The Hong Kong Massacre aims to replicate the experience of a gun-kata-action scene, where characters shoot while diving through the air, performing acrobatic feats as they blow each other’s brains out. It’s an extremely violent riff on the twin-stick shooter, one clearly inspired by Hotline Miami and Max Payne. You play as a former detective in 1992 Hong Kong, seeking retribution against the Triad for murdering someone close to you. The exact specifics are unclear, but that doesn’t matter too much–the plot elements are kept to a minimum, as the game focuses most of its energy into frenetic and satisfying action.
At the start of each mission you equip one of four guns–a pistol, SMG, rifle or shotgun–and are then unleashed in a top-down level to kill everyone inside it. Because of the zoomed-out view you can see into rooms and scope out opponents well before they know you’re there. The rules of engagement are established quickly: one shot from any gun is all it takes to kill either you or your enemies (until later levels where some enemies get body armor and can withstand two shots), and you also need to collect new guns from the enemies you kill, lest you run out of ammo. If you go into a dive, you cannot be hit until the dive is over. Your enemies can dive too, and the same rules apply for them.
The one major advantage you have over the bad guys is your ability to slow time. This is how the game lets you fight at the speed and fury of the action cinema choreography it is paying homage to, and it makes you feel like a badass. In almost every situation, the best way to excel is to enter slow motion, dive into a position where you have a line of sight, and fire at your enemies. Often this will mean shooting through a window, or a door, or the paper-thin shoji screens that are used to separate rooms in just about every building you enter. In its wildest moments, The Hong Kong Massacre turns into a wonderfully violent ballet of shattered glass, splayed bodies, and bullets from a variety of guns all firing at once in slow motion.
The meter and cooldown for your slow motion ability is extremely generous, as it takes quite a while to drain and fully recharges within about two seconds. So as long as you plan to be in cover by the time it runs out you can use slow motion almost continuously. The star rating system for each level encourages you to try not using slow motion at all, though. Complete a level without it and you’ll be awarded a star that can be spent on weapon upgrades–but not only does this make things considerably harder, it would make some levels all but impossible to complete. If you’re playing on PS4 with a controller, your aiming reticule moves slowly, which is important for lining up long shots and maintaining some sense of tension and realism amidst all the madness, but it also means that completing the more difficult missions at full speed would be extraordinarily difficult.
Even with these abilities, The Hong Kong Massacre can still be extremely hard. Your enemies are not the smartest, but when there’s so many of them and it only takes a single bullet to kill you, you’ll likely die an awful lot. There are plenty of mistakes you can make and traps you can fall into, too. Every now and then a dive won’t go as planned, and you’ll slide up against a door jamb instead of leaping through the door, for instance, or end up surrounded by gunfire. It’s quite tricky to pay attention to both your person and your aiming reticule, and often I wasn’t sure exactly when a dive animation had ended.
Each failure requires a restart of the whole level, and even though the absolute longest one will ultimately take less than three minutes to finish once you’ve got a handle on the situation, there will likely be many, many failed attempts on the way there. But there’s a certain pleasure in how you begin to memorize the layout, the patterns of the bad guys (which can change slightly), and weigh up the pros and cons of the different strategies and approaches you’ve tried thus far. And when you’re in the zone, completing levels back to back with very few deaths, you’ll really feel like an action hero.
Five boss fights change up the level format and see you and your opponent both moving down parallel hallways, taking shots whenever there’s an opening through a window (bosses take multiple shots to kill), and every now and then you’ll need to take out an enemy on your side to collect their gun. At the end of each boss stage, you’ll both end up in a more open area where you’ll need to finish them off, and they work well enough as a change of pace. Some levels also make you dive between rooftops, which is satisfying and fun as you fire at enemies while making an almost-impossible sideways leap.
But there’s a lot of repetition across the campaign, too. The level designs aren’t distinctive; while layouts and aesthetics change, the basic building blocks never do. Even as you shoot your way through a police station, you’ll still notice that they’re using shoji screens to separate some rooms. After a while, it becomes clear that the game is, essentially, the same few seconds of gameplay over and over. The four-weapon selection also feels slightly hamstrung by the general uselessness of the shotgun, unless you pump all the points you earn from completing levels into upgrading it (for my money it’s better to focus on the SMG and pistols).
The game’s strangest oversight is its lousy leaderboards. While you can see your top time for every level from the menu, there is no friends leaderboard, nor does the game show you where you sit on the global total. In fact, only the top 99 are shown for each level, and even if you’ve made that list you need to scroll to find yourself. This removes some incentive to replay levels and try for a faster time.
The Hong Kong Massacre is a game with a specific goal–to capture the feeling of an over-the-top John Woo-style slow-motion diving kill shot, and it succeeds. The game’s faults are washed away whenever you leap out of the way of a bullet and quickly take out the person who fired it. It’s a game that sticks with you when you’re not playing it, as you think through different approaches to the room you died in last time. You’ll fail frequently, and the repetition can wear you down, but it’s hard to resist the temptation of bursting through a window and perfectly lining up three kill shots.