Platforms PC, PS4
Developer Double Fine Productions
Publisher Adult Swim Games
Release Date September 13, 2016

Headlander is a very literal title, as it turns out. You play as the disembodied head of the last organic lifeform in the galaxy. Both given life and flying around in an astronaut helmet with a rocket attached to the bottom. You can land on robot bodies to take control of them, thus everyone in the game starts calling you “Headlander”. And if a body is already occupied with a head? No worries, you can use your helmets suction-device-thingy to suck it off and replace it. Or purchase an upgrade that lets you headbutt enemies and replace their head with yours.

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That’s Headlander’s thing – it’s packed full of ideas that are really cool, or features that sound awesome. I mean, there’s a musical number/battle sequence halfway through the game set to Joan Baez’s Rejoice in the Sun. The problem with Headlander is that all of these cool ideas or moments are surrounded by a game that’s just monotonous to actually play. I can appreciate all of the cool parts, but getting through the main meat of the game is a slog.

Let’s start with the main core gameplay mechanic – headlanding. After a brief tutorial mission, you arrive on a giant space station that serves as the setting for this Metroidvania adventure. There are plenty of areas that are blocked off from progress, only instead of acquiring upgrades to move forward, you need to hijack different coloured robot bodies to go through certain doors. The security in this space station is on a colour spectrum, with robots being colour-coded.

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It’s a really interesting way to gate the different areas of the game. You need a red robot body to get through any red doors, but if you want to get through doors higher on the spectrum then you need a body with higher security clearance. The robot bodies are pretty fragile too, so if you’re trying to make a long trip with a single robot body, things are going to get tense really quickly. But it’s a cool mechanic that tasks you with thinking your next moves, and carefully shooting heads off enemies rather than obliterating them (though this comes with its own set of problems).

Each time you make it to a new environment the game opens out into a series of intricate, complex puzzle arenas. Making progress takes thought, forward planning and a whole lot of backtracking. Most of these areas aren’t anything too special, just giant mazes of corridors and lifts that need to be explored in a certain order, but there are flashes of great ideas hidden in them. A mid-game section involving a chess-based deathmatch that sees you needing to take control of certain body types and ferry data back and forth is really well done. But for the most part the levels aren’t anything too special.

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The environments are extremely repetitive. They’re all essentially the same corridors and lifts, but with a new splash of paint over them each time you enter a new area. There’s nothing to distinguish any of the environments from one another. The space station in Headlander is fairly nondescript and the whole game starts bleeding together into one tedious trek through some sterilised space corridors.

This is married to some combat mechanics that switch between varying shades of boring and frustrating. All of the robots are armed with lasers, and all of these lasers bounce off the various walls, floors and ceilings you’ll find in Headlander. When you go to aim a shot you’ll be presented with a line showing you where your laser blast is going to travel, and because the levels have been designed with this in mind you’ll need to work out your angles if you want to have any hope of shooting robots.

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Of course they’re shooting right back at you and their lasers also bounce off everything. If you’re fighting more than one enemy combat devolves into a chaotic mess fairly quickly, and these robots will find their target really easily. Aside from making the limited cover system in the game completely useless, this also means you need to keep moving to avoid getting your body blown up. However moving makes aiming next to impossible, since you’re trying to line up your shots the way an expert snooker player lines up a trick shot.

There is a way around all of this though – just ditch the bodies altogether. By flying around as a disembodied head you can avoid the angle-based laser combat entirely. All you need to do is dodge the incoming laser fire, fly above your chosen target and suck its head clean off. You’ll probably take some damage in the process, as when you get too close the enemies will swat at you as you would an annoying fly, but it gets the job done without having to worry about angles and maths and stuff.

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Trouble is, it’s an incredibly boring way to play Headlander. Just zipping about as a disembodied head hoovering up other robots heads isn’t all that enjoyable after the first few times. So it mostly comes down to whether you want to experience combat in a frustrating way or a boring way. I think that’s exactly what Sophie had to choose between too.

There are also a couple of boss fights that suffer a similar fate – they’re interesting in theory but boring in practice. Both are way too easy and both last too long. The sense of boredom isn’t helped by NPC’s throwing the same few lines at you over and over again. Enemy NPC’s (even bosses) will just shout the same half dozen catchphrases at you over and over again. It’s a shame because the presentation is largely spot on otherwise.

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The story is daft, but the whole game is modelled after a retro Sci-Fi B-movie, right down to the soundtrack, sound effects and art design. Special mention has to go out to the Joan Baez musical interlude, though I’m not sure many of the target audience will get the reference. But Headlander ultimately isn’t helped by the fact that it just isn’t funny. It wants to be, and it’s painfully obvious that it’s trying to be.

But aside from Joan Baez there’s just nothing that really tickled my funny bone. Headlander is trying so hard to be the typical Double Fine game, with the typical Double Fine sense of humour, that it comes off as forced. The end result is that rather than feeling like a funny Double Fine game, it feels like subpar fan fiction by someone who knows that Double Fine games are funny, but doesn’t get why.

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As for the rest of the game itself – it’s your standard Metroidvania. You can unlock secret passages to collect helmet upgrades, giving you boosts to your health, speed and so on. And there’s an upgrade system governed by “energy” – which is Headlander’s version of XP. This allows you to unlock some pretty cool upgrades, like the aforementioned headbutting one, or allowing you to regenerate your health or boost your head speed. As with the rest of the game it’s all standard stuff, and the upgrades that are cool don’t really make a difference to the game as a whole.


Summary

Headlander is a game with a few good ideas, wrapped inside a series of mediocre design decisions. A promising start quickly gives way to an average, fairly boring Metroidvania game. There are some cool ideas here. Tying progression to taking over colour-coded enemy bodies rather than via in-game power-ups is a smart move, but the method you use to get those bodies – the actual act of playing the game – veers between boring and frustrating and rarely ever improves long enough for you to notice. The game also tries to be funny. A lot. But mostly it just comes across as forced and more than a little awkward. There was potential in Headlander, but that potential is quickly swallowed by boredom and buried under a mountain of dull, lifeless repetition. 

5


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