Review: Headmaster

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For the launch of PlayStation VR, Frame Interactive has managed to take a simple concept and flesh it out into a wonderful and mysterious virtual reality game known as Headmaster. After this, I’ll never look at the sport of soccer (or football) in the same way.

Headmaster throws players into the Football Improvement Center, which is basically a prison facility where heading a soccer ball into a net is compulsory. What makes the game stand out is the humorous narrative that goes along with the straightforward gameplay. Using your head, strapped into a PSVR headset, to hit balls back into a net or at various targets is fun for a few minutes at a time, but getting players to want to keep heading away for more than that requires a hook. This game has that hook in the form of a compelling, witty storyline.

Set at night, on a soccer pitch with a solitary stadium light providing a view to the net, the game immediately has an air of mystery about it. A scoreboard in the distance shows how well a player is doing with their score, while a loudspeaker broadcasts exclamations of encouragement or random non sequiturs that act as the focus while heading soccer balls becomes almost second nature. The key to playing Headmaster, however, isn’t using just your head. The game goes out of its way to make sure you are bending at the waist and moving the entire torso with the head and neck, using proper soccer technique, to reduce strain and injury.

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Headmaster follows a model similar to that of many modern casual/mobile games, with each stage offering up to three stars for managing to earn certain high score tiers. Stars are collected to then unlock Exam levels, which cumulate the skills learned over the previous challenges and are much more difficult than each individual stage. Upon gaining three stars on certain levels (or maybe it’s an accumulation of a specific number of stars—the game doesn’t give any specific clue as to which is the true reason for the reward) random objects are launched at the player, which end up being used as decorations in the room players are forced to sleep in when not practicing their header. Some of these objects are useful, like a boom box or guitar, while others are simply hilarious to see flying through the air with the intention of being headed, like a large iron anvil or a hanging row of clacking metal marbles.

As much fun as Headmaster is, it is also very challenging and physically demanding. Either that or I’m just old and now lack the necessary reflexes and muscle memory to actually become a true master of heading virtual soccer balls, because I can’t even get passed the second of four exams. Which highlights one potential problem with playing any VR game, the requiring of physical coordination that not all players will ever learn or be able to master. Playing a game that is twitch based with a controller isn’t nearly as challenging to master compared to a game that requires physical activity. At least Headmaster doesn’t require moving all around.

Even though Headmaster is a bit physically grueling, the cheeky humor is what will keep you coming back for more. The prison warden broadcasts to the player through a loud speaker at the start of each new stage. Sometimes those broadcasts are straightforward, while others reveal glimpses that something isn’t quite right at the so-called Football Improvement Center. The warden is a bumbling buffoon, prideful about his program while not being able to actually operate any of the equipment he’s is in charge of.

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Each stage is designed to teach players different techniques for heading the ball. A highly technical wooden tablet (aka a clipboard) allows players to look down during a stage, effectively pausing the action so players can choose to restart the level or return to their room. As the game progresses, notes left by the warden’s helper Carl are mysteriously added to the clipboard. At first the notes are simply messages of encouragement, but soon they shed new light on the business of the warden as well as the prison at large. The notes are a humorous reward beyond completing a stage and add further fuel to the notion that things are not quite what they appear to be on the surface.

One of the funnier aspects to the game is the way that a large sheet of plywood, painted with a vague silhouette of a goalie, becomes a true nemesis to contend with. Hitting certain targets provides additional balls that are strapped with dynamite. Later on, the nemesis goalie returns, rebuilt and repainted because of said explosive balls. Other targets include floating balloons with extremely high point values, golden balls that double the point value for hitting any target, and multi balls, which explode into a shower of smaller soccer balls when deflected back at the goal. One gag that never gets old is a port-a-potty that randomly appears and, when it, knocks open while a dummy falls out.

Headmaster brings together an enjoyable game mechanic with a mysterious atmosphere that is presented with layers of humorous glee. While there isn’t a super in depth VR “feel” to the game–looking around the soccer pitch only highlights a dark sky with a random cloud and raven flying around–the hands-free gameplay wouldn’t be possible without the light tracking that the PSVR headset provides. Later stages are definitely a demanding physical challenge, but learning how to best head a soccer ball and discovering new layers of the story makes the effort and grind worth it.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Witty humor throughout
+ Quick stages are perfect for short, physical play sessions
+ Fun concept

Cons:
– Hard to be precise hitting some targets
– Difficulty ramps up to somewhat extreme levels
– Physical neck strain can occur if not played correctly

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation VR for PlayStation 4
Publisher: Frame Interactive
Developer: Frame Interactive
Release Date: 10/13/2016
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1 player story, 2-6 player local group turn play

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: PlayStation Store for $19.99. A 10% discount is available to PlayStation Plus subscribers for a limited time.

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.