If there’s one thing I love, it’s disembodied heads. They make great ornaments, guests often begin conversations about them (even if they end up calling the police), and they’re just plain fun when you play with the rigor mortis on the faces. It’s a bit like that opening part of Super Mario 64, except you usually get a lot of maggots on your hands and you’re unable to get girls to call you back. Now, if I were to tell you that Headlander was nothing like that…would you believe me?
Yes. Yes you would.
Firstly, full disclaimer: I’ll be using the term ‘Metroidvania’ a lot in this review. For those not in the know, that title refers to a genre of game that leans itself towards the 2D labyrinth kind of deal. Lots of exploration, secrets to find, many different areas with their own unique enemies and environments, that kinda thing. It feels good to teach kiddies the way of the world sometimes.
Headlander is the latest game from the folks at Double Fine, best known for cult classic games like Psychonauts and notorious shit-stirrer Tim Schafer. If you like Metroidvania-style games and sci-fi settings remeniscent of films like Barbarella and Flash Gordon, this is the game for you. But if, like me, you enjoy playing with rotting faces you’ll walk away disappointed… and to the station. Sexy robots doing go-go dances, film grain that muddles with the colours, and very cheesy set designs are the name of the game here. Headlander makes the most of it with an equally silly premise: You control a disembodied head on a space base, fitting yourself onto all kinds of robot bodies like Robo-AIDS is the hot thing right now. Each robot body has different abilities, and there’s a ton of variety to them. At the same time, their robotic pals will catch wind of your sick fantasies and will attempt to kinkshame you with lasers. The variety here is pretty enjoyable, and the combat is never uninteresting or not fun. But with great perversion comes great power and you can switch bodies at any time. Pervert. With this, Headlander‘s combat enters the next level. I don’t think I’ve had this much dumb fun in combat for a while, and it’s very refreshing indeed. There’s nothing like besting a group of killbots then using the last one standing to dance on their scrap heaps. On the other hand, your head on its own has, in fact, got plenty of legs to stand on in terms of power. It can vaccum enemies to a death that certainly does suck, shoot charge beams, and even control an army of headless robots. Your head can be Sure, there’s no real challenge to the combat and the upgrade tree seems arbitrary most of the time, but it’s fun, and dammit that’s all a game needs to be. I don’t fancy these young ‘uns telling me about a game’s goddamn story while they play with their Digimons on my lawn.
Headlander, while taking cues from the likes of Super Metroid and Castlevania IV, is by no means a spectacular Metroidvania game. It’s much more linear than it needed to be, with clear objectives pointing you in the right direction (read: being fekkin’ annoying). Most of the fun in this genre is in the exploration of the unknown. Who knows what will happen if I choose this door or the other? What’s in there? What’s that? What does this button do? It turns your computer off, dumbass. Without it, the game feels more like an on-rails tour of a kickass dinosaur park instead of an exciting charting expedition through the local shops. The combat, while interesting, fails to take full advantage of its potential. You’ll often finding yourself sticking with the same kind of body because it’s just ahead of the competition. The upgrade tree falls into the trap of “I don’t want to, but the game does” upgrade mechanics, where you’re forced to adapt to whatever upgrade’s next even if you don’t necessarily want to. Despite its flaws, the game’s oozing with style. The visual aesthetic is a gorgeous rendition of late 70s space pulp film, with vibrant purples and oranges perfectly capturing the saturation boner of the era. The game runs pretty well on my mid-tier system, with only some minor framerate issues in hectic situations. The music is as synth-funk as I want it, which is a whole lot…and dammit, some of the jokes are funny.
Headlander leaves a lot to be desired. Its combat feels unfinished, its exploration is nearly ruined by intrusive linear design choices, and the puzzles simply aren’t fun. There’s a lot of charm to the game, however, and I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy my time with it. If you’re willing to put gameplay aside for a positively groovy fun time, give this one a shot.