It’s really difficult to approach a high-octane, ultra-stylistic indie action game like Milanoir and not compare it to Hotline Miami. Even at the glance, it’s hard not to see the commonalities. They both come from small indie development teams and are both published by boutique publishers. They’re both driven by level-based, fast-paced, kill-or-be-killed action and opt for evoking the style over substance at every possible junction. They even boast a very similar top-down, pixelated perspective. How could you not compare the two?
Unfortunately, even when you strip away those similarities and try to treat the game on its own merits, what you’re left with here isn’t really all that compelling, original or easy-to-recommend.
Missing The Mark
Milanoir sees you take control of a sadistic mafia hitman by the name of Piero, a fearless anti-hero on a generic but genre-inspired mission of revenge. Each level in the game sees you enter a location and blast every thug in your way until you reach the end. That’s more-or-less all there is to it. There's a story here, and things happen in it - but nothing really happens, if you know what I mean. It all comes across as very disposable.
What’s more, despite the Italian backdrop, Milanoir’s story often comes across more like an Italian-dub of an American crime story than it does a European one. The signage is all in Italian but the dialogue is classic by-the-numbers Hollywood blockbuster. To further spite the game’s title, it doesn’t really deliver much noir either.
The developers cite Tarantino as an influence but it doesn’t really come across here beyond the coarse language and chaotic gunplay. To reach for a (particularly) niche film reference, it feels fair to say Milanoir evokes Tarantino in the same way as the 2014 crime thriller Kill Me Three Times does. It’s a worse version of a story you’ll feel like you’ve seen before almost immediately. There’s no real bite to the black humor in it and everything plays out more-or-less how you’d expect it to.
That’s not to say the narrative in Milanoir isn’t without its twists and turns. However, maybe by design, they’re all pretty conventional and generic ones. Of course, a mole in your gang tips off the cops and you’re sent to prison. Of course, there’s a mysterious femme fatale on the loose. Of course, that early-game boss you defeated returns in a helicopter for revenge. Unfortunately, with the game’s dialogue being as dull and forgettable as it is, each time one of these plot threads is woven back into the main plot I was often left scratching my head rather than realising its significance.
As mentioned at the outset, the emphasis is clearly on style over substance in Milanoir in much the same way that is in Hotline Miami. There a few narrative-focused detours and experimental segments here and there but for the most part, each level is a simple A-to-B with a few reloads and boss fights along the way.
However, unlike (what feels like) its chief inspiration, Milanoir struggles to make that gunplay fun. The controls are loose and unresponsive and the feedback loop you get from successfully taking out an enemy comes off as limp at best. A large amount of the time, gunfights in Milanoir feels less satisfying than playing a clicker game. There’s little depth here, just mindless clicking - and it lacks impact every step of the way.
Again taking its cues from Hotline Miami, both Piero and his enemies can only take a handful of bullets before going down. Therefore, it’s usually a case of taking them out before they can get you. Unfortunately, while there’s a decent amount of variety in the kinds of weapons enemies will use against you, Peiro himself doesn’t really get access to an uzi or a pistol (depending on the level) outside of a few power-ups.
To balance this out, Piero regenerates health if he avoids damage for a couple of seconds and there are dodge-roll and covers mechanics you can employ. Lamentably, both proved pretty inconsistent. Sometimes, the game would visually reflect that I was in cover when I wasn’t - so I’d take damage and die. Other times I’d attempt to dodge roll away from enemy fire, only for enemy bullets to strafe along with perfect, robotic accuracy, rendering the entire maneuver pointless. Sometimes, the dodge button wouldn’t even work at all.
Milanoir attempts to develop and cement ricocheting bullets off signs as a central or signature combat mechanic - but the level design in the game rarely makes use of it outside of the select sequences. Worse still, later levels in the game frequently reused the sprites and assets for those same signs but don’t let you ricochet bullets off them for reasons unknown.
Regardless, the most frustrating part of the part puzzle here - aside from the absurdly-frustrating and wholly-unwelcome stealth segment in the game’s fifth chapter - was the game’s boss fights. During these sequences, the myriad issues plaguing the combat in Milanoir are brought into stark focus.
With a few exceptions, these sequences made me feel like I was actively working against and trying to find ways of undermining the game’s unreliable combat mechanics and design, rather than demonstrating any sort of mastery or competency over these systems. As someone who appreciates the intent and influences the game is trying to evoke, the experience feels like a half-baked one that could’ve been improved through more or better play-testing.
There’s also a two-player mode in the game, which adds some replayability or evens out a few of the more-difficult parts of the game. Unfortunately, it’s more of a misery-loves-company than a more-the-merrier type situation here.
The Bottom Line
Even if I could stop mentally cataloguing how Milanoir compares to Hotline Miami, I still don’t think I would be rushing out to recommend it.
It’s a game with both nothing new to say and no fresh way to articulate a tired and generic message (‘gangsters are violent but shouldn’t think twice before messing with tough-as-nails anti-heroes’). Even in its best moments, it genuinely struggles to be fun or satisfying or memorable.
There's something to be said for style over substance, but take substance out of the picture entirely and style-for-styles-sake is a formula that gets old fast.