Dennaton gives us more of everything in Hotline Miami 2, but wants to tell its story more than it wants to let us play with its treasures.
It starts with an unskippable movie intro. This is the first sign that Hotline Miami 2 is certainly bigger and longer, but not always better and stronger. It's a step towards something more traditional - this is a big name game now. It also means a step away from the delirious, radical air of Hotline Miami's ferocious debut, which now seems minimalist in comparison. Thankfully, Hotline Miami 2 maintains the wild spirit that made Hotline Miami so magical, but the gameplay is shackled to the story in a way that constrains choice, making the sequel a series of jumbled, brilliant fragments rather than a glorious, shining whole.
It may sound like a damning statement, or the indignant snub of a ludo-supremacist, but the story dominates Hotline Miami 2's flow in a detrimental manner. Don't get me wrong - the gameplay is consistently brilliant, and the extended cast expands Hotline Miami's horizons in fabulous ways. There's much to master, and plenty of shlock savagery to wade through. There are plenty of neat locales and plenty of moments of greatness. The problem is in how they're doled out.
Hotline Miami 2 uses a non-linear narrative to tell its stories. It runs like Pulp Fiction set in a straight-to-video VHS collection - and VHS seems to be a central love for Dennaton. Each level is represented by a tape, and a visible fondness for VHS tracking artifacts, interference, noise and static crops up regularly. It's also worth noting that the pause menu is a thing of skeuomorphic beauty, and may be my favourite pause menu of all time.
Rest assured that the violence is brilliant and, in some cases, better than ever. In the story's defence, some of the tales are great, and some have surprisingly touching and human moments. A few are brilliantly crazed, lots are morally disturbing. But the big problem is that these stories are too separated and too jumbled. Threads do cross, but only in terms of narrative - and the potential to intertwine some of the gameplay threads is never fulfilled. Damningly, the gameplay is also kept strictly separate between the strands, which is where the disappointment sets in. The first time I felt dismayed was when I was having a blast and getting the hang of one character, only for them to be taken away from me because it was time for the story to make me play as someone new. This happens too often.
All the characters, including well-known newcomers like the Fans, offer less than Hotline Miami on their own. Sure, the Fans have masks like Jacket did, but there's nowhere near as many effects, so you don't have anywhere near the choice that Hotline Miami offered once fully unlocked. Other characters have novel features or interesting takes on Hotline Miami's mechanics.
There's one that's a game-within-a-game of sorts, offering a different take on Hotline Miami's setup, as well as a totally different setting and justification for its violence. It'd be great to take their style and romp through someone else's levels with it, treating the entire character roster like Jacket's masks. Sadly it seems that you can't do that. You can't even do it in the editor, which locks playable characters to their specific signature techniques and enemies. Could there be some way to open everything up? Who knows.
There's a pretty annoying problem with Hotline Miami 2's VHS library level select - there are no indications of which character is the player in each level. Unless you've memorised all the level titles, it's pot luck if you're looking to replay a favourite stage. This is particularly frustrating if you're probing for possible secrets and alternative endings. Things like this make Hotline Miami 2's mask slip slightly. It seems that too much attention has been spent on one area at the expense of many others. This is, after all, supposed to be the final Hotline Miami, the one we're supposed to drain as much from as we did from the first. While it could be 'Kojima-final', rather than actually the last one we'll ever see (though the story seems pretty emphatic about it), it feels unfair to go out without the opportunity to run through a prison riot with a flamethrower (sorry, two spoilers there) or do a bank robbery with a nailgun (and another two). I'll give a final spoiler that might prompt a sigh of relief: there were, thankfully, no repeats of the Hospital in my play-through.
Hotline Miami 2 reminded me of the difference between Portal and Portal 2: surprise smash goes overboard for highly-anticipated sequel. I'd guess that people who loved the ramp-up of incredulity and overt humour that soured Portal 2 (for me) will likely love the choppy, multi-threaded story of Hotline Miami 2. I'd much prefer to be offered or unlock the characters and go through their episodes in my choice of sequence, rather than the game's oddly traditional linearity. It seems at odds with the madness of the original.
Hotline Miami had a curious synchronicity between player and game that's all too rare - the enthusiasm to press forward and level up your own skill was matched by the game's growing intensity and weight of challenge. It was a beautiful harmony. Hotline Miami 2 rises and falls, reaching a crescendo before changing direction and returning to a simmer, all to serve the story. It builds towards a singular climax of sorts, but it lacks the magic of Hotline Miami's rhythm and pace. It's not as urgent and immediate. It's ultimately less primal, less direct. You can offset some of this because Hotline Miami was so startlingly fresh - the sequel can't repeat the sheer thrill of discovering an amazing way to conduct digital violence. It can only continue and expand upon it.
Hotline Miami 2 leaves me conflicted. There's lots to love here, but the structure makes it difficult to explore and exploit. It's still an absolute riot to play, and the urge to press on remains compulsive, despite the narrative hi-jinx. Its failings are never enough to truly spoil things - Hotline Miami 2 is definitely to be recommended. It's the sequel that everyone expected, perhaps. But I'm not sure it's the sequel the original truly deserved.
This article covers a game which is available as a Gamer's Edition. Gamer's Edition is a business operated by Gamer Network, which also owns Eurogamer.net. All coverage of Gamer's Edition is at the editors' discretion. Read our editorial policy for more information.