“What did I just play?”
Those five words came out of my mouth the moment Headlander’s credits started to roll. Based on my news posts on Headlander in the past, I knew I was in for a unique experience, but I never thought I’d be playing a Metroidvania filled with quirky humor with inspiration from classic 1970s sci-fi action films.
The description of Headlander might give you a headache, but it all blends together in a way that shows off the quirkiness of both Double Fine and Adult Swim Games. Although it could take some pointers from other Metroidvania games to offer a much more user-friendly experience.
Where’s Your Head At?
In Headlander, the player wakes up as a disembodied head inside of a helmet equipped with rockets to help with navigation. You’re the last known human in the universe -- well, what’s left of you -- and you set out to find clues to your fractured past through a world filled with hostile robots. Things aren’t all bad as humanity now lives within perfect robot bodies, essentially making them immortal and free from worry, disease, and fatigue, but it turns out, they’re not free at all as they’re ruled by an advanced AI known as Methuselah.
Headlander will literally have you ripping the heads off of various robots in order to place your disembodied head on top of their body, which will allow you complete control. Some bodies won’t do much more than serve as a vessel for you to navigate through the world, while others will equip you with lasers, melee weapons, and even map layouts. These security droids, known as Sentinels, are color coded, allowing them access to certain doors. If you have the correct color, you can pass. If not, you’ll be told to buzz off by the door with some color-coded wordplay humor. It certainly made me GREEN with envy each time it happened.
As is the case with the majority of Metroidvania games, you’ll be spending much of your time early on improving your abilities. You’ll be able to improve the power of your vacuum, allowing you to rip the heads off of robotic bodies at a greater distance, earn regenerative capabilities for each body you land onto, and turn bodies into walking turrets. Upgrades are earned either by finding them in a level, or by using energy scattered throughout the game in order to upgrade base abilities. Headlander offered a nice, eventual increase in your abilities, both as a head and when connected to a body, that didn’t make me feel overpowered early on. But after a few hours, I was able to take down opponents with ease.
As much as I enjoyed the overall experience of Headlander, there were a few blemishes that could have been ironed out in order to offer a better experience. One area I feel needs improvement is the ability to fast travel via large kiosks located in specific locations. These kiosks mention the location you can fast travel to, but as someone who is terrible with names, I would have preferred to be shown a map of where I would travel to. Just seeing the names of locations kept me guessing where I would end up, which often caused me to waste time as I usually ended up in the wrong location.
If you’re a fan of the quirky games both Double Fine and Adult Swim Games create, then you’ll feel right at home with Headlander as it’s completely filled with humor from start to finish. Much of what you’ll interact with will have some kind of witty comment, funky dance move, or unique interaction that kept me guessing every time. Unfortunately, I felt a disconnect with Headlander’s story as I didn’t care much about the protagonist, his struggle to learn about what happened to humanity, and those around him that look to him for salvation. I don’t mind a good chuckle every so often, but in a game where I’m the only human, I would have liked some more backstory or something to help me feel a stronger connection to my floating head.
There also weren’t many moments where I was held back by the lack of an upgrade, which is a staple for those Metroidvania games that receive critical acclaim as it helps keep things challenging throughout the entire game. I’d say the first quarter of the game offered this feel, but it then relies heavily on color-coded doors in order to lock me away from progressing further. This was easily solved by securing my head onto the proper Sentinel body.
Headlander proves to be a nice distraction in the midst of the Summer drought season as I enjoyed its humor from start to finish. While its humor helped carry me to the end, the literal disconnect of the character's head from his body turned into a figurative disconnect as its story wasn’t engaging enough. It has some nice Metroidvania moments, although it sputters towards the end to only rely on its color-coded components to keep me out of certain areas, which felt like a cheap way to finish the game.
They say two heads are better than one, which I was hoping to be true considering I really enjoy games developed by both Double Fine and Adult Swim Games. But in this case, Headlander didn't live up to my expectations.
This review is based on a PC code provided by the publisher. Headlander will be available on PlayStation 4 and PC on July 26, 2016, for $19.99.