Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Adult Swim Games

Platforms: Mac, PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One

Genre: Side-scrolling Adventure (Metroidvania)

Players: 1

Completion Time: 5-10 hours

Release Date: 07/26/16

ESRB: T

Headlander




Headlander is a game founded on exactly the kind of high-concept humor you would expect from Double Fine Productions. Set in a futuristic dystopian world inspired by '70s-era science fiction, where the entirety of the human race has chosen to jettison their perishable organic anatomy in favor of uploading their consciousness into shiny robotic bodies, the game places you in the role of the last surviving flesh-and-blood human… or at least the last eight percent proportional to the original body mass of the last surviving human. You are a disembodied head, preserved in a jet-propelled astronautical helmet and equipped with a powerful vacuum, useful for sucking other heads off their robotic host-bodies so that you may dock to their vacated neck-holes and confiscate their nifty gadgetry. An evil supercomputer with one of those ominously voluminous and important-sounding biblical names—Methuselah—has installed some kind of consciousness-inhibitor in the heads of his robotic subjects, effectively keeping them in a perpetually drugged-up state—a prison of blissful ennui within the prison of cybernetic apparatus they had already invented for themselves. And so naturally, it is up to you, the last surviving meat-head, to deliver your people from their digital enslavement.

The delightful inanity is not solely confined to the game's underlying premise. Updating the information on your map display—a standard element of the Metroidvania-style of gameplay that Headlander would emulate—is accomplished by supplanting the head gratuitously attached to a glorified map terminal named Mappy, who lets his feelings about his unprovoked decapitation be none-too-ambiguously known by bleating a forlorn, "Saaaaaadddd!" as his ruthlessly discarded brainpan tumbles clangorously across the floor. All doorways linking together different sections of the space station are governed by a snarky A.I. called R.O.O.D.—which stands for… something… Routine?… Robotic Operator of Doors? I can't remember now, but it doesn't really matter, as the title is clearly just a grandiose ploy to derive a humorous acronym that reads like a homophone for its owner's defining character trait. R.O.O.D. greets you with its passive aggressive color puns and generally condescending tone every time you approach one of its doors, which are color-coded to match the hue of the sentry-bots whose bodies are encoded with the security clearance necessary to access them. You'll expel more than a couple groans of violent disdain, which your ever-so-keen perception of the finer nuances of ironic wit will retroactively modify into snorts of smug approbation, as your attempts to access a superiorly colored door with an inferiorly tinted body are berated with droll quips the like as "Not opening. Orange you glad I told you?" and "The other side of this door is amazing! I bet you're green with envy."

Of course, it's a credit to the developers' comedic craft that they would include a character with such a bombastically mundane job description as "Operator of Doors." Probably, it could even be perceived as a clever parody of the side-scrolling adventure genre, one of whose defining staples is a setting composed of an impractical concatenation of rooms and corridors (usually alleging to be some kind of castle or space station) partitioned by an equally improbable overabundance of doors. But whereas the best titles in the genre tend to employ clever acts of thematic prestidigitation to conceal their gated structure, Headlander seems content being little more than the most literal interpretation of its model's core design tenets. It's sort of like a comedy sketch that attempts to satirize the awful laugh-track-infused sitcoms of yore, but in doing so only succeeds at painstakingly imitating every contrived beat of the awful laugh-track-infused sitcoms of yore, thus effectively becoming the butt of its own joke.


"...whereas the best titles in the genre tend to employ clever acts of thematic prestidigitation to conceal their gated structure, Headlander seems content being little more than the most literal interpretation of its model's core design tenets."


Sure, even by simply striving to emulate the classic Metroidvania formula, with its emphasis on non-linear exploration and gradual RPG-like ability unlocks, the game manages to provide a satisfactory semblance of the addictive sense of progression that the genre is so adept at fostering. There was always another inaccessible gate that piqued my curiosity, and I had an enjoyable enough time scouring the space station for secret download terminals, where my wayward noggin could be temporarily docked to receive a permanent increase to my health meter or some extra energy to expend on ability upgrades. Unfortunately, the benefits provided by the upgrades themselves were seldom as compelling as the simple act of scavenging the game world for the currency necessary to purchase them. The coolest power-ups in these kinds of games are the ones that tangibly affect how the player is able to interact with her environment, removing the obstacles to her further exploration by enhancing her maneuverability—a wall jump that allows you to clamber in satisfyingly rhythmic fashion up a steep vertical incline, or a grappling hook that lets you chain a series of exhilarating oscillations across an otherwise impassable chasm. Most of Headlander's upgrades fall into either one of two categories: useful but boring, or mildly entertaining but mostly frivolous. The former tend to be of the passively beneficial variety, like faster health-regeneration or increased durability against enemy attacks, while the latter typically add gratuitous gimmicks to the combat system, like the ability to headbutt enemies, instantly ousting their heads from their necks and supplanting them with the player's own in one fell swoop. The only one that altered my interaction with the game world in any significant way was the pair of oppositely facing bounce shields, with which it became suddenly possible to proceed beyond certain laser barriers and expand my exploration of the space station's more secluded secrets.

