Headlander Review: A Space Od-head-sy
Falling somewhere between the “action” and “adventure” genres, the sub-genre often called “Metroidvania” — combining the exploration and puzzle-based nature of games like Metroid and Castlevania — is one that’s often been imitated, and (usually) to great effect: both of these titles have long been seen as staples, and the standard to which many others have been compared against.
That brings us to Headlander, a title that shares more than a passing resemblance (and shares many influences) with those two games, easily falling in to the “Metroidvania” camp at just a first glance with its space-inspired setting and robo-suit wearing protagonist that may have similarities to a certain Nintendo bounty hunter.
Of course, neither of those games involved players taking on the role of a disembodied head that can attach/reattach onto unsuspecting enemies at will, and that being where Headlander brings in plenty of other influences, mechanics, and a hearty dose of weird, quirky humor to put it ahead of the rest. (Sorry for the “head” pun – there will probably be many, many more coming)
Headlander at its heart is a Metroidvania-styled action-adventure game, infused with style that’s ripped right from classic 1960s/1970s-era science-fiction: fans of the greats like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run will find much to love here. Headlander is lit in bright neon colors, and adorned with retro-futuristic designs (I hope you like 70s-styled shag carpeting), and a soundtrack that plays like a well-worn vinyl or an 80s mixtape with the best tunes of the era: synthesizer and all.
After choosing one of three different characters, players begin Headlander as a disembodied astronaut that wakes up without any memory (or a body, for that matter), and winding up in a trippy, dystopian space station where human existence has been replaced with robot bodies. Humanity itself has exchanged physical forms for robotic bodies that allow them to extend their lifespans, and the player will explore this brave new world and uncover its secrets, along with finding a way to rid the galaxy of its overbearing AI dictator, Methuselah.
As its name so effectively implies, the core gameplay mechanic of Headlander is the use of the player’s disembodied head to…well — land on things. Equipped with a rocket booster (a la Lunar Lander) and a vacuum, players will have to use their heads (literally and figuratively) to find secret passageways, defeat enemies, and unlock new areas to explore the space station.
Like the classic structure of the “Metroidvania” genre, Headlander emphasizes exploration and discovery in progressing through the game, with players able to grab upgrades to their character’s abilities, health, and more. The real joy of the game, however, comes from using the player’s head to find every nook and cranny in each area, whether it’s rocketing through a secret vent, or sucking up enemy noggins and taking over their bodies for your benefit — clearly the way of the future (or at least the one that Headlander depicts).
While gathering new abilities and exploration is the core of the Headlander experience, the backbone is in using the head to take over enemy bodies and using them to open up new pathways and doors. With pathways locked down by color-coded doors, progression will largely depend on arena-like puzzle rooms, where players will have to figure out the most effective routes, scoop up the right enemy body to pass through a door, and navigate tricky puzzles or uncover hidden areas.
The basic cycle of Headlander is one that will be very familiar to players of “Metroidvania”-styled games, but the true appeal of the game comes through in its presentation and especially its humor. As a collaboration between developer Double Fine Productions and publisher Adult Swim Games, it really made me wonder how the studios hadn’t worked together before, with Headlander being a perfect mix of what each of the companies are known for.
I’ve never been one for the very particular way that Double Fine’s previous adventure games have played (such as Grim Fandango and Broken Age), yet the puzzle/platforming combination of Headlander gave me a much more enjoyable gameplay experience that still features the incredibly unique wit and charm that Double Fine have been known for (and that have made me enjoy their games, despite their odd gameplay “quirks”). Of course, that’s only been complimented here with the collaboration of Adult Swim Games, which adds an appropriate dose of “WTF” that Adult Swim has made their calling card for nearly 15 years.
Headlander is as much an absurd action-adventure game as it is a love letter to campy 1970s sci-fi, with the game embracing its own cheesiness in ways that are both clever and (more often than not) hilarious. From the kitschy 1970s sci-fi designs of its world and characters, Headlander goes a step beyond just parody by having fun with the premise and making an experience that pays homage to classic sci-fi, rather than just using it as window dressing for the sake of it.
I found myself getting plenty of good laughs out of the game’s locations and crass humor, such as the early game location of the “Pleasure Dome” (and its accompanying Trophy, “Probe the Pleasure Dome”) and its band of risqué robots. Headlander also gives plenty of opportunities for Double Fine’s trademark quirkiness to shine through, such as the turrets that will profusely apologize as they shoot your character, or having to land your character’s head on a robodog or space Roomba to crawl through smaller crevices.
More often than not, Headlander backs up its sci-fi and retro-inspired premise with solid gameplay and mixing exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving in a way that keeps the experience well-paced and fairly lengthy (having clocked in between 8-10 hours to finish the campaign). It’s mostly smooth-sailing when it comes to opening up new areas and collecting power-ups, yet some of the gameplay mechanics and design don’t quite measure up to the impeccable art direction and recreation of the 1970s sci-fi that Headlander lovingly references.
The combat in Headlander in particular can be problematic in some cases, as shooting and using cover can feel finicky and not quite as responsive when compared against something like Metroid. In using the right analog stick to guide a player’s laser and having to reflect the beams off different surfaces to hit enemies, Headlander‘s controls can sometimes get in the way of trying to pull off precise shots or tricks, leading to some frustrating moments when taking on enemies (or especially large groups of them).
More often than not, I found detaching the head and sucking off the enemies (Yes, you read that right) to be a bit more of a practical solution, especially when the character’s body can be destroyed fairly easily against a room full of enemies. Even as I collected more abilities and power-ups to help deal with this problem a bit more effectively, many of the abilities in Headlander are useful in more specific situations and less practical throughout the whole game. That isn’t to say though that they aren’t all useful — I don’t think I can ever stop getting a kick out of turning my character’s body into a walking timebomb against enemies and getting the hilariously explosive results as his head jettisons away to safety.
That’s compounded by some other instances of uneven difficulty spikes that can pop up in Headlander, which can go a bit dramatically between light puzzle solving and leading players into confusing level design or having to figure out where to go next. Likewise, Headlander‘s brief encounters with boss fights come off more on “frustrating” than fun side, with a particularly troublesome final stretch with a boss that quickly became less challenging and more of a headache than I would have liked (or my character’s disembodied head, for that matter).
While the game does have a few slight irritations when it comes to its design, Headlander still manages to keep its head on its shoulders (or traveling through space via rocket propulsion) thanks to its eclectic blend of old-school, side-scrolling gameplay and its art direction that sci-fi fans will truly enjoy. Though it shares more similarities with the likes of Metroid, Logan’s Run, and so many of its other influences than it may for something completely new, Double Fine and Adult Swim Games have still managed to make Headlander into an experience that’s funny, delightfully weird, and might just make your head turn.