The Hotline Miami series may be over, but, like many game franchises, fans try to keep its spirit alive with their own efforts. The games have had mods and the second game ended up getting an official level editor more than a year after release, bringing more content into this realm of ultraviolence. However, the one mod that garnered the most attention – and the most controversy – is Midnight Animal.
In late 2015, Midnight Animal was announced by Spencer Yan, promising a follow up to the Hotline Miami series. It aimed to be a total conversion mod of the first game, with the blessings of Dennation to proceed.
The original premise of Midnight Animal took place after the events of the second game, where the American nationalist group, Fifty Blessings, now rules. You were to play as an operator named John, taking up contract killings in the name of Fifty Blessings before choosing to betray them.
I kinda wish that the original announcement trailer was still around to put up. I found the music that was used for it though and I think it’s pretty sweet.
Midnight Animal ended up going on Steam and was successfully greenlit March 2016. Initially, the game was promised to be released on August 18th. However, in June, Midnight Animal was announced to go on indefinite delay. While the announcement post is gone, reactions to it indicated that Yan was having some life problems. The most vocal reactions to this were compassionate and understanding, which is a contrast to later reactions down the road.
Yan announced that development started back up in August of that year. The game took a bit of a shift at this point, with Midnight Animal getting disconnected from the Fifty Blessings bad future. However, further changes were down the road.
Now, what happens from this point is a bit fuzzy. The game’s official wordpress blog has been privatized, the Steam page for the game has been deleted and pretty much most of the promotional material outside of the Mod DB page is gone. All further information on the game’s history is picked from second hand accounts.
On Feb. 13 2017, Midnight Animal‘s Steam Store page updated, presenting a new vision that nobody expected. The game was now rebranded as Midnight Animal: A Story of Love and Forgetting. Instead of being advertised as a top-down action game, it was then referred to as a “top-down roleplaying game with life simulation and visual novel elements, heavily influenced by the Persona series.” The original gameplay is still there, but it’s second fiddle to all the new stuff.
Needless to say, plenty of people got really upset. The negative reactions, at best, were stuff along the lines of “I hate this, but it’s his decision.” At worst, there was just flat-out anger. Probably my favorite response that I saw was a guy complaining that he wanted to play as a hypermasculine guy and not androgynous anime boys while having a moe anime girl avatar. But yeah, the general response to Midnight Animal‘s shift was mainly negative.
The game kept getting worked on. A video for a new build of the game showed up, showing the core Hotline Miami experience. However, on Sept. 11, Spencer ended up announcing that Midnight Animal was canceled, the frustrations of working on the game and the negativity getting to be too much.
There’s two big problems with the Midnight Animal debacle. One of them was that it was hoisted up on a high pedestal, by Yan and Hotline Miami fans. The initial trailer and follow up information created a whole lot of expectations, so deviations from those expectations were pretty much doomed to have negative reaction. Another lesson in getting hyped about games.
The other problem, though, was communication, which is a genuine problem on Yan’s end. From what I can tell, Midnight Animal‘s shift was completely unexpected. I mean, I’m sure that people would have been mad anyway, but the blowback might have been lessened if it it wasn’t so sudden. Also, consider that Spencer Yan has a Patreon and that a lot of people likely became Patrons because of the original Midnight Animal vision. If anyone had a right to know about this shift beforehand, it’d definitely be the Patrons, and as far as I know, that wasn’t the case.
What ended up taking Midnight Animal’s place? In the cancellation announcement, Spencer also announced a new project. To carry on the narrative themes that he was hoping to convey with his vision of Midnight Animal, he announced the Exegesis of John the Martyr. “In many ways, it’s more of a literary event than a ludic one” – just call it a visual novel, man.
Nov. 5, 2017, Yan published the prologue episode of The Exegesis of John the Martyr, Home Sweet Hole. The Fifty Blessings agent, John, is now a former agent of a vague Empire in a cyberpunk-ish setting. He was apparently one of the best at whatever the hell he did, but after committing some crime that isn’t elaborated on, he spent years in a drugged-up isolation. Suddenly, the Empress wants him back and he finds himself heading back home.
The presentation of Exegesis is unique in that it’s essentially a visual novel, but Hotline Miami‘s top-down style is used to move around and interact with the world. This presentation allows the game to put detail in the surrounding setting for the player to engage with. There isn’t a lot of interaction, as John will just give exposition over stuff you mouse over, but it’s still an interesting way to present this stuff.
