Headlander is quite literally a game about landing a disembodied head onto dozens of different robotic bodies. It’s a 2D platformer that channels the likes of Super Metroid and ‘70s science-fiction in order to tell a tale of disembodied heads and the disenfranchised remnants of humanity. Complete with pun-laden humor, quirky characters, and some rough edges, Headlander is a little game that fits quite nicely into the Double Fine Productions canon.
Though it’s different than the Tim Schafer-led studio’s past offerings, Headlander continues Double Fine’s tradition of impishly subverting genre expectations. Much like Psychonauts’ twisted take on the 3D platformer and Broken Age’s generation-spanning formula that playfully prodded at the often overwhelming length of turn-based strategy games, Headlander takes the rule set of modern “metroidvania” games and flips them on their head.
Headlander’s mechanical conceit is that Winters, the game’s body-less protagonist, has to constantly commandeer and pilot robotic bodies in order to progress through the game. Though his rocket-propelled head is maneuverable enough, Headlander is a maze of color coded doors that can only be opened by gaining a robot of its assigned color.
This makes Winters’ journey one of constant bodily change. Unlike Super Metroid or most other metroidvania titles, progression in Headlander is much slower paced. As players work their way up the visible light spectrum of robotic security clearance, there’s a lot of downtime. Even with its interesting environments to explore, many of which are a mix of sleek space stations and shag-carpeted, funky rooms, Headlander’s nature is one of rocket-propelled movement, locked doors, and backtracking to find a robot of the correct color.
And this isn’t to say that Headlander’s slower speed is a bad thing. It makes sense for the game, really. Because Winters is only a head, one can’t really expect him to move through the game world with the chaotic fury of Samus or the shifting body of Alucard. Given the game’s retro sci-fi aesthetic, it makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s always enjoyable.
Headlander falls apart when things get frantic. As Winters moves through the robotic ranks on his journey to uncover what happened to his body, a sentient AI does everything in its power to halt his progress. This means that the enemy robots begin shooting lasers as the helmet-clad hero with extreme prejudice. Their attacks range from single shot blasts to quad-shots that bank off of every surface imaginable. You can fight back, of course, but Headlander’s combat is so clunky, that evasion is often the best course of action.
Winters can track and fire back at his attackers, but it’s often just too accurately see what’s going on. When a handful of enemies are opening up fire, it normally means that players are expected to take cover (with the same button that allows for manual aiming of Winters’ own weapon) and wait out the blitzkrieg of multi-colored lasers. Attempting to open fire back was more trouble than it was worth, I found, and the best course of action was waiting for a quiet moment before dislodging from my current body and sucking up an enemy’s head to render it useless in combat.
In these moments, Headlander just feels frustrating. The combat – especially in the game’s later sections – lacks the overall polish to make it worthwhile. Winters ability to line up shots is hampered by the cacophony of lasers that fill a given room a fight and the relatively limited survivability of his loaned robotic body doesn’t stand up against the rapid rate of fire he’s usually under. At its best, Headlander’s combat feels like a wasted opportunity.
Though Headlander doesn’t do combat particularly well, the game does nail the exploration elements that are so intimately linked with the metroidvania subgenre. Headlander’s environments are a mix of industrial corridors and service offshoots. The astute explorer will be able to find dozens of secret offshoots, most of which contain little bits of backstory or stations that improve Winters’ health and helmet thrust.
Headlander’s a notably smaller game than Double Fine’s recent titles. More Stacking than Broken Age, Headlander is a little game that tries to make something interesting out of a retro aesthetic and a spin on metroidvania movement. Though it hiccups when it comes to combat – especially the more frantic fights that lead to massive screen slowdown – and its story never feels worthwhile, Headlander is worth checking out. Double Fine have always had a knack for crafting games that march to their own beat. Headlander’s no exception, it just occasionally misses the mark.
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Reviewer’s Note: A copy of Headlander (PS4) was provided to the author for the purpose of this review.