At this point, I think it's safe to say that Hotline Miami is a touchstone for many indie titles. It feels like a whole slew of games take inspiration from it, and just as many fail to live up to that legacy. Some, like 12 is Better Than 6, are simply okay. Others, like LA Cops, Divide, or Tokyo 42, are just terrible. When I saw Milanoir I was a bit wary, since it looked like it was in the same style. I thought maybe it deserved a chance anyway. I should have remained suspicious.
You take on the role of Piero, a hitman for a crime family. Early in the game, you just kill random targets, as any hitman would. Eventually, someone in the family sells Piero out and lands him in jail. At this point, the game shifts into a revenge story. Piero attempts to figure out who snitched so he can return the favor. Just, you know, with bullets. There's really not much to say about the story, it's not very interesting. Characters appear and vanish for little reason. The few that stick around don't have much personality. Piero himself comes off more as a psychopath than anything else, though I supposed that's intended. It means I'd rather have seen him sit in jail than be on his revenge quest. Thankfully, I got to see him die a lot.
The basics of Milanoir actually feel closer to a typical third-person cover shooter. You can take refuge behind various chest-high objects and pop out to shoot enemies. As the game continues, you can also shoot at signs, which will ricochet bullets into enemies instantly and fatally. Unfortunately, the game doesn't really do enough with either of these mechanics to make them interesting. It all vaguely works, but it's super bare bones. The sign mechanic, in particular, is annoying. The game has a sticky lock for enemies, but not for signs, making actually hitting them rather difficult. This is especially true if there's an enemy standing near the sign you want to shoot.
In addition to this, there's almost no weapon variety. You start off with an eight-shot pistol, and it takes two or three bullets to drop an enemy. Halfway through the game, you upgrade to an Uzi. It can shoot eight bursts of five bullets, and it takes ten to fifteen bullets to kill someone. This means that both weapons are functionally the same. You can rarely find a molotov cocktail or a revolver, but both of these upgrades are temporary and end before they get a real chance to shine.
Worse, Milanoir suffers from the same issues as a lot of these games. Simply put, the gameplay is unfair. The difficulty would often ramp to absurd levels, and the game constantly loses any sense of fun because of that. You'll start levels with enemies already shooting at you, meaning you need to react instantly or die. The game has several cheap instant kill death traps that you're clearly supposed to learn about from trial and error. Several levels have enemies swarm you in numbers so obscenely high, the only way to kill them is finding ways to cheese the AI.
Things keep spiraling down the drain when the game tries to break away from regular gameplay to do something unique. Often this means vehicle segments. For some reason, the game's aiming changes entirely here, and I often wasn't able to actually shoot where I needed to. Bullets only seemed to vaguely go where I was aiming, and characters held guns at odd angles that often required me to readjust my positioning. At one point, the game turned into a mandatory stealth mission, which is about as awful as I expected from a game with no stealth abilities. One strange section that took place in a prison saw Piero using a knife to keep a group of people who circled around him from getting too close, but the game never really makes it clear how this mechanic is supposed to work.
Of course, no bad video game is complete without bad boss fights. Most of the big bads in Milanoir reflect the same problems as the rest of the game. They have too much health, deal too much damage, and there's too much happening on the screen at once. The bosses occasionally try to get gimmicky and it becomes terrible. One weird boss fight has you in a cable car, with another cable car driving parallel with you. The idea is that the "boss" is the seven or so enemies inside the cable car, and killing them slowly lowers its health bar. The problem? One of the enemies is off screen, meaning the only way I could shoot him was by aiming where I was pretty sure I was being shot from and hoping.
A single segment of the game best displays all of Milanoir's problems, rolling them all into one terrible mess of bad design decisions. You start the level on train tracks. There were no train tracks anywhere near you up until this point, but the game decided this level should be on train tracks. Piero starts the level with his gun holstered, a guy with a knife charging him, and a guy with an Uzi opening fire, so I hope your reactions are super quick. Survive that, and you can move forward.
As you advance, two trains start chasing you down. If one of them hits you, you die instantly. Of course. It's impossible to avoid these trains, even though there is an absolutely massive gap in the middle of them that any sane man could slide through. As you're forced forward, you keep running into more and more swarms of enemies, one after another.
It never lets up. You're never given a chance to heal. Enemies with shotguns, Uzis, grenades, and axes swarm you in absurd numbers, and there's no possible way to actually kill them all without taking damage. Often this is because enemies can start shooting before they're even on the screen, and they're always accurate. In addition to this, Milanoir chooses this segment to introduce enemies with revolvers. These guys always kill you in a single shot, even if you're at full health. Why introducing them without warning in an already difficult speed-focused section was even pitched is beyond me.
There's no way to actually get creative with this segment either. I think the idea is that you're supposed to use the signs to kill enemies, but the aforementioned sticky-lock meant that it was too difficult to actually hit them, especially when I was stuck moving forward. I eventually discovered that I could shoot a train to slow it down. My idea was to then stagger the trains so I could use one as a shield from enemy gunfire. I thought this was a fantastic idea until I actually moved forward and enemy shots just passed through the train, hitting me anyway. Naturally, my shots couldn't do the same.
After throwing myself at this segment for over an hour, I finally called it quits. I just couldn't play Milanoir anymore. I've played games that I would call "not fun" in the past. Somehow, Milanoir is a whole massive leap beyond that. My first and most overwhelming thought is that this is one of the games the devil makes you play for committing one of the seven deadly sins. I don't know, pride maybe. The fact that so many indie games can look at Hotline Miami and pull all the wrong lessons from it continues to baffle.
Milanoir was played on Nintendo Switch using a copy provided by the developer. The game is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.