The story is initially kinda slow, with John getting picked up from the airport by an imperial agent named Thomas. They have a car ride full of ramblings with the most eventful takeaway being John’s sort-of-exile. I feel that the story starts picking up when they reach a service station, where you see the results of a failed robbery turned massacre. There’s a sense of mystery here and it kinda encourages trying to understand Exegesis‘ setting to get a sense of what’s going on. I’ll also say that this sequence is my favorite part of the game. Thomas parks outside and you hear faint music in the background and this slow music gets louder as you enter the station. The music undercuts the massacre that happened there, giving an eerily calm mood to the scene as the robot worker cheerfully addresses John’s concerns. It gives off this feeling of, “yep, just another day on this bitch of an Earth.”
My main issue with Exegesis is that its writing feels really jargony. It feels like characters say more words than necessary to get their point across and sometimes it just felt like a cyberpunk version of those stuffy 19th century fiction stories that love to ramble a lot to feel smart. A lot of story and setting concepts are thrown at you, but a lot of it still feels vague, enough to the point that it’s hard to really care. Even after the station sequence, when I feel that the game eases up a bit, my reaction to some of the stuff is just “okay, yeah, sure.”
I’ll be honest, I’m not really feeling Exegesis. I’m not saying this as a Hotline Miami fan, but I’m saying this as somebody that likes visual novels and doesn’t get all reactionary about anime. The presentation is interesting, but I wish that there was a clearer focus to the story. I’m hoping that the second episode for this improves in this regard and, also, hopefully gives a better idea on what the deal is with John, because I’m at least willing to give it another go.
The Exegesis uses Hotline Miami’s presentation, but it clearly isn’t Hotline. On Nov. 27, however, something that was more the speed of a normal Hotline Miami fan was published on itch.io: The Document of Midnight Animal.
The Document of Midnight Animal is a postmortem of what could have been. Its gameplay is pretty much what was seen in the above video but touched up a bit, minus the cutscenes. Document contains four levels as well as a room where you can test a bunch of weapons, including some stuff that doesn’t show up in the game proper.
The action of the game feels very punchy. Screenshakes and light effects accentuate gunshots to an extent that it feels flashier than the original games, while visual effects accompany melee strikes. As your combo builds up, the screen gets fuzzier, culminating in a television snow effect. While I like the effects, I feel that it needs to be toned down a bit because it could get to the point of being distracting; at the very least, there should be an option to lower screenshake. Scores count up in the corner along with text declaring your method of violence, but instead of being in flashy colors and the like, it’s blocky white text. The aesthetics feel very different from the original games. Whereas Hotline Miami‘s violence comes off as flashy and campy, Document‘s brand of violence is grittier yet more professional. If I had to make comparisons, it feels like Hitman‘s tone crossed into Hotline Miami‘s brand of stuff.
Document is also like. Strangely anime. Your character gets a flash step – not a combat roll, he’s just straight up teleporting a few feet ahead. Rack up 20 kills and your character just suddenly gains a sword, which the warehouse refers to as a “psychic weapons,” so I guess he just materializes it. It does wild, over-exaggerated , shadowy swings. The art in the pause, game over and victory screens is also animesque instead of being something along the lines of the crude facial portraits in the original games. I’m kinda mixed on it, because while I think it clashes with the game’s other aesthetics a bit, it doesn’t ruin the tone for me. I’m not too mad about the anime sword, but also, I don’t want the anime sword to replace my perfectly good gun.
Now, what does ruin the game’s tone for me is the music. Instead of the typical synthwave stuff or high energy music, it’s a whole bunch of stuff that… isn’t that. A fellow on the Hotline Miami subreddit, FreedomFallout, compiled the music in a playlist and boy, is it a weird assortment. One song is a cheerful Billy Ocean song while you also got some anime themes mixed in (and honestly, ones that aren’t very good). The music is also randomized when you enter a level, so the music is effectively just background music instead of music to set the scene, if that makes sense.
I liked the gameplay of Document, but I found it to be somewhat buggy. I don’t know whether the flash step move is intended to go through walls or not, but either way, it works really inconsistently. Enemies can also kill each other by accident and while realistic, I also doubt that this was intended.
…And those are the successors of the original Midnight Animal project. I liked the style Exegesis is going for, but it didn’t quite hook me in yet. Document is also a very solid foundation for a Hotline Miami mod and while there isn’t a lot of content to play around with, I still think it’s enjoyable.
Spencer Yan is still working on Exegesis and Document, at the time of writing. He’s actually promised an update to the latter sometime in February, so my impressions on it might be outdated, depending on when you read this. All this isn’t the original vision he proposed years ago, but I welcome his efforts and hope that he continues to work without further hassling.