The Hong Kong Massacre and I have a routine. Every few hours, one of its enemies guns my hero down before I even see them on the screen. Enraged, I shut down the game. I pace around my room, taking deep breaths. And then I sigh, because I can’t help myself from booting the game up and doing it all over again.
The Hong Kong Massacre is the first title from Vreski, a small independent studio in Malmö, Sweden. It’s a top-down shooter in which I play as a rogue cop on a mission of revenge against a notorious criminal gang, one assault at a time. Like the John Woo films it so flagrantly takes inspiration from, The Hong Kong Massacre lives and dies with its gunplay. It’s occasionally cheap, regularly loose, and always stupefyingly fun. Whether I’m running, taking cover, or diving through the air, my guns are out and spewing lead.
The cop I control is extremely fragile; one stray shot, and I’m done. For balance, the game gives me two special abilities: a slow-motion toggle and a graceful dive that makes my cop invulnerable.
At first, the action calls to mind Hotline Miami and other shooters. But after the first few levels, The Hong Kong Massacre resembles a bullet hell game, where I am forced to engage in a dance of positioning, dodging, aiming, and maximizing my moments of invulnerability.
The genre mishmash has taken some getting used to. The game feels better as I focus on dodging and positioning over twitchy aiming. The best offense is a good defense.
Unlike its contemporaries, the environment is less a weapon than a venue for my violent choreography. Windows aren’t an ambush point; they merely exist for me to dramatically dive through while firing two pistols. Doors aren’t a makeshift weapon or a chokepoint, they’re something I blow away with a shotgun, obliterating a few goons in the process.
Yes, this is a game that puts style above substance, but hey, it’s a hell of a style. Each level is paradoxically mundane and gorgeous. The environments themselves aren’t particularly memorable — I fought through an array of warehouses, offices, restaurants, a police station — but the lighting and atmosphere do some heavy lifting. Saturated neon colors soak levels. The constant gunfire lights dark corridors and shady alleys. The art design puts an emphasis on the action and violence that takes place within a room, rather than details of the room itself.
Even with all the visual flashiness, the action is clear and easy to follow. Specific beats from memorable firefights have stuck with me — much like the Tetris effect, I’ve had gun battles dancing in my head long after I closed the game.
I start each mission by choosing between one of four weapons: the pistol, shotgun, SMG, or assault rifle. Completing a mission grants me a star, which I can collect and use to upgrade my weapons. Upgrades, which include clip size increases, boosts to fire rate, or additional movement speed, give me a small boost of power, but don’t remove the challenge of the game. There’s been a pleasant difficulty curve through my 20-some hours in the campaign. The game is plenty challenging — on one boss fight, I went down over 250 times before I finally completed the level — but it’s not brutal.
The story is barebones, limited to a few cutscenes that have an almost dream-like vibe — characters aimlessly chat about their childhoods, their lives, their experiences, before pointing you in the direction you need to go kill the next batch of bad dudes.
After completing the base game, each level offers three challenge modes. One is a time trial, one asks me to forsake slow mo entirely, and one expects me to have perfect aim and only hit enemies. The challenges that are legitimately, well, challenging, but they’re not mandatory, and so I’m having a great time slowly working through them at my own pace.
Except when my cop gets hit by an enemy off screen, and I have to step away from the game. That’s the trouble with The Hong Kong Massacre: It’s a great core experience undermined by a lack of polish.
Some issues are small: odd UI bugs that pop up here and there; occasionally a prompt encourages me to hit “e,” except the input doesn’t work. In order to upgrade my weapons, I need to start a level, which takes me to weapon select — there’s no option to do so from the main menu.
Possibly the most irritating thing is that every time I die, there is a one or two second sequence where the screen goes red with the text DEAD, and I’m prompted to either change my weapon or restart. This sounds trivial — two seconds is not a lot of seconds! But when I’m trying to master a sequence and I’m dying dozens or even hundreds of times, that time adds up and breaks my flow. A recent patch adds the ability to get back into the game by pressing R; it’s a welcome change, but I’d prefer an auto-restart with the ability to leave at any time.
It’s a pain to navigate back to level select from the death screen. I’d prefer being able to toggle between levels after a long string of deaths for a change of scenery; however, the UI tunnel visions me into on one level at a time. Upon dying, I have to restart, hit escape, and then go back to the main menu. It’s an inelegant solution, and it discourages taking a break from one level to try a new challenge.
Boss fights, of which there are five, all follow a similar formula. The boss and I race across two parallel paths, taking shots at each other. Bosses have a much larger health pool, and must be chipped away at while I contend with their minions. The first one is a fine enough departure from the usual missions. The second, third, fourth, and fifth ones are just repetitive.
Overall, The Hong Kong Massacre is a treat. Yes, the game is one-note, focusing entirely on the gunplay. But it’s a really good note! The game is simple, but effective. What it lacks in narrative weight and variability, it makes up for with atmosphere and style. It’s a maddening game, one I can’t wait to play again.