Double Fine’s latest effort is an inventive platformer with a retro aesthetic that takes its inspiration from kitschy Seventies Sci-Fi films like Logan’s Run. As soon as you boot the game up you’re confronted by a delightfully anachronistic title screen accompanied by a foreboding synth driven track that effortlessly segues into cheesy elevator music once you select an option; if there’s one thing that Headlander nails it’s evoking a suitable atmosphere.
You play Winters, ostensibly the last surviving human in a universe populated by robots. Upon being awoken from stasis by an omnipotent voice who refers to itself as Earl, you try to scream but find that you’re unable to emit a sound due to missing your lungs… And your entire body, for that matter. Yep, technically the main character in Headlander is a disembodied head, but you soon find that this isn’t the impediment that you’d expect; encased in a helmet equipped with jet thrusters, you’re capable of zipping about the place until you find a suitable robotic body to attach yourself to and gain control of its functions.
There aren’t too many headless bodies just lying around the place, however, so you’ll have to make use of another of your helmet’s abilities – Using its suction pump in order to forcibly tear the head clean off of some unwitting robot denizen of the space station you’re tasked with exploring, making finding a suitable host an easy process.
You’ll soon be thankful for how easy it is to take control of a body as you’ll spend most of your time with Headlander transferring between multiple bodies with the speed and efficiency of a particularly tenacious head louse. As you’d expect, there’s something foul afoot in this dystopian universe, with the robotic population ruled over by an oppressive AI referred to as Methuselah, who employs an army of military bots and spider-like machines called Shepherds to patrol the space stations and quell any form of uprising.
These enemies are colour coded and can access certain sections of the environment that are closed off to ordinary citizens, making possessing them your top priority. There’s also an escalating tiered element to the colour coding system – Red robots can only gain access though red door, but orange can access orange and red areas, all the way up to purple, who have full access to every area
Headlander is, at its core, reminiscent of similar Metroidvania games, meaning that you’ll be doing a lot of backtracking and exploring as you unlock new abilities and upgrades for your helmet that grant access to previously inaccessible areas. Most of these upgrades are hidden away in ventilation shafts but you’ll also gain points that you can use to level up your skill tree, granting new abilities. These include being able to headbutt an enemy and instantly take control of their body, project a forcefield capable of deflecting laser beams and hack enemies to make them your minions.
The degree of ability versatility is admirable but you’ll most likely rely on a few tried and true methods throughout your playthrough; for instance, I never once used a minion or made my former body a sentry and I still had no issues with completing the game. As a head you’re fairly vulnerable to attack and barely able to take three hits but jumping onto a body affords you with substantially more health and the ease with which you can switch bodies means that you’re never left defenseless for long.
You’ll be popping your noggin off quite a bit, however, whether it’s to compensate for the bodies being incapable of jumping or to navigate through narrow air shafts and between laser turrets, so it’s a good thing that the controls feel responsive and intuitive in this respect. You also need to jack into different machinery, such as gravilifts and long distance zappers that make traversal of the relatively large maps that little bit easier.
Considering the pedigree behind the game, Headlander’s quirky central concept isn’t expanded upon narrative-wise in as humourous a manner as you’d expect; the plot is fairly threadbare, although there are some twists in the latter stages, and most of the comedy comes from the constant moaning of the security system that controls the doors. It’s solid enough but, to be honest, I was expecting more laughs from a Double Fine game.
Thankfully the engaging gameplay more than makes up for this. Certain sections even see you facing off against well designed bosses or partaking in a particularly violent variation of chess, ensuring that you never get too bored with traversing through the levels and unlocking new areas. There are also side missions you can undertake, although these are fairly few and far between; locating and then taking control of a robotic puppy in order to complete one of them would definitely have to be one of the highlights of the game for me.
Headlander is a relatively short game, offering a campaign that falls just under five hours, although you can then continue after the credits in order to collect any upgrades you may have missed. This is a good thing though – It doesn’t outstay its welcome. Gameplay is more geared towards puzzle solving rather than combat, however, so be aware that although you’ll often take part in frenetic shootouts you’ll also have to put your noodle to good use if you want to make it through the game and square off against Methuselah.
With an inventive central mechanic, terrific level design and a retro-futuristic aesthetic, Headlander is probably Double Fine’s most “gamey” game yet, eschewing the narrative elements for a more streamlined playing experience. The combat is the game’s weakest component but is still relatively enjoyable and even with the stripped back storyline the game still manages to engage and even elicit a few giggles from the player throughout.
By narrowing their focus, Double Fine have crafted probably their most cohesive and mechanically sound game to date, one that takes its gimmicky concept and executes it to perfection.
Tight, refined control system
Inventive level and boss design
Combat is a little weak
Map system makes discovery a tad too easy
Campaign is fairly short