Hotline Miami 2's reception has been relatively lukewarm for a plethora of reasons, the primary one being its emphasis on the importance of things not valued by the typical fan of Hotline Miami 1.
This series was always partially inspired by Cocaine Cowboys, itself a very hands off and nonjudgmental documentary about the lives of various people involved in 1980's drug running in Miami. A Vietnam vet details his war injuries and the conditions that caused him to move to Miami from New York City. A hitman Rivi Ayala details making dynamite in the bathtub with his sleeping toddler on the other side of a wall. Colorful and interesting lives are recollected as well as the hugely strained and eventually hugely corrupted police force. It isn't the kind of thing traditional media captures often, and it's never been captured in video games, even huge crime anthologies like Grand Theft Auto roughly equating culturally to just watching comedy cartoons on Adult Swim.
While Hotline Miami 1 is a very good example of atmospheric and effective storytelling, you could easily argue that it ignores its own setting almost entirely for no apparent reason. Save for palm trees and the ocean, the setting is just an empty void, and the antagonists are Russian instead of hispanic cartels. Drugs aren't shown and most every level is a fairly empty apartment with some recreational equipment as meta media commentary a la Drive. The game isn't exactly as vapid and insullated as Retro City Rampage, but it's uncomfortably close. Jacket's design is a blend of Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop and the Driver from Drive, neither of which are really grounded in anything at all other than movies. BHC is a 80's comedy and Drive is a surreal arthouse effort about media tropes. In short, the game has very few qualities that actually challenge the myopic sentiments of any given midwestern fat guy. The game is actually largely about empathizing with someone who feels completely out of control of his own life, and never really about being a kooky psycho killer in sinister clown make up, but you'd never be able to tell that from the majority of player reactions to it.
Hotline Miami 2 very understandably tries to fix the series' accidentally becoming a head-up-ass simulator and it does this beautifully in a variety of ways. Songs are actually tonally varied and rarely reused, whereas all the tonal variation Hotline Miami 1's soundtrack had didn't come in until Part 4 and the epilogue. The setting is actually used and locations are real places that could exist in a real city. For example, by the third level the player is raiding a news station after hours that the Russian mafia has in its pocket. Enemies are actually using the locations the player fights through for things other than sitting around. The buildings and their inhabitants actually have dynamics and tell a story. Dennis Wedin said he was encouraged to do this kind of world building when people actually showed interest in the changes Jacket's apartment underwent in the game, and it's sad that that fanbase interest doesn't extend to other people and social trends because a lot of Hotline Miami 2's effort there is ubiquitously unnoticed.
Entirely too few parallels are ever drawn between Hotline Miami 2 and the 2012 game Max Payne 3, which also took a franchise in an entirely new direction playing up a gorgeous picture of a decadent city and the lifestyles therein with an out-of-order story. Max Payne 3 similarly drew from documentaries and fictional films from Brazillian director Jose Padhila: Bus 174, Elite Squad, and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, as well as the very famous picture of Brazillian slums, City of God. The attitudes these movies (and Max Payne 3, to an extent) take toward criminals and corrupt police forces more closely parallels Hotline Miami 2's sentiments than most any other piece of media. They aren't even inspirations for Hotline Miami 2, they're just similar instances of media that doesn't paint a black and white picture of social decay.
Another neglected video game parallel is the hugely underrated Jet Set Radio Future, which also expanded the setting for the original Jet Grind Radio with a fully realized open world, allowing the player to navigate both the crime-ridden projects and huge skyscraper districts, each location being affected by the anglings of a construction company CEO attempting to grow his sphere of influence in the new setting. Heavy emphasis is placed on movement mechanics and the speed and fluidity is something the Hotline Miami series captures as well.
As part of being largely defined on buildings, memorable personal possessions, and setpieces, Hotline Miami 2 also more closely parallels the films of John Woo. Images like the Colombian henchman with red tinted sunglasses and two dobermans stands out like something you'd see in Hard Boiled. Manny Pardo's shotgun play and leather jacket is also reminiscent of The Killer and A Better Tomorrow.
The mentality behind the level design in Hotline Miami 2 can be seen in Doom's Plutonia Experiement, where the player is expected to have already mastered Doom 1 and 2 as they clear out relatively hard stages. However, Doom wasn't an indie game and didn't attract an audience that was primarily interested in its narrative at any point. It was primarily just solid mechanics at high speed with a heavy metal aesthetic.
Hotline Miami 2's cultural commentary and extremely creative, succinct and effective exposition in Midnight Animal was sensationalized first by media and censors and afterward by several player critiques of it as superfluous and outlandish, all of which betray a desire for coddling misinformed sentiments. Never anywhere is this creative decision actually defended, and it's only ever brought up to play Home Owner's Association with what art "should" and "shouldn't" be allowed to do. As is a sad trend, nothing except insullation is conveyed by the standard gamer response to anything in Hotline Miami 2.
Hotline Miami 2's ending was also generally met with total confusion, players not getting that these people's possessions, attitudes, lifestyles, and what they get out of the moment regardless of global events is what the ending is highlighting. It's an emphasis on an empathetic and emotionally mature perspective recognizing human limitations that many gamers are fundamentally not on board with. Jacket fiddling with a ball repeatedly, alone in a small empty room is blatantly supposed to mirror what the player is doing by playing games. Points like this are largely misinterpreted as Dennaton hating the series and wanting to get it over with -- which Dennis Wedin has regularly stated wasn't the case -- or interpreted as a Aesop's Fables style that's-what-you-get to all the violent barbarians the game was about. The cultural distance between gamers and Rivi Ayala is highlighted hard here: there's simply no concept in the gaming culture that you could actually care about other people even when they don't fit into fictional puritan archetypes.