Given the game's core concept of a disembodied head parasitizing different robotic bodies, you would have thought more effort would have been taken toward ensuring a wider array of mechanical vessels for the player to manipulate, each with its own specialized arsenal or ability-set to match the solution to some clever environmental puzzle. There are a few unique variations on the standard laser-toting sentry-bots: short, quadrupedal frames and Roomba-like janitorial droids that afford access to more diminutive portals, and boxy brutes with rubber wheels that are the only viable means of traversing electrified floors. But most of the bodies are largely interchangeable, with the only important consideration being whether the color fired from their laser canon matches that of the next door to which you need access.

Some of the robots are equipped with double, triple, and even quadruple lasers, capable of firing a broader spread of beams, but with the exception of a few late-game puzzles, the designers have failed to give them any meaningful implementation outside of carving a more efficiently devastating swath through enemy-infested corridors. Even relegated to the realm of combat, however, the use of the weaponry attached to your robotic host-bodies seems superfluous. Lasers ricochet in predictable geometric angles off the surrounding walls and surfaces, which is a neat concept in theory, boasting potential for some truly creative tactical implementations (I loved how the idea was utilized in last year's excellent Steamworld Heist, for instance). But using the laser sight to align your reflecting shots accurately is a slow and exacting process; and since you are confiscating your weapons from the decapitated remains of whatever antagonistic entity you most recently vanquished, your projectiles and those of your still-operable opponents are quite often the same color, making it nearly impossible to distinguish between incoming hostile bombardments and the harmless ricochet of your own weapon. In the end, it is usually just easier to detach into floating-head mode and use your vacuum to suction off your enemies' chrome domes. In addition to being faster and requiring less skill, this is usually the more economical method of incapacitating your foes, as it preserves their decapitated corpses for future reuse. The boss fights fare slightly better than standard combat at making full use of the player's arsenal—both your inherent abilities as a floating head and the disposable artillery provided by your mechanical hosts—but with only a grand total of two bosses serving as climactic punctuation to the game's middle and final acts, the moments of truly engaging combat are fleeting and sparse.

tl;dr(bialpos)*

  • Playing as a floating head capable of vacuuming the heads off one's robotic foes and parasitizing their mechanical corpses is an amusing concept.
  • The classic Metroidvania gameplay loop—non-linear exploration, leading to the gradual discovery of new ability upgrades, which in turn afford access to new areas to explore—is familiarly satisfying and addictive.
  • Very little effort is taken to dress up the core tenets of its Metroidvania-inspired game design. You are literally just using a series of differently color-coded keys (in the form of your slain enemies' incapacitated bodies) to advance through a series of matching-colored gates.
  • Not enough upgrades that tangibly affect how the player interacts with his environment. For a game that is all about hopping in and out of different bodies, it would have been nice if there were more kinds of robotic vessels with less interchangeable functionality.

Fans of Double Fine Productions' well-known proficiency at crafting humorous characters, storylines, and dialogue will likely be satisfied with Headlander's offering on those fronts. Fans of side-scrolling adventures, on the other hand, may be slightly disappointed by its shortcomings compared to the classics of the genre. There's plenty of fun to be had exploring the maze-like confines of the space station, but most of the ability upgrades that define one's progression through the game are either boring passive traits or useless novelties, and the central conceit of body-swapping is somewhat wasted on the hordes of largely interchangeable enemy types. Don't balk at giving it a try, however, especially if you can nab it at a reduced price during any of the ridiculous amount of sales that are occurring at any given time on at least one of the prominent gaming platforms.

*: too long; didn't read (but I'm actually literate--pahlease! omg**! seriously!

**: ow, my groin!