The Hong Kong Massacre is a more interesting game than it appears on the surface. It aims to mix the style of John Woo’s action films with the top-down shooter gameplay of Hotline Miami. The end result is a surprisingly enjoyable romp, albeit one with some nagging problems.
The Hong Kong Massacre is laser-focused on its core gameplay, so it’s fortunate that it is well thought-out and satisfying to the end. Using the left and right sticks to aim and move from a top-down perspective has always been an approachable and intuitive way to control a game like this, and it works here about as well as one could hope. The dodging mechanic, twitch movement, and the rapid firing speed of most of the guns make the action feel incredibly fast-paced and arcade-like. Obstructions like doors and windows are incredibly reactive to your shots, and the intense effects that result from every gun shot add a fantastic sense of viscerality to the gameplay. Despite the grungy aesthetic, the bright colors of the enemies’ clothes make them immediately identifiable from a distance, and even the ones placed offscreen are indicated by small red arrows. All of these considerations make for a simple yet elegant system that manages to be readable even amidst all the chaos.
That readability ends up being crucial, as The Hong Kong Massacre is an incredibly challenging experience. Although most enemies die in one hit, the player character also dies in one hit, which means one mistimed dodge or sloppy mistake can easily lead to players having to restart the stage. This may sound frustrating, but it rarely is thanks to the way that the game is structured. Every stage consists of a relatively compact network of rooms, which means that stages rarely take more than a couple of minutes to complete. Deaths may be incredibly frequent, but the restarts are incredibly quick and snappy, allowing players to easily get back into the action. This structure essentially turns each stage into a miniature puzzle in which players experiment with different routes and strategies before reaching a correct solution. It’s a wonderfully simple setup that makes the challenge feel approachable rather than overwhelming.
Players have the opportunity to control the challenge using the game’s slow motion feature, which is a mechanic I feel mixed about. Similar to the slow motion mechanic from the Max Payne series, this feature is meant to evoke the “bullet time” sequences of classic action films and to give players an edge during firefights. Admittedly, there is a fun novelty to diving and sliding around while firing in slow motion, and I am not opposed to the mechanic as a way to give players more options in how to tackle levels. However, it becomes clear that the game was not designed around the feature, so it feels less like a core part of the experience and more like a crutch. That being said, it’s great that the game rewards players with more upgrade points if they avoid using the mechanic during a level. I ended up playing through the entire campaign without using slow motion, which made the title more challenging, more fast-paced, and more enjoyable.
The base elements of The Hong Kong Massacre are very well done, but it’s when players get deeper into the campaign that chinks in the armor start to show. In general, the game is incredibly lacking in variety. Not counting the enemies with bulletproof vests late in the campaign, there are only four enemy types throughout the entire game, and they are all immediately introduced by the second stage. Aside from the layouts, not much really separates individual stages from each other aside from the occasional gap to dive over. The game gives you multiple weapons, but there are only four types, and they can all be purchased incredibly early on. Even boss fights all play out the same; each one involves both you and the boss shooting at each other while walking down parallel corridors, and there is very little that separates each encounter other than basic changes to layout and enemy placement. All this means that there is not much to discover beyond the first handful of stages, which makes a feeling of repetition feel inevitable.
There are also aspects of the challenge that feel ill-considered. The game’s simplistic upgrade system, for instance, hands out its more powerful upgrades at shockingly low prices. As early as the first batch of levels, players can obtain an infinite-ammo upgrade for the basic pistol weapon. Not only does this nullify the ammo conservation element of the gameplay entirely and turn bosses into complete pushovers, but no other weapon type features an infinite ammo upgrade, which makes them entirely obsolete. One of the optional achievements for each stage is to kill every enemy without missing a shot, which sounds like a great inclusion on paper. In practice, the achievement is made exponentially more frustrating thanks to enemies’ tendencies to dodge through bullets at random. This small quirk makes obtaining the achievement feel more like a matter of luck than skill, and the slow motion feature can only do so much to mitigate this issue. The game’s otherwise fantastic readability starts to decline when the game introduces the bulletproof versions of the four basic enemy types, which all look virtually indistinguishable from each other. This makes it much more difficult to make an informed decision about how to approach these enemies before they start shooting at you, which makes the game harder than it needs to be.
Despite these issues, The Hong Kong Massacre is well worth at least one playthrough. The core mechanics are well-executed in their simplicity, and although its issues prevent it from becoming a classic, its short length ensures that they never become crippling problems. Those looking for a deep narrative or complex gaming experience should probably steer clear, but those who want some straightforward arcade fun should definitely give it a shot.
Score: 7 out of 10
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch