In July 2016, devs at Double Fine Productions and Publisher Adult Swim Games released their Metroidvania-themed action-adventure game, Headlander. Double Fine Productions is renowned for its hit titles Psychonauts, Grim Fandango Remastered, The Cave and Broken Age. Headlander gave its first impression at the beginning of the playthrough – meeting some expectations and making false promises all at the same time.
You start off as a helmeted human head waking from stasis on board of a spaceship named Starcophagus. Speechless and unaware of your surroundings, the voice of a man named Earl brings you to consciousness. Earl, who from that point on becomes your virtual companion, then guides you towards a body for you to land in – Headlander, get it? Once you land in a body, your journey to recalling your memory starts. Your objective as the sole human on-board of an animatronic-inhabitant spaceship is to stay in touch with Earl and fight off the android guards (referred to as shepherds) of your nemesis, Methuselah.
As you progress through the game, the story gradually unfolds – but rather a bit too slowly for one’s liking. The lack of narrative progression during the first few hours of gameplay makes Headlander feel rather a bit aimless and clumsy. Without revealing any spoilers, the game does indeed have a fairly decent backstory – however if you are more into story rich gaming experiences, you probably won’t like how ill-timed the story development was.
The gameplay mechanics in Headlander are all about timing, speed, direction awareness, and precision. If you play as a flying body-less head, you use it to attach or detach from upgrade nodes and bodies, as well as vacuuming off enemies’ heads. The flying head can land into anything with a replaceable head – from animatronic droids to utility robots.
The bodies with combat capabilities are bots that belong to the “Patrol Spectrum” – armored guards with ROYGBIV colors. The more towards Violet the color of the armor is, the higher the damage the body can make to enemies and the more damage it can tolerate. For example, landing in a green armored-body will make you much stronger than when in a red one. Once you attach your head to a body, you can use of a variation of laser beam guns (depending on the body you land into) and melee attacks in order to defeat your enemies.
Throughout the game, you can use the flying head to get into smaller areas or vents, and collect floating energy points. These accumulated energy points can then be spent on upgrades such as Bounce Shield – a protective helmet shield that bounces off enemies’ laser shots, Vacuum Drive – a head-vacuuming power upgrade, as well as other updates such as helmet speed, body armor, and more. Another way to attain upgrades or energy points is by “headlanding” into trans-fiber nodes found inside the ship’s air ducts.
Bodies can be repaired at maintenance stations on the ship, thus replenishing your health. The flying head, on the other hand, has automatic health refills that are time-based. So the most important thing is to make sure that the head does not take successive hits or damage – otherwise, you’re out. One more thing that is essential is navigation – always make sure to keep the map updated and that you’re keeping an eye on it when roaming around. It’s crucial for progressing through the game’s objectives.
Now, let’s talk aesthetics. Headlander has definitely excelled at being visually smooth and striking. Despite being set in space, the game simultaneously, and gloriously, shows off an eye-popping and groovy 1970s visual theme. Graphically, Headlander is a harmonious byproduct of futuristic space art and psychedelic colors. The designers have not disappointed at all by paying attention to details. The art direction and lighting were nothing but impressive and intricate, with the use of a unique color palette.
As for sound effects, the game mostly has typical “pew pew” laser beam gun sounds and auto-tuned non-playable character voices. The “engine-failing” beeping noise triggered when the playable character dies is oh-so-memorable as well. The voice-over is one of the main immersive factors of the game – especially when the playable character has amnesia. Listening to the bewildering words of the animatronics in the environment keeps you wondering what it is that’s really going on. From voices ordering shepherds to attack, to clueless civilian bots asking about what a chalet is, the script was written to be informative and engaging. The music for the game is hypnotic, ambient and just as psychedelic as that of the ’70s.
Aside from rare performance bugs that may cause mid-game freezing or crashing, and the slow story progression, Headlander is a wacky title that is worth playing. It is guaranteed to provide hours of fun and visual bedazzlement. You can currently get Headlander 40% off on Steam for $11.99. It is also available on PlayStation 4 and was officially launched for Xbox One about a week ago. For more about Headlander, feel free to check out their website right here.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Gameplay - 7.5/10
Plot - 6/10
Design - 10/10
+ Striking visuals
+ Multiple playable armors - from first-level patrol to enforcer
+ Various exploration opportunities
+ '70s slang
- Occassional performance bugs
- Unbalanced narrative/gameplay combination, making the game slightly underwhelming