Arriving about as far under the radar as possible without going underwater, Headlander, the latest title from developer Double Fine Productions, is in a prime position to be played in the downtime between larger releases. This neon-discopunk, sci-fi shag rug Metroidvania circa 1970 is overflowing with gorgeous visuals, but is its titular mechanic a worthwhile spin on a tried and true genre?
You start the game as… a head. You’re the last human head alive in a helmet equipped with rocket boosters. A Headlander, as you soon find out, which means you can attach yourself to various things like groovy robot citizens, ruthless soldiers, painfully-slow elevators and even little vacuum bots. The tutorial area does a great job of introducing you to what is admittedly quite an unusual mechanic and the action gets rolling at a blistering pace. For the first half hour or so I was completely enthralled and couldn’t wait to see where the game would go from there. Unfortunately Headlander never quite reaches the potential suggested by its opening.
Room-to-room progression goes off the ROYGBV colour spectrum, with weak, red soldiers being the most common, and violet soldiers being nigh unstoppable war machines. Red bodies can only pass through red doors, but violet bodies can pass through violet doors, as well as every colour preceding it on the spectrum. Combat can be hectic and at times a little frustrating, with lasers of various colours flying everywhere it becomes difficult to aim as well as avoid getting hit. If you shoot off an enemies head you can then rocket over and land on their body. This becomes important when you’re in a tight spot because that body might have more health, a better weapon or is simply in a safer part of the room. There is an upgrade system, with points gained by solving puzzles, finding hidden pickups etc. Some of these upgrades are essential, like the speed boost which gives your character a Ziggy Stardust-style outline when you run, while others I hardly ever used.
The first half of the game sees you following the orders of a bodiless voice called Earl. He asks you to tune satellites, disable elevator locks and the like, without really giving a sufficient reason as to why. This was disappointing as that blistering pace I mentioned earlier completely disappears for quite some time as you just shuffle from one area to the next. I needed more of a ‘why’ to get me started. Too many questions posed at the beginning with not enough answers to keep me engaged. It didn’t help that I found Earl’s voice acting incredibly grating. He has a Wild West sheriff-type accent and not like a cool “I’m too old for this shit” sheriff, more like one of those dopey “well, gee mister” type of sheriffs. Earl will also remind you how to progress past certain obstacles no matter how long ago you worked it out. There’s one line about a ‘covered wagon’ in relation to using your shields to get past lasers… I must’ve heard it upwards of twenty times.
Headlander’s narrative is made up of sci-fi plot beats and themes that have been executed far better by many other games. At best the humour can be described as being similar to a poor man’s Portal, complete with apologetic sentry turrets. Like that friend we all have who spouts constant nonsense, they’re bound to be occasionally funny but overall the humour is nothing to write home about. Double Fine can be hit and miss in this regard, unfortunately Headlander is a solid miss.
Despite the impression I may have left with the last few paragraphs, I did have fun playing this game. The story does pick up in the latter half and the different scenarios you have to get through are clever. One area sees you fight your way through a never-ending chess match fought by laser-wielding robots, another requires precise aiming as you bounce your lasers off a large number of pads to disable shields and open doors. I was able to 100% the game quite easily in the one playthrough, which is probably a pro for some and con for others. If you’re looking for something simple and relaxing to play while you wait for the end-of-year heavy hitters to arrive, you could do a lot worse than Headlander.