Review: Headlander

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Headlander is a side-scrolling sci-fi romp about a floating human head in search of its body. The head is encapsulated in a jet-powered helmet that can rocket boost through the air as well as vacuum suck items out of place. Typically, the vacuum power is used to dislocate the heads of robot enemies so that (as the title of the game would suggest) the head can land in their empty neck holes and take control of their bodies. Enemy robots not only provide a place to land, but also play an integral role in how movement around the environment is handled.

Using the rainbow scheme of ROYGBV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet), doorways are color coded and only robots of that particular color (or right of that color in the scheme) may pass. For example a red robot may only pass through a red door, but an orange robot may pass through both red and orange. This type of gatekeeping feeds into the overall “Metroidvania” style of level design, where there is clearly a way to access a room, yet the level of robot clearance isn’t available until the story develops further and introduces green, blue, or violet robots so you can access what’s behind gates of those colors.

One of the neat things about this heady design is the fact that the robots aren’t just the same type of robot with a different color skin. There is a fairly large selection of robot types to land on, each offering a unique feel for both movement as well as attack. Some robots are fast and lanky, while others are gangly and skittish, motoring around on roller-skate-powered chassis. Military grade robots are armed with various laser bolts that can fire as a single, double, or triple blast, or a wild multi-spread rain of death. A menagerie of mutant-like bots are introduced as the story progresses (which are mostly for show, but there is a side quest mission requiring these oddities to be corralled for research).

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Moving throughout the environment, energy spheres can be collected to unlock power-ups to the helmet, in addition to nodes which provide health and shield increases. Helmet upgrades provide damage boosts for weapons attached to robots as well as the ability to rocket boost through groups of enemies to blow them up. Melee attacks can be increased in damage, and there’s an ability to recharge the health of the robot bodies that have been landed on. One of the cool late game upgrades is the ability to trigger a spectrum shield (which diminishes the energy of the shield meter so it can’t be used indefinitely) and almost acts like an invisibility that just looks badass.

While the mechanics are fun and provide a thoughtful progression that really encourages exploring all aspects of the world to find every upgrade possible, the game wouldn’t be as good as it is without the story framing the player’s actions. Playing as the floating head (at the beginning the game allows players to select one of three faces—I picked the female head and strangely can’t imagine playing the game and having the story impact as much as it did if I had picked one of the male choices), a quest is presented to defeat Methuselah and find the rest of the player’s body. While the story isn’t exactly original, the stylized 70s sci-fi presentation adds so much greatness that the shortcomings can be easily overlooked. A retro-vibe oozes from each area that is simply a treat to explore. Citizen robots can be talked to and their conversations add a wonderful flavor that further enriches the atmosphere.

Keeping with the 70s look, the music also conveys a synth-pop style that is both gothic and disco at the same time. Headlander is a wonderful game that has a compelling enough story, wonderful environments, intuitive controls and gameplay that rewards players for exploring and collecting everything as the story progresses. Never did I feel like I was spending too much time exploring new areas or trying to figure out environmental puzzles. 

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My only real complaint is how easily some areas feel overwhelming when it comes to combat. As mentioned earlier, military robots become a method for controlling and navigating through the world. At times, however, there are rooms that feel unbalanced with the number of robots converging on your floating head, or there is an absolute chaotic number of laser bolts zipping and bouncing around the level at any given moment. While hovering around as simply the head, the left stick controls flight direction, and the right stick can be used to put up a shield to deflect bolts, but the barrage of laser death is almost enough to send an epileptic into fits. I played this on PS4 and found that in a few locations, the frame rate would dip dramatically below the normal smooth 30+ frames per second. This wasn’t simply because of the number of enemies on screen, but also due to the visual effects being applied to the game.

Story progress eventually leads the Headlander into several boss battles, and each boss battle feels really good. These bosses mix up direct attacks with environmental puzzles and utilize all of the weapon and head upgrades that are provided along the way. I cannot stress enough how smartly the game is designed. Once the game is complete, the game allows players to go back and perform “clean-up” to find any missing power-ups or explore missed rooms while playing through initially.

Headlander is a great game. It’s not perfect of course, but it is yet another Double Fine gem that should not be overlooked. The art style, music, story, and gameplay all work so well together and provide an immensely fun and satisfying gaming experience. Fans of Metroidvania games have plenty to look forward to exploring all the nooks and crannies and discovering every hidden room. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have just a few trophies left to unlock for the platinum. Time to head back in for more!

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Smart, heady game design
+ Fun environment navigation
+ Interesting 70s-style sci-fi story and presentation

Cons:
– Combat can feel overwhelming at times

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also on PC
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Release Date: 7/26/2016
Genre: Action-Adventure / Metroidvania
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: PlayStation Store or Steam for $19.99. Headlander also is currently part of the Play 2016 PlayStation Store promotion.

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.