Headlander takes place in a 70s-esque sci-fi future where humans have plugged their consciousness into robots in order to become immortal. Players awaken as a frozen head when a disembodied voice, Earl, warns them of danger. Earl guides them off the ship and into a space station wherein an evil AI, METHEUSALAH, is enslaving humanity. What Earl and METHEUSALAH want is beyond our hero’s knowledge, but being as this is a game, they follow along without question.
The game certainly has a good vibe to it and flying around, as a head is strange. However, unlike most of Double Fine’s games, there isn’t a lot of comedy to be had. It’s a weird concept and there are chuckles here and there, but primarily this is a different tale for them. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but I was a little crushed truthfully. Gameplay seems to have finally trumped their writing.
This can best be described as a 2D Metroidvania. It’s the usual explore an environment, get new powers, and unlock passageways kind of thing. As a rocket powered head, players can take control enemies by either shooting, or sucking off their heads. If that body is destroyed, the head will remain intact, but it won’t last long in combat without a torso to protect it.
Inhabiting soldiers, or Shepherds, has more of a puzzle role to them. Shepherds are color coded, which comes into play when going through gates. A red soldier is needed to get through a red door, an orange through an orange door, and you get the picture. Thankfully higher colors can go backwards as well so that orange can proceed through a red gate, but not vice versa. Sometimes it can be tricky to find the right color, only for that body to be destroyed right before you need it.
While this can be frustrating, death in general is to the player’s favor. Saves occur primarily every time one waltzes thorough an entryway. If one dies in that room, it’ll just reset with a quick load. This alleviates frustration, making Headlander all about the experience and not the challenge. Not only that, but the map points to most everything if one can acquire a map droid. Unlike other Metroidvanias, players will rarely get lost. This hand-holding and lack of difficulty may be painful in itself for some, but I welcomed it. When a game respects my time, I respect it.
Let’s dial it back to the combat for a second. While the game primarily prods players to take control of the laser-wielding Shepherds, you aren’t completely useless as a head. Collecting energy throughout the environment will accrue into points. These can be spent on passive and defensive abilities. Sucking heads off of robots is great, but dashing through them, or using that head as a bomb is even cooler. That said fighting isn’t great to begin with. Aiming the laser and firing just doesn’t feel right as a Shepherd. And the head, while packed full of gadgets, dies too quickly to engage enemies in that context.
I was stricken by its visuals the moment Headlander started. Yet it wasn’t until I was looking at screenshots I had taken did I notice how artistically colorful the game is. Almost like a painting. Not only that, but they nail the retro, cheesy look of early space operas. The humming synths in the score complete this homage. While there are a few glitches, it runs relatively smooth and the loads, while infrequent, are super fast. It’s short, but it rarely drags, and the curiosity of exploring the next corridor is too much to ignore.
Headlander may not be Double Fine’s funniest game, but it is one of their best video games. Sure the combat can be awkward and it leans on the easier side of things, but the rest of the game is fantastic. In a world filled with Metroidvanias, Headlander nails what makes them great while introducing new techniques to the genre. Play for the experience, not the challenge.
Special Notes: The publisher provided a review code for Headlander. Check out the video review of Headlander on the accompanying YouTube Channel, ReActionExaminer.