The blood-stained mark that Hotline Miami left on the video game world still permeates that unmistakable smell of iron nearly 10 years to the day. Fast, frenetic combat in tune with a double-bump of cocaine for a soundtrack and all the style you could ask for when tasked with murdering dozens of people in the fastest time your senses can handle. It’s a trip for everyone involved, providing a contact-high to second-hand developers who managed to walk by and get a hint of what was happening.
Throughout the past decade plenty of heavily inspired projects toted the scene: Katana Zero, Superhot, Ape Out, soon to be Anger Foot. Most spinoffs of the speedy formula find their own style while keeping the pace at its intended 4th gear, but others have kept the high-score, high action foundation and molded it into their own form. With 10 years of studying the original and the expansion of the AA indie titles becoming more common, can the Humble Games published Midnight Fight Express tackle the genre in a fresh and intense style?
Waking up in a daze, handcuffed half-naked in an interrogation room, a man known only as Babyface is peltered with questions from a duo of wise-cracking cops. They refuse to believe Babyface’s story: a past member of the criminal underworld stripped of his memories with only a mysterious drone with knowledge of his past yearning him to stop a citywide takeover before the sun rises. Prolific names are dropped alongside the seediest of the city’s underbellies, testimonies brought up by the soon-to-be guilty, and it’s all wrapped within the web of memories foretold by a man without any. Babyface only has one reason forward: who is behind the drone, and who must he move out of the way to find out?
Midnight Fight Express may be an original IP, but you’ll immediately feel the inspirations it pulls from from the get go. Peppering in the combat gameplay of Sifu and the Arkham series, providing the combo-style “I can perfect this” range of Hotline Miami, to the absolute ridiculousness of its plot like it was a sequel to Hardcore Henry. The action takes place from an isometric view, allowing an all-angles view of the ever-changing battlefield, and boy you’re gonna need it.
But before that, let’s talk about the customization, because this blew me away when swapping between levels. Babyface has a multi-tiered skill tree slowly recovering his abilities to whip ass, which also provide an easier discourse to run earlier levels. For the aesthetic connoisseurs, there are a ton of unlockables to customize your own Babyface. Hundreds of different clothes are available for purchase, money being earned by how well you do on each level, and each enemy is available to be the main character after defeating them. It’s a really cool touch to really personalize how badass and/or ridiculous you want to look. Pillowman takes top honors without a shadow of a doubt.
When you traverse through the campaign’s 41 levels, Babyface forever faces an uphill battle. Each battle pits a ring of fighters for Babyface to dismantle equipped with an arsenal of tap and hold one-button combos, to QTE parries, to various grapples, dodging, and more weapons than you would expect. No joke, almost anything that isn’t bolted to the ground can be used as a handheld weapon or kicked/thrown to decenter a man’s sense of gravity. Each level contains a few rooms of these encounters with an added layer providing either a rewarding challenge or a merciless difficulty spike, no in-between. Once the level is over, you’re provided a grade based on your points earned via combo length, kill variety, and completion time. Money is given, skill points are doled out, skins are unlocked, rinse and repeat.
The pace on each level is multiplied infinitely by the ridiculously good soundtrack. Each level is provided with its own song and the slew of synthwave, darksynth, and cyberpunk melt over each level like a coat of neon wax. Your heart will be pumping as the tunes combined with a perfect run shoot serotonin directly into your forehead and will have you pressing for more. But this serotonin boost is provided if, and only if, you can hit that perfect run…because Midnight Fight Express does everything in its God-given power to stop you from doing so.
With titles built around light/heavy attacks and an emphasis on parrying/reading enemies, the ability to recognize incoming attacks is paramount to not only making a smooth fight sequence enjoyable to play, but almost necessary on a balance level to allow a firm but fair experience. MFE provides you with half of these options. Parries are highlighted with a button prompt and a bright outline around the character: perfect! Enemies that are about to throw a chair in your general direction are highlighted with a button prompt and a bright outline around the character: perfect! Enemies with a literal gun pointed at you are given no prompt and will shoot after a 2-3 sec delay whilst circling you away from the fight and run you about a third of your health per shot: not good! The lack of prompts for some of the hardest hitting enemies is comically bad, especially when firearms play such a large piece of the pie in the later stages and will provide you with plenty of avoidable deaths when the headcount starts to get higher.
The combination of multiple moves on one button can be frustrating as well. The default binding for your finisher (LB on an XBox controller) is the same button as your recharging magnum bullet for shaky situations. The amount of times I’ve fanned the hammer after mistiming my finisher prompt because the enemy died too fast is a number higher than it should be. Some combos don’t feel like they proc correctly at times either, most notably with the rope tool. There’s a lot of unlockable moves with the rope that are provided via combo presses, but I had a ton of trouble making any of them really work, so the rope was used mainly as a stumbling move to combo starter.
Some of the big set pieces cause stumbles more than jubilation. Taking on multiple enemies while an attack helicopter plugs away with a gatling gun or grenades, or keeping your combo meter alive while shipping containers zoom through your battlefield are intense to witness and prepare for. Unfortunately, with the previous issues stated, it’s yet another layer of work that becomes too overbearing and causes some immensely frustrating situations. It all compounds onto itself to make an experience where you’re supposed to be near-unstoppable become an experience where you just want to stop playing.
But the most egregious parts came from two of the later bosses. I’ll try not to spoil anything but one boss becomes a rolling environmental one-hit kill and your goal is to blow up said rolling death machine. You’re given a gun and an explosive barrel to combat the boss but those weapons are guarded by ever-spawning enemies and the rolling death machine can crush your only ways to kill it. This process is repeated 5 times and if you don’t hit everything just right, it just runs you over and you have to do it all over again. And why. Why. Why does the final boss have a one-hit kill? What a terrible, terrible idea.
I really loved Midnight Fight Express on its surface level. There’s a ton of things to do: high scores, challenges, collectables, and all the customization I adore in any game. The soundtrack contends with the best of them and I’ve been routinely adding tracks to my daily listen, and when the game is hitting on all cylinders it is a fantastic experience. But the sinister urge to one-up itself with unbalanced set pieces while battling head-shaking omissions in its battle UI compound to provide one of the more frustrating and downtrodden experiences of the year.
A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.