Hotline Miami is fast, bloody, and nasty, but beneath the carnage are clever design and interesting concepts.

Hotline Miami is fast, bloody, and nasty, but beneath the carnage are clever design and interesting concepts.

I have never been a believer in astrology. The idea that two people born on the same day will necessarily share archetypal personality traits has always seemed a little comical to me.

Now the world of independent video gaming seems to have taken my side in this argument, giving us two new titles on the same day, both of them arguably "art games" that could barely be any more different from one another.

The two games are The Unfinished Swan, a PlayStation 3 downloadable exclusive  made by fledgling studio Giant Sparrow, and Hotline Miami by Dennatron Games, currently available only on PC via several download services.

The Unfinished Swan's stark visuals are evocative and unique.

The Unfinished Swan's stark visuals are evocative and unique.

The Unfinished Swan is a soft, slow-paced, quiet adventure, telling the story of a young boy named Monroe whose mother has died, leaving her many unfinished paintings behind with her grieving son. When he is shipped off to an orphanage, he can take only one painting along, so he chooses his favourite, the unfinished swan of the title.

When Monroe awakes one night to find that the swan has left its canvas and escaped, he chases it into a strange fantasy world, a featureless white expanse that can only be explored by splattering it with black paint. The first few levels are enthralling, as you learn to navigate this odd landscape, finding your way by making a gigantic mess. At the end of the first chapter you reach a high point and can look back, seeing the messy trail you have left behind you.

Sadly, the title soon loses focus and momentum. As intriguing as that central mechanical concept undoubtedly is, the development team realised it wasn't enough to sustain an entire game, and started playing with variations on the theme. Some work, such as a city in which you navigate by shooting out blobs of water instead of paint, encouraging a voracious weed to grow and then using it as a ladder.

Others parts don't work as well, including a journey through a dark forest being chased by giant spiders that can usually only be seen as luminous red eyes. To me it felt out of place, symptomatic of a team who had started with a great concept and then run out of ideas. I can't help feeling it would have been a better game if they had settle on fewer mechanics and explored them in greater depth, rather than presenting us with a wide selection of tasty but unsatisfying morsels.

The storyline is similarly unfocused and patchy. While the central tale of a lonely boy seeking to find meaning in the only memento he has of his mother, the bulk of the plot deals with an irritating king whose attempts at creation are thwarted by his own perfectionism. Themes of grief, loss, and memory are jostled up against a fable about the pain of the creative process, the impossibility of perfection, and the cruel necessity of drawing a line under something we create and declaring it complete.

All of these themes and ideas are interesting and worthy of exploration and discussion, but it feels as if the development team tried to tackle too many things and ended up with something that suggests interesting topics but never says anything meaningful about any of them. It also feels like it is trying too hard to be a serious art game, and come across as somewhat pretentious.

Despite these issues, the game's beauty cannot be denied. From white walls smeared with black, to delicately shaded castles and cities, through to dimly lit midnight forests, The Unfinished Swan is a truly beautiful game. It also features a hauntingly gorgeous orchestral soundtrack that would not sound out of place in feature film.

I seem to be in the minority in my opinion of The Unfinished Swan. It has received rave reviews from many reputable gaming sites, and Jason Hill lauded it right here on Screen Play. It's a very cheap purchase, though, so if you're a sucker for really original ideas and don't mind if they aren't fleshed out as much as they could be, you should probably pick it up.

Now we go from a beautiful mess to a sharply honed experience that gives us perfection in brutality and ugliness. I am referring to Hotline Miami, a bizarre retro-themed top-down carnage machine. You play as a merciless hitman working in Miami in 1989, responding to cryptic messages on his answering machine by going to a designated address and killing absolutely everybody in the building. (Typical Scorpio, right?)

This is a ridiculously violent game. Despite its visuals being 8-bit style pixel art, the violence and gore on display are stomach-churning. You can play each level as you want, either charging through guns blazing, or being cautious and methodical. You start each mission empty-handed, killing your first enemies by punching them into submission, then stealing their weapons. The available arsenal is huge, consisting of three general types: bludgeons, blades, and firearms. As you progress and score points, more weapons are unlocked and begin appearing in levels.

Hotline Miami is ruthlessly deadly. I died over and over again - mauled by dogs, eviscerated by shotgun blasts, and smashed into a pulp by lead pipes - but I laughed every time. Death is little more than an inconvenience, and you can jump back into the action in seconds. Each building you need to clear is made up of anywhere between one and five stages, typically separate floors of a larger building, and dying puts you back to the start of a stage. As a stage is rarely more than a minute or so long, it's hard to get too upset when you inevitably die.

Unlike The Unfinished Swan, Hotline Miami keeps its thematic cards close to its chest. There is a story of sorts, a weird Lynchian affair in which story chapters are punctuated by visits to a creepy room full of masked men who ask you bizarre questions. Between missions you go about your life, getting fast food and renting VHS tapes, but even these domestic scenes are odd and stilted to begin with, and get increasingly surreal as the protagonist's mental state starts to degrade.

Rather than stating plainly what messages it is trying to impart, the meaning is deliberately obscure. There are fascinating ideas being explored here, about the nature of reality, the way we relate to other people, and the persistent presence of violence in our culture. It's there to be explored, but it isn't spoon-fed - you have to work for it.

The most satisfying thing about Hotline Miami is that every part of it works. In terms of gameplay, it is tightly designed and an absolute pleasure to play, and its artistic elements are amazing, especially the 1980s-inspired music and the lovingly detailed pixel art. Players who just want a good time can safely ignore the Kafkaesque plotline and just enjoy the quality of the workmanship.

Those who like to explore deeper meanings in their games will love Hotline Miami. Under its juvenile-seeming ultraviolence lurk some very interesting questions, not least of which is why there is so much violence in our popular culture, and what it says about us. This is a game that people will be writing doctoral theses about.

All of this for just ten bucks. If you can handle the violence, this is an instant classic, and I can think of nothing better to drop ten bucks on right now.

Have any Screen Play readers been playing either of these games? Care to share your thoughts in the comments below?

 - James "DexX" Dominguez

twitter DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez