The Hong Kong Massacre Review
A challenging but satisfying slow motion shooting gallery
Hotline Miami’s reverberating effect on video games is still being felt six years later. While the twin-stick shooter has existed for a long time, Hotline Miami’s polished version of the breathlessly-paced, brutally violent, and challenging action game set a benchmark and clearly became an inspiration for games such as the criminally overlooked Mr. Shifty, and now the debut release from VRESKI, The Hong Kong Massacre. The aesthetic parallels between The Hong Kong Massacre and Hotline Miami are interesting as the games share an obsession with the locale - but the new title also switches things up in some interesting ways, allowing it to stand on its own.
And it’s important to view The Hong Kong Massacre on its own terms. Narratively, the game hardly hangs together with a weak story that is barely worth a second glance, but it does some creative things with the level design to create a more compelling and enjoyable experience than Hotline Miami’s murderous-rage-inducing difficulty. That doesn’t mean The Hong Kong Massacre is laidback - it can be plenty challenging - but it does make it a little bit easier to find a rhythm and create a different tone of action that is unique to its John Woo action movie influence.
You play as an ex-Hong Kong detective whose partner was murdered by a Triad mob boss (maybe while under-cover? It’s a little difficult to tell). In-between the action-filled levels, the game doles out the story through wordless flashback cutscenes and information fed to the main character by the only two speaking parts, a long-time friend/bartender and a fellow police officer. These conversations usually are a thinly veiled excuse to move you to the next level. There’s little-to-no character development, no larger point the game is trying to make. There are a couple of clever lines of dialogue, but they don’t connect or mean anything. The writing is sparse and the story is “go here and kill more people”.
That’s not terrible in an action game like this. The Hong Kong Massacre is all about the shootouts, so simply pointing the protagonist towards the next group of bad guys and letting the blood bath ensue isn’t bad. And to their credit, VRESKI is not that breed of video game developer who can’t wait to have a captive audience for their poorly-written, overly-long narrative epic. They seem to acknowledge the limits of their writing and are willing to let the action speak for itself.
That action is pretty good. You play from a top-down perspective, using the analog sticks to move and aim. Aside from shooting there are two other actions players can take - they can slow down time and they can perform a dodge/roll action to avoid gunfire. So instead of needing to quickly duck into cover or hide from enemies, The Hong Kong Massacre is pushing players into the next encounter, asking them to strategically take out their enemies while time is slowed down and they’re in mid-dodge.
Controls perform well. While in bullet-time, the enemies’ bullets become projectiles that you can dodge, meanwhile your bullets remain hit-scan so your enemies can instantly be killed, giving the player a significant advantage. However, your bullet-time is limited so there is a ticking clock for the player to act quickly and take out enemies before the action resumes full-speed. This leads to a lot of leaping through windows, devising a strategy on the fly, and being accurate, all while your character dives around bullets and leaves a bloody trail in their wake.
Early level-design is a little too simplistic, with some enemies sitting in each room who will move to shoot you the moment you show up. With the use of dodging and bullet-time, it’s easy to clear these levels quickly. Two enemies don’t pose much of a threat and while it might take a few attempts to learn the layout of the level, players shouldn’t struggle too much. Then VRESKI starts dropping in little changes throughout the game to alter the level design and ramp up the difficulty.
The first change is adding roofs to jump between, forcing players to leap into a shootout and play things a bit riskier. The next change is having less downtime between groups of enemies. This is done by having foes with longer patrol routes and putting groups closer together within the levels, so that while you’re shooting it out with one group, you might jump through a window and end up engaging the second group, adding more chaos to the fight. There’s no way to reliably bottle-neck enemies or rely on cover as the levels become open and dangerous. With so many enemies to kill, you probably won’t get them all in one shot and will have to learn how to conserve your bullet-time or wait for it to recharge. As the levels get larger and the enemies more numerous, the game becomes all the more fun and rewarding.
The levels are divided up into days, ramping up to the present. At the end of each day, you’ll have an extended boss fight with a bullet-sponge mob boss - chasing them through the level, and dealing with henchmen along the way. It’s a nice change of pace, as you try and split your attention between two elements constantly - managing the boss who you have to shoot at/avoid their gunfire, and the henchmen that are hidden within the level.
There is a slight encouragement to go back and replay levels as completing certain challenges will earn you stars that you can use to upgrade your starting weapon (you can choose between dual pistols, a shotgun, SMG, or assault rifle to start each level). That being said, I never felt compelled to do so, and my pistols were still upgraded enough to get me through to the end.
All of this blood and violence takes place in your bog-standard Hong Kong action movie setting. There are warehouses, back alleys, empty restaurants, run-down apartment buildings, and sleek offices. While the locations aren’t necessarily creative, they have enough of the action-movie influence to feel appropriate. The setting is amplified by the neon lights that illuminate the drab decor in sharp contrast. The way the game deftly brings Hong Kong to life through cinematic touchstones and color contrast is a pretty smart move. There is a throbbing, pulsing energy that runs beneath and a lot of that can be attributed to the excellent score. The pounding soundtrack is definitely a departure from the action-movies The Hong Kong Massacre is trying to emulate, but it’s still a good move. It’s filled with manufactured energy that is foreboding, yet exciting and drives the player forward through the shootouts.
In its tech, The Hong Kong Massacre is pretty impressive, for a two-person indie project. While the cutscenes are a little hard to follow, the character models are nicely detailed - and having these kinds of relatively high quality scenes in an indie twin-stick shooter is surprising all on its own. It’s not going to compete with any AAA offerings today, but as indies go it’s worth calling out. There isn’t much else to the game tech-wise; it loads quickly and I had almost no issues with crashes or frame rate. On a rare occasion, the ragdoll physics would cause a body to ricochet around the room or into the air, but it hardly affected the gameplay.
The Hong Kong Massacre is a simple game with a great hook. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, but it’s a blast to play and I had a lot of fun leaping through windows, dodging behind barriers and filling Triads full of bullets. The game has an energy to it that carries through the levels as you blast away bad guys in slow motion, painting the neon-lit streets with streaks of crimson red. The game changes things up enough to keep your attention and paces itself nicely, not over-staying its welcome. Oftentimes our memories of media are presented through rose-tinted glasses. Old action movies that you might remember as being overly-bloody and intense when you were young don’t quite seem that way as you grow up. But The Hong Kong Massacre boils the essence of those action movies down to the core and then injects it into a violently exciting work that’s a real treat.