Making decapitation fun!
In gaming, the protagonist’s head being removed from their body usually signifies the end of the story. In Headlander, it’s the core mechanic. Headlander also differs from the canon in one other key way: it’s a 2D platformer where you can’t jump. I generally loathe fitting games into obscure sub-genres, but I suppose the closest one you could fit Headlander into would be a “Metroidvania” with its focus on moving from screen-to-screen on a 2D plane, and a map helping you backtrack around. However, I’m pretty sure that jumping is a fundamental part of most Metroidvanias! Instead, your means of conveyance is launching your head off your body to land on a new one. “Headlander” is an exciting new genre in itself, and it’s one Double Fine Productions have kicked off with great gusto.
Headlander casts you as a disembodied head in a dystopian future; where humanity now live within robotic bodies, carefully controlled by the totalitarian Methuselah. The setting grooves with a seventies-style retro-futurist ambience (like a much less serious Alien: Isolation). It’s downright impressive how well Double Fine manages to evoke and satire the science fiction of the disco era: robots with flares and afros; corridors coloured earthy tones of beige; supercomputers storing data in whirring tape decks and spacebound chalets. There’s one section of the game that perfectly mirrors the bleak scenarios of the decade: where you’re at the mercy of a Russian supercomputer that forces two armies of robots to fight an eternal game of chess – with guns.
This nightmarish arena has some of Headlander’s most fiendish puzzles where you’ll be assuming the body of black or white robots and escorting them to the other end of the “board” – forming temporary alliances with robots of the same colour which switch instantly when you change your body. I couldn’t help but be impressed by how innovative this was. Your body-switching isn’t simply a gimmick, but part of Headlander’s interactive exploration of ephemeral identity.
Speaking of which – bringing the fight to Methuselah requires a good bit of bodily possession. At any given time, you can launch your head off your body and fly it around. You can then hoover off the head of any robots you find, and plug yourself onto its body. Taking possession of a robot’s body will allow you to open various colour-coded doors you find, and this forms the basis for the puzzles. For example: you might be unable to pass a yellow door on one platform, so to get through, you’ll have to fly your head over to a yellow robot on a higher platform, appropriate its body, fire a yellow lazer at the door to open it, and boost yourself back through it before it closes again. Things only get more complex with the addition of electrified floors which only heavy-duty bots can traverse.
Headlander features a good bit of character building to augment its puzzling. You’ll find orbs of blue glowy energy which give you points to upgrade your airborne noggin. The boost upgrade, which lets your head rocket even faster, is particularly handy to zip past the mechanical crushing devices you’ll find while flying through air vents (because Methusalah likes his air extra-atomized). The upgrades you’ll find will help you backtrack to find secret rooms later on, allowing you to find secret cassette tapes, and machines you can plug your head into to give yourself a longer health bar or a faster cruising speed. The scavenger hunting element of Headlander is always a fun distraction to your next objective without becoming a tiresome search that drags you out of the action.
In its most basic form, combat in Headlander can be very standard fare of aiming and shooting lazers at opposing bots, being able to tuck into cover on certain points to hide from the return fire. However, you can also bounce lazers off walls, allowing you to pull off some incredible stunts as you bounce a beam off two different walls to shoot a baddy bot’s head off their shoulders. The diverse upgrades you can use make combat into a bizarre but brilliantly multifaceted experience. With multi-directional shields, you can fly your head around, deflecting lazers back at your attackers. You can even hoover up other heads and throw them like bombs. One upgrade even lets you slow down time – letting you see what a John Woo movie would be like if he was making sci-fi films in the seventies. It’s really something to behold when you’re roll-dodging around a kaleidoscopic array of lazer beams zipping and bouncing around the screen. Combat is frantic, but never repetitive.
My main gripe with Headlander is that the wide variety of upgrades you’ll find can become a spoil of riches. Towards the end of the game, my initially hapless headlander had become a head-hoovering harbinger of destruction, able to decapitate my way through most combats with ease. This is why I can’t really bring myself to put Headlander up amongst the classics of the quirky 2D platformers like Abe’s Odyssey – where you’d face formidable, precisely balanced tests of skill. In Headlander, a fully upgraded character can fudge their way through many challenges, making them less satisfying, even if the wide range of upgrades is fun to experiment with.
Headlander is an effortlessly original and entertaining experience. I’ve got to admit I was pretty creeped out by the initial premise of popping my head off and screwing it onto other bodies like a re-usable cork. This squicky selling-point was just another bold, innovative gambit on the part of Double Fine though. With a future of cybernetics and fully immersive virtual reality on the horizon – where our bodies are increasingly just an extension of our heads – games like Headlander help us fasten our necks onto our exciting and terrifying future, and have some fun in the process!
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Adult Swim Games ; Developer: Double Fine Productions ; Players: 1 ; Released: July 26th, 2016 ; ESRB: PEGI 12 ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.