Release Date: July 26, 2016Platform: PS4, PC (reviewed)Developer: Double FinePublisher: Adult Swim GamesGenre: Puzzle-platformer
On paper, the story of Double Fine Productions and Adult Swim Games’ Headlander is that humanity has been taken hostage by a hostile AI (when will we learn?!?) that has transplanted all souls into imposter bots in order to build the best kind of utopia – a forced utopia. You play as the head of one of the last known humans who must aid a revolution against the AI and restore humanity.
That’s the gist of the advertised narrative. The real story of Headlander, though, is the game’s style.
Headlander doesn’t just nod its head to the retro sci-fi style of the ‘70s, it throws on a rhinestone jacket, zips up its bellbottoms, perfectly combs its slicked hair, and dives right into the most bombastic design elements of the era. While Headlander’s influences include specific sci-fi films of the decade, such as Logan’s Run and The Omega Man, most of its references are much broader. For example, you might stumble upon a room in a space station that is populated by slightly-stoned robots sitting on a lush shag carpet around an elaborate lava lamp exchanging irrelevant philosophical observations.
In comparison to a game like Blood Dragon, Headlander’s nostalgia feels less like an attempt at parody and more like a genuine display of affection for the sci-fi works of that time. There are certainly plenty of humorous moments derived from the game’s chosen aesthetics, but for the most part, the ‘70s style is used to create a fascinatingly cohesive world that doesn’t look quite like any other title. There are instances of pure spectacle in which it’s clear that Double Fine is trying to drop your jaw with their artistic abilities, but the real visual joy of Headlander comes from simply exploring the various rooms and seeing what little touches of brilliance you can find in each.
Headlander’s gameplay continues the title’s throwback theme by calling upon the sacred Metroidvania genre. Much like in those games, here you will be exploring one huge labyrinth that will eventually open itself up to you as you progress. The biggest twist that Headlander throws into the well-oiled Metroidvania machine is that your character is not an ancient warrior or space mercenary, but rather a floating a head that has the ability to take over the body of nearly every bot or roaming device in the world.
The results of this approach are a bit of a mixed bag. The primary purpose of switching characters in Headlander is to solve various puzzles by using the abilities or security clearance of your new body to explore new areas or complete some kind of task that requires multiple inputs. So far as that part of the process goes, Headlander’s gameplay is a triumph. There’s a real joy that comes from entering a new room and trying to figure out what bodies will allow you to progress. It also doesn’t hurt that most characters have some kind of unique animation or character trait that only increases your desire to possess them all.
It’s important to note, though, that you aren’t required to always occupy a body. In fact, the vast majority of areas require you to navigate various service tunnels between rooms in order to properly position yourself and occasionally acquire power-ups via secret rooms. There are times when your head’s independence can get a bit annoying as you simply look for a reason to take over as many characters as possible (the gameplay’s main draw), but for the most part, your ability to prosper as merely a floating head does help add variety to the problem-solving aspects.
The combat, however, does not benefit nearly as much from this mechanic. Most of the battles in Headlander boil down to exchanging laser blasts with enemies until someone’s head pops off. Headlander tries to add a little variety to the proceedings by allowing you to possess characters with different weapons, but with few exceptions, you’ll easily be able to get through most of the game’s action segments by bouncing your lasers perfectly from behind cover until your foes drop and you’re free to move on to the next puzzle.
Actually, many times you don’t even need to bother with that. As it turns out, your head is actually a pretty capable warrior in its own right and is capable of defeating quite a few enemies by bouncing between them and ripping their heads off. It feels like this mechanic should only be used as a kind of last resort but, much like the pistol in Halo, it’s such a capable starting weapon on its own that you really only need to abandon it in specific situations.
The fact that your floating head hero is so capable on his own also hinders the game’s character progression system. Although there is a rather deep skill tree available that can be accessed by acquiring resources, many of the skills available to you relate to slightly boosting the capabilities of your head, which either detracts from the desire to steal bodies for combat purposes or has no significant impact on the game at all. There are a few late-game abilities that will let you enhance the skills of your possessed charges, but few of them become capable of anything greater than some enhanced strength and speed. This is in contrast to most games in this genre, which use character updates as both combat enhancers and puzzle solving tools.
While Headlander does not entirely abandon that ideology, its upgrade system feels comparatively more superficial than those in a game like Guacamelee. That feeling of progression you get from watching your character evolve into an unstoppable force and that is capable of mastering a previously hostile environment with the greatest of ease that typically drives these games just isn’t as strong here.
Given that some of the traditional genre aspects of the game are a bit overcooked, your biggest reasons to see Headlander through until the end are the game’s style, it’s puzzles, and the plot. Of those three, the plot is certainly the weakest. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, but its greatest strength is its sense of humor, which is sometimes enough to bolster an otherwise fairly standard story about a rogue AI.
Actually, Headlander’s biggest weaknesses (the combat, the character progression, and sometimes the heavy-handed moments of dramatic storytelling) seem to suggest that the game would have been best designed as an adventure puzzle title similar to Portal or The Talos Principle. Double Fine seem to understand the principles behind designing a Metroidvania game, but that genre too often conflicts with their desire to implement this body-switching mechanic. The two styles just don’t work together as well as the developers clearly hoped they would, and it’s kind of a shame they didn’t focus more on the body-switching aspect, which feels like it should have been the star of the show.
The result of this approach is a rather excellent puzzle title weighed down by the tropes of another genre. While it’s certainly a shame that the game tries to do so much with its concept, you can’t discount how the best aspects of Headlander are more present than the title’s faults. Nearly every section of the game is filled with wondrous sights, intelligent design, and enough personality to ease the pain of the occasional tedium you must suffer through due to its ambitious attempts at something unique.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.