When I think about significant shifts in the monoculture, I think about Drive. The 2011 action thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver with a sick jacket and a heavy debt sparked an entire subgenre of action movies about hardened men (and the occasional woman) getting revenge on a system that wronged them no matter what, even if they never live to see the other side of that war. The solemn plot, the subdued and snappy film language, the soundtrack full of thumping bass and synths; these are all the various pieces of Drive that multiple movies have gone on to implement.
The true torch bearer of this niche would have to be 2014’s John Wick: the movie itself became a sleeper hit, and as of 2023 John Wick is one of the biggest film franchises around. Part of this success comes from seeing Drive’s original ethos, the inner workings of this tragic story, and really just flipping the switch narratively. If Drive is about going all out knowing that the end is inevitable, then John Wick focuses on kicking in that little bit left in the tank to see another day.
Funnily enough, 2012 ended up doing something similar in gaming, with the release of Hotline Miami by Dennaton Games. With Drive cited as one of its several sources of inspiration, this top down shooter has you bathed in neon lights and blood as you mow through rooms of gangsters in a haze, all set to thumping electronic bangers. It’s high octane action that instantly became a hit in the midst of this synthwave violence boom.
Yet, we really didn’t get a definitive successor in the same way that Keanu’s return to form became the blueprint for multiple iterations of someone being pissed off enough to level an entire city. Even the film’s game, John Wick Hex, failed to truly capture the level of intensity and aesthetic that Hotline Miami and its sequel cultivated. Lateralis Heavy Industries must have noticed this as well, because we finally have that high octane action in OXTO.
The narrative is pretty direct: You and your wife are in a train, someone throws a mask down in the car. You put the mask on and find yourself washed up on a beach and walk down to the entrance of a mansion. The mansion has your wife, and you’re going to have to gun your way through room after room in order to get her back.
Along the way you’ll talk to residents of the mansion like the groundskeeper who boasts of the property’s former glory, the bartender who serves you drinks that upgrade your various abilities or give you new methods of mowing down rooms, and the nun who gives you guns. The gun nun, if you will. As you work your way through the mansion you’ll have to fight the various men who’ve tried to take on your impossible task and failed, along with the mansion’s own bosses. Learn each floor’s gimmick, set the guns and power-ups that will help you reach the end, and no matter how long it may take, how great the obstacles that stand in your way, or what form your wife may assume, you shall come back for her. You must return to that house.
I have to admit that my initial playthrough of this game didn’t really have me gripped for more. I had previously tried out publisher Super Rare Games’ other roguelike Lone Ruin, and the realization I might be in store for a similar experience kind of had me lower my expectations. The other reason for this sour first experience comes from my expectations about this kind of game, and really needing to meet something at its level rather than assume everything about it. I’m not the biggest shooter enthusiast, but I definitely had some fun with Hotline Miami. It was fun to just go in guns blazing to try to clear a room out, die, and then go back at it right away. Taking that mentality to OTXO really hindered the initial experience, since the comparisons only ended in visuals. The mentality of shoot, die, repeat doesn’t really mesh with a game that wants you to claw through each room and survive to the very end. It’s easy to just say “I had to go John Wick mode on ‘em,” but truly this game makes you want to fight and use what you learn along the way to keep your momentum going.
OTXO is tough, but it isn’t merciless. You start the game with one rifle, but any other weapons you acquire, you get from other enemies. Changing weapons often is key to make sure you aren’t caught in the middle of reloading when waves of enemies come at you. Unlike Hotline Miami, you do have a health bar, so there’s a margin for error, and it tops up every time you enter the next room, so you don’t have to pray that everything goes well for a whole run. You also have access to a power called Focus which works like bullet time from Max Payne, allowing you to slow time around you. You can use it to outmaneuver enemies and even roll over bullets once the fire gets a little too hot to handle, and it can often be your key to getting to the next room.
The gun nun I mentioned before effectively changes what guns will appear over the course of your run, which on one hand would be handy when you have to face specific hoards, but could prevent you from getting some guns of interest. Currently, I find myself mainly sticking to SMGs and rifles, but choosing to effectively make only those options spawn could end up screwing me further down my run should I find something that requires the extra kick from a shotgun. At the same time, I keep getting my shit rocked by enemies with snipers in the second named area of the game so once I inevitably overcome that challenge I’ll have the ability to visit the nun and remove the sniper from my loadout, meaning that no enemies will appear with this weapon and I can keep zooming along without the threat of a guy on the other side of the map giving me what for.
