that’s more difficult to connect with.
From the first sequence in the original, the protagonist Jacket is introduced as a murderous psychopath whose grip on reality is already strained to a breaking point. And then everything gets worse. We followed him through every step on his downward spiral as he slowly loses whatever ground contact he had with the real world. This made the player a vital part of his collapse, making his deeds our own. When he is asked whether or not he enjoys hurting people, it’s a question aimed as much at the player.
Wrong Number never forces me to get as invested since the game never stays in one place long enough for me to get a solid grip on any singular plot-thread. I feel more like a bystander than a perpetrator. Towards the end Dennaton does manage to pull the rug out from under me in a way that might hint at this being part of their plan all along, implying that the game could itself be a big parody of this type of branching narratives. If so, that’s certainly an interesting and brave choice but it lacks the gut-wrenching quality of the original.
And that just about summarises Wrong Number in its entirety. Hotline Miami remains a masterpiece whose legacy will not be altered either way by the existence of its sequel and we’ll have few reasons to bring it up when our future selves discuss Dennaton’s spectacular debut. Maybe it never stood a chance to begin with, and maybe it would have required something radically different to shock and surprise us as viscerally as they did the first time around. Instead, Wrong Number chooses to play it safe, and “playing it safe” is not a concept one should ever associate with Hotline Miami.