The tag team of Double Fine Productions and Adult Swim Games seems like such an obvious partnership that I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. Outside of one or two releases, the developer’s works have frequently been outside the realm of normality. Likewise, the publisher is an offshoot of a TV programming block known for its surreal and hilarious shows. While it may lack the twisted humor seen in their other work, Headlander is as offbeat a project as you would expect from the newly minted duo.
Set in a time period only referred to as The Future, Headlander takes place in a universe where humanity has ceased to exist. Well, it’s ceased to exist in our normal, fleshy bodies, anyway. Instead, the human race now exists in robotic bodies so that it may live forever. Even if a body is destroyed, its human soul will be saved and placed into a new body.
You, however, apparently missed the memo on going full robot. Heck, you missed the memo about having a body, period. As the name of the game sort of implies, you are a floating disembodied head, who may just be the last living human in the universe. Woken up by a mysterious being known as EARL, you are sent on a mission to destroy the entity that is hunting you down: the all-powerful Methuselah.
Headlander is a delightfully surreal take on 1970’s science fiction that is deeper than it seems at first. For a majority of the storyline, you’re just trying to survive against Spectrum guards. A little over half-way through the game, though, you come into contact with a resistance group, which propels the story forward. What had been a silly game about popping heads off transforms into a meditation on what is humanity, and if we had the option to live forever, should we take it? To say more would spoil the relationship between you, EARL and Methuselah, but let’s just say that Biblical name was chosen for a reason.
As a disembodied head, you don’t have a ton of protection from enemy forces. However, while you may look assuming, you can actually use the vacuum attached to your helmet to pull of robot heads. You can then take over their body, thus why the game is called Headlander. You’ll mostly want to possess Spectrum guards, as they hold the firepower and the key to exploring each area. However, you can pretty much take over any robotic body you see hanging around. Everything from Mappy, the map robot, to tweaked-out party bots are at your disposal. Not all of them actually do much besides dance, but some carry benefits that necessitate checking out.
With that said, Spectrum guards are what you’ll be focused on taking out. Guards come in several different colors, which dictate what doors they can open, and models. If you pay attention to what bodies you land into, you’ll notice that their weapons fire in different, crazy ways. Some are just straight-forward laser blasts, while others fire out in arcs of three or four. This often means that battles turn into beautiful light shows that can kill you if you’re not paying attention. The key is to learn how to bounce your lasers (there’s a helpful aiming system in place), and to always aim for the head.
Eventually, you’ll unlock additional abilities that allow you to put up a fight in head mode, and new methods of destruction while in body mode. Shifting between the two play-styles is a unique experience that Double Fine pulls off successfully. By the end of the game, you’ll be bursting into enemies in head mode to take out their CPUs, then taking over the body to rain down lasers on the rest of his guard friends. The only problem I have with the combat is that aiming feels a little too stiff for my tastes. It can take longer than expected to line-up a shot, as apparently these robots function much better without a human head jammed into it. Who knew?
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the two bosses you face off against during the story. Neither of them are particularly fun, albeit for different reasons. The first one, which takes place after an extremely laggy section of the game, is simply too easy. The final boss, which all but wraps up the story, is contested mostly in head mode, where you’re at your weakest. All it takes is two or three shots from his explosive-filled repertoire of attacks, and you’ll be dead. It’s frustrating, and I wish it managed to combine the creativity of both head and body mode more than it does.
When you’re not destroying robots, though, there’s still fun to be had. As a Metroidvania style game, Headlander has plenty of secrets for you to uncover. Each of the main areas of the game houses secret tunnels and rooms that hold upgrades and extra information for you to find. Mostly handled in head mode, you’ll need to scour every inch of the game to max out your health and abilities. You’ll also need to explore in order to flesh out the backstory of the game that the main plot doesn’t really get into. Finding these rooms was a nice surprise, and continuing to learn about the resistance movement you get tangled up with made taking up arms with them a more logical decision.
As a fan of vibrant visuals, I was happy to see that Headlander is extremely colorful. Multicolored neon lasers pop on the screen, and as mentioned before, give the game the appearance of a twisted light show. Really, though, I’m just a fan of the style of the game as a whole. The combo of 1970’s aesthetics and B-movie sci-fi works surprisingly well. The robots look advanced enough that they are sort of futuristic, but still look hopelessly dated against modern science fiction. The design does trend down over the course of the game, though, as latter sections begin to look more and more like standard, drab corridors. Methuselah’s home base was a particular letdown, as I feel they could have really went over the top with it. Instead, it’s just boring hallways and enemy trap rooms, repeated until you want to die.
Headlander may not be the deepest example of the Metroidvania genre, but its unique style carries it past some of its contemporaries. Double Fine Productions has managed to pair retro sci-fi aesthetics with modern gaming conventions in a way that feels totally fresh. Don’t let the wacky premise fool you, though, there’s a deep, action-heavy game underneath all the zaniness. If this is the type of experience I can find from the partnership between the acclaimed developer and Adult Swim Games, then I’m excited to see what oddity they fashion next.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which was provided for us.
Double Fine Productions has managed to craft an experience in Headlander that successfully combines the retro style of 1970's science fiction with excellent modern gaming trappings. Don't let the absurd premise sway you, there's more than just zaniness here.