The guns themselves mainly differ in bullet spread and capacity from the quick firing SMG to the bigger spread of a shotgun, each a cheeky biblical or folkloric reference in name, like the Judas 17 or the Abel Assault 12. The list only grows the further into the game you get, and you even get access to some mid-run options available at your disposal like grenades and kunai. No weapon really lasts beyond two magazines, so it’s important that you get your kills in quick and switch your loadout regularly.
While shooting is your main means of offense, you can gain additional power ups from drinks that you buy at the bar. Just make sure to toss your weapon aside before approaching. The bartender is particular about having no guns in his establishment. You get one complimentary drink at the beginning of each run, but every other trip to the bar will require you to pay using coins you score from enemies. Kill in quicker succession to gain a multiplier that will help you rake in the money. These drinks can affect anything from the amount of time you can stay in Focus to giving you the ability to kick bullets back at enemies. Across from the bar is a woman who you pay to add more drinks to your rotating stock. While you’ll know more or less the weapons that’ll be available in a run, these drinks will be the chance to get some lucky breaks once the heat starts to turn up deeper in the mansion.
Another fun wrinkle to the Hotline Miami influence is the boss fights. Each section of the mansion ends in a fight against some entity that is halting your progress, be it a slithering gun-toting basilisk or a suit of armor whose lances, swords, and shields can all fire bullets to kill you. You have a chance to prepare before each battle with one room that houses four different weapons, each with unlimited ammo for the fight. Pick your preference and from then on you’ll have to best the boss in order to get deeper into the mansion. I would venture to guess one run has a set layout of the mansion in terms of which bosses you run into and which sections of the mansion you’ll end up in. Each of my runs have had the same first boss, but it’s a welcome challenge to set the tone like the first time you face Meg in Hades.
I really want to highlight the music in this game. Lateralis knew out the gate that with a high intensity top-down shooter like this, you’re going to need a soundtrack that’s equally motivating and bombastic that also doesn’t get annoying on multiple runs. With a fully in-house OST, these tracks easily clear the benchmark when it comes to bangers to blast bullets to. It’s easy to notice the influences if you’ve been around a fair share of high intensity electronic music, the bass is consistent and present while overtop it you get whirring strings, the drive of a synth, or hard glitch noises that keep the main melody. While the sample package can feel limited as you get through the hour’s worth of tracks, at no point does it really feel tiring or dragging. I can be a pedant about this kind of stuff, like ask me to name any MCU theme song off the top of my head and I’d have trouble picking out just one given they all share thunderous horns, quick string progressions, and zero attempt to be sonically enticing. OTXO has sounds that are familiar, but the HOUSE and Carpenter Brut allusions are done in service of creating a soundscape that isn’t at odds with the gunfire and tension it’s set against. To have this all done alongside the game itself is impressive, and really helps tie the aesthetic together. I can confidently say I am just repeating the sequence in John Wick where he starts going off at the Russian bathhouse club, and that’s a high I thought I could only attain from watching the movies over and over. To finally have it in a game is nice as hell.
One of the groundskeeper’s lines mentions that the house hates chaos; it requires order. You, in that case, act as the order for the estate, and that feels like such a poignant descriptor for what makes OXTO so replayable: it begs you to bring order to a mess. Hotline Miami unravels and twists and frankly couldn’t care less if you can make sense of its narrative, which is apt for a story about a guy eager to lose everything even if you, the player, will just press restart and gun anyone in your way. John Wick lost everything, and all he has left is this duty to order, to provide consequences for those who transgress this underworld he knows all too well. It’s this dichotomy that makes OXTO so worth it as an experience. You have to have the ideal run, the cards have to land so specifically that you can make it from beginning to end and complete your impossible task. Sure, you can make it out of a room with a sliver of health left, or stumble into a room trying to kick the person shooting at you to get some sort of weapon ASAP, but that’s all expected when you’re doing the impossible. It’s fun being able to have that challenge, because the inevitability here is knowing you’ll get the job done.
It's pronounced "oh-cho".
OTXO is a rougelike that uses its format wisely. While it builds on the ground Hotline Miami broke, it's still a unique experience.