by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
Head over heels
I’ll admit I was totally wrong when trying to decipher the name of Headlander before actually knowing what the game was. A land of heads? Seemed a bit odd, but possible. Maybe it was just a cool sounding word. Little did I know the game’s title is about as descriptive as it needs to be. You are the Headlander. You are a head, and you land on things. It’s a metroid-vania style game from the folks at Double Fine, and while it’s a new type of game for the developer, the charm and humour is definitely recognisable.
Set in the future, or at least a vision of the future you’d expect from a 20th century sci-fi TV show, Headlander takes place in a setting where humanity is all but nonexistent. Humans have uploaded their brains into the cloud, and can inhabit robot bodies to perform tasks in the real world. However, an evil AI (there’s always an evil AI) named Methuselah has taken control of these robot bodies, trapped the humans’ consciousness inside, and enslaved them. You play as the last surviving human who has been cryogenically frozen. Having awoken from your slumber, you not only realise you can’t remember anything about what’s happening (there’s always some amnesia involved), but you also don’t exactly have a body.
No body means no lungs, and as such you have a silent protagonist who is male or female, depending on your preference. Most of the talking is done by Earl, who acts as your faceless guide and narrator, speaking to you through a radio in your helmet. His hillbilly accent and demeanour feels out of place in this futuristic setting, and as such plenty of humour can be derived from his voice lines. Pronouncing “data” as “dater,” and even the subtitles spelling it wrong, he’ll chime in from time to time with instructions and corny sayings. It’s obvious a comedic vibe is being targeted here, and although there are a few laugh out loud moments, it all too often falls flat.
Headlander stands up on its interesting, and fairly unique gameplay. It follows the same sort of game loop as a Metroid-vania style game, where you’ll be exploring 2D environments, fighting enemies, and unlocking and enhancing new abilities. Every so often you’ll come up against an obstacle you have no way of passing, but come back later with the right skill set and you’ll be able to make it through. It follows a familiar pattern, and one which might become stale if it weren’t for the actual act of “headlanding.”
In your own head
Your floating head has a rocket booster, of course, and if you come across a robot body without a head, you can pop yourself straight into it and start behaving like it. Hop into a civilian’s body and they can at least go through doors and use teleportation pads. However many of the doors on this station require security clearance to go through, and they’re colour coded in a hierarchy. To go through a red door, you’ll need to be inhabiting a red body. If you have an orange body, you can go through both orange and red doors. In order, you’ll be going from red, orange, yellow, green, blue up to violet, which will allow you to go through any door. How do you get into the bodies of these various security cleared robots? Well you use your gravity beam to suck off their heads, of course.
The gravity beam is one of your four main abilities which you’ll unlock and upgrade throughout the game, and it’s highly useful. It’ll let you pull a hatch open to explore deeper into the space station, and it’ll even be super useful in combat. When inhabiting a robot, you can use whatever weapon it might have. But why use a gun when you can completely incapacitate your enemies by sucking their heads off? Other head abilities include being able to power up your rocket boosters to actually do damage when you smash into things, rather than weakly bouncing off. Later on in the game you’ll even be able to zap “dead” robots back to life, and headland into them.
Ahead of the pack
The game generally revolves around you headlanding into the correct type of body, and taking it to where you need to be while keeping it safe from harm. This can be easier said than done in some situations, particularly when there are multiple enemies and their laser beams fill up the screen like an arcade bullet hell game. New abilities come along at a fresh pace, but the actual gameplay doesn’t change that much as you progress through the game. It’ll take around 5-6 hours to complete, and that’s a good length to ensure Headlander doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Headlander occupies a space of being a game which is a great deal of fun to play to completion over a weekend. While some of the game mechanics are fairly unique, it’s not trying to do anything complex. Anyone who’s played this type of game before will feel right at home from the early going, and although some sections are difficult, they shouldn’t have any trouble progressing through the game at a good pace. It’s a shame some of the story sections and dialogue aren’t funnier, but that doesn’t stop Headlander being a game well worth your time.
Unique take on an old genre, good style
Gameplay can become repetitive when you get into a rhythm, humour is lacking in spots