Headlander falls swiftly into the category of "game I enjoyed more than it should warrant" after I first booted it up. For some reason, I can't get enough of 70's sci-fi ambiance in video games, and this jaunty-if-clunky Metroidvania robotpocalypse has it in droves. All the standard tropes are here: afros, flashy discotheques (complete with prompt-ready, period-piece dance moves) and of course, poorly constructed robots. The atmosphere won me over even if everything else feels just passable.
And that's fine really. Since it's published by Double Fine Productions, it's actually quite appropriate. Double Fine has been historically known for their hilarious-yet-mediocre games, and this one is no different, scoring a perfectly decent 7 out of 10. So let's talk about that, shall we?
Headlander's story is mostly nonsense, but it serves as adequate fodder for its mechanics and comic relief. You're the last human head in existence, and for some reason that I didn't quite catch, that makes you the final hope of humanity. Everyone has transferred their consciousness to robots, which sounds great I suppose until the most predictable thing in the world happens. That's right, a rogue AI has usurped power and taken over all the bodies, so now you (along with a handful of apparently immune robot rebels) are looking to take back your human bodies and stop the evil digital dictator.
As a floating head, you wouldn't think you'd have much to offer here. Luckily for you, your disembodied voice-of-a-friend Earl has your back (I think he's a truck driver who is patched by ham radio into your helmet or something) and he acts as your navigator and quest-giver throughout the game. Earl is perfectly fine in this role, he doesn't grate on you too often, but it's easy to miss his instructions from time to time, especially in the heat of battle. There's a log book with your objectives in it, but these can be understated and vague. A map gives you additional clues of where you need to go, but often not enough of what you need to do when you get there.
The map is standard Metroidvania fare, but boy does it have a lot of different icons, and many of them aren't very self-explanatory. Some of the icon descriptions are even strangely worded, so it's best if you pay attention to the cutscenes to tell you what to do. There is a handy "show objective on map" shortcut that comes in handy, but it's not a solution for everything. You will end up doing a lot of backtracking and hopping around fast travel points in search of the correct area.
By far, the most enjoyable part of the game is the body-snatching you will do, since your helmet allows you to zoom around and pluck the heads off of robot bodies that you can then attach yourself to. This little trick is the basis for most of the gameplay, and there are puzzles that require you to use certain bodies. Some puzzles are incredibly tedious, such as unlocking a series of gravity lifts, while others are more merciful and sometimes even fun.
As far as the action is concerned, it can be fun at times, but also feels incredibly weird since there is no jump button. A skill tree exists to offer you some interesting upgrades for stats and techniques, and since this is a Metroidvania you could probably guess that many zones are gated based on these unlockable skills. Secret areas exist, some of which you can only get to by zooming around the room in your head alone, so check your map often to see if any connections show up. Some of these secrets help you boost your stats, while others serve as locations to learn more about the story.
The dialogue and environments in Headlander are the true stars of the show. Every room feels hand-crafted with their own little details. I spent much of my time just talking to robots and looking for details in the background. Cutscenes are worth watching, even if the plot is pure silliness half the time. I found myself chuckling often, and set-piece moments like boss battles are inventive and fun.
I had a great time with Headlander. The game is just innovative enough, just funny enough, and just familiar enough to make it worth your time, especially if you've enjoyed previous games out of the Double Fine library. If you can forgive some confusing missions and a bit of backtracking, and you haven't gotten sick of the old Metroidvania bit yet, then this might just be for you.
Your standard 70's sci-fi fare with flare
Groovy soundtrack, hilarious voice acting. Typical Double Fine stuff here.
This is not an action game, but you wouldn't know that from the amount of action you have to deal with. Sometimes feels like it's a platformer with no jumping.
For a Metroidvania, it's good enough, but fast travel points are far away from each other and backtracking highlights the game's repetitive downsides quickly.
What can I say I love this campy shit.
PROS / CONS
- Metroidvania fans will find a lot to like here
- The kind of humor you'd expect in a Double Fine production
- I'm a sucker for 70's sci-fi tropes
- The people doing the voice acting for this must've had a lot of fun
- 3 heads to choose from!
- Occasionally poor at informing the player how goals are completed
- Prompts with no feedback
- Backtracking feels like a chore when you missed something seemingly trivial but it isn't
- Grav-lift puzzles
- Robots will eventually replace us and this game reminds me of that inevitability