The entire premise of Headlander lives and dies by the trite adage of “using your head”. The concept is exhausted ad infinitum by the surprisingly sweet collaboration between the publishers at Adult Swim Games and the development team at Double Fine. The game is set in space as a side-scrolling 2.5D platform shooter (think of a more-futuristic Shadow Complex).
As the last surviving human in the galaxy, you escape (as a head in a helmet that also functions as a jetpack)
from a starship prison with the help of a mysterious voice in your ear. As you travel through a floating city rife with a striking robotic wealth divide, you’re given an earful about the evil AI that governs it – Methuselah.
He’s not only the architect of this groovy dystopia, but he’s also in control of the remaining human bodies. In an effort to overthrow Methuselah and restore human life on earth, you, the voice, and a friendly rebel group join forces to combat Methuselah’s immaculately color coordinated robot army (cheekily named Shepherds).
Despite its light-hearted nature, the story works well within such a memorable city. Though its themes are simple and the characters are largely forgettable, I thoroughly enjoyed the dialogue and the exposition found in its zany levels. For example, one level tries to turn chess into a bloodsport. Robots take on the role of chess pieces and duke it out against one another. I’m in awe in how they were able to construct the rules of this twist, and how they implemented it into such an original level design. There are also audio tapes and side-quests scattered throughout the world if you feel so inclined to soak up its lore.
Anywho, your handy helmet doesn’t stop at floating you around from body to body. You’re also equipped with a vacuum to suck out the heads and processors found in the enemy AI. You also have a shield that deflects projectiles, and a speed booster that is later used for explosive headbutts. Throughout the game, you collect energy particles that accumulate into upgrade points. The upgrade trees for the four functions are small, but are worth exploring every nook in the game’s expansive map to earn bigger shields or even build a vacuum that doubles as a hurricane.
No matter how you build, you’ll find yourself engaged in a well-thought out combat system against an actual spectrum of diverse enemy units. A typical combat scenario in Headlander is to take control of a power suit (or some other moving or shooting apparatus), and defend yourself against assailants until what you’ve taken control of is toasted by enemy lasers. There are cover systems and laser-bounce trajectories to help protect yourself and line up the perfect head shot (an skillful tactic that ensures a seamless transition into another body), but their aggressive nature will hardly give you much time to hide or think. Enemies can become challenging based on their size or laser configuration (weak enemies shoot one beam at a time, the hardest can shoot multiple), but they can all have their heads sucked out to achieve bodysnatching bliss.
In Double Fine’s traditionally clever delivery, players will find themselves in moments where they’re doing more than just mindlessly sucking heads off of robots. The color-coordination of enemies not only symbolizes areas they have access to, but also their difficulty. To enter certain colored areas, you need to dawn a unit from their respective color and shoot the corresponding door. Whether or not you have the color necessary to enter, you are subjected to a corny color-related pun. In parts of the game, the mechanic manifests itself into some fun puzzles. However, combat outside of boss fights can get repetitive.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the game’s environments and levels are highly detailed. I recommend having one digit on your screenshot key, even if you make use of the game’s third-party controller access. Despite its not-so-subtle 70s influence (a key component in any Adult Swim published game), its retro-futuristic art style is delightfully polished and easy on the eyes. Within its two and a half dimensions, level artists did a remarkable job capturing tones from just the backgrounds. From walking into lounges that made you want to sit and stay awhile to areas so vast and bustling that you forget what character you’re controlling. The character models themselves looked detailed, but I thought that they suffered when rendered into cut scenes.
The score for Headlander was appropriate, but there weren’t any memorable tracks that stuck out to me. On the whole, the tracks added to the ominous and exploratory nature of the game – you’ve just come out of hibernation and you’re the last human on earth. It worked. In heated combat, the music responded with a faster beat, and had its roots firm in experimental electronic. Of course, there was a 70s power pop ballad, but I think those are always part of the Adult Swim gaming experience. Sound snippets from robots were diverse and worth noting. Foley sounds (i.e the sound of footsteps across a variety of environments) did not feel ignored, but were largely overpowered by the constant barrage of laser-fire or jetpack fuel.
If you’re in the market for an innovative platformer, Headlander shouldn’t disappoint. Double Fine’s interpretation of a sidescroller shooter will not only turn heads, but send them skyrocketing into beautifully crafted retro-futuristic vistas. Its repetitive combat can feel sluggish at times, but its easy-to-get story and innovative level design will keep you from having your head done in.
Headlander was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: Double Fine | Publisher: Adult Swim Games | Genre: Platformer, Sidescroller, Action | Platform: PC, PS4 | PEGI/ESRB: N/A | Release Date: July 26th, 2016