Headlander PS4 Review

When you hear that Double Fine, creators of some of gaming’s most wonderfully weird adventures, and Adult Swim, purveyors of the finest adult nonsense put to television screens, are in cahoots for a videogame, you expect nothing less than an offbeat bit of silliness with some sillier takes on game mechanics, right? So does said partnership’s first endeavour, Headlander, deliver on that expectation? Well, of course it does, but that’s no guarantee of a good game, but it’s always a great start in my eyes.

A Head for Fights

Headlander is essentially a 2D Metroidvania-style sci-fi game, and it’s presented very much like a 1970’s science fiction series run through that joyfully bizarre adult swim filter. It oozes through the game’s presentation and there’s not a thing wrong with that. The grainy, yellowed camera filter, the art style of the characters, with all uncomfortably naff space costumes and suitably 70’s hairstyles. Even loading screens are perked up by its gaudy moving logo and deliciously cheesy elevator music. Strength of visual design has always been a quality I’ve associated with anything from Tim Schafer’s studios, and Headlander is certainly not the one to break that opinion.

Anyway, Headlander sees you take on the role of a disembodied head of one of the last surviving human beings. You’ve just been unfrozen from cryogenic stasis to find the rest of humanity has decided living forever in robot bodies is far better than spending another day of existence in their fleshy pods, hence the whole thing of you being the closest thing to a surviving piece of humanity. You also need to get the hell out of dodge and you end up escaping to what amounts to a leisure resort ship for the mechanised humans, drifting lazily along in space. Naturally, humanity’s ignorance of its own self-preservation is not entirely its own doing. Shady, sinister forces are behind this new era of human minds in metal chassis, and it’s up to you to tear down this oppressive tyranny the only way you know how, by using your head (yes, I went there, and no, I’m not sorry).

Your head is fitted with a thruster at the start, allowing you to zip about like a little hairy rocket. In this state you’re fairly vulnerable, but you are soon able to hack into the systems of the resort by plugging into certain nodes, allowing you to access new areas. The other major power you adopt early on is to vacuum the heads off the various robotic occupants of the resort and assume control of their bodies. In much the same way as Double Fine’s Stacked saw you assimilate the qualities of anyone you stacked into, Headlander’s body-swapping sees you gain different abilities and privileges depending on what hunk of walking metal you decide to pop the top off of. Many of these are the security bots, all of which are on the lookout for you, so expect more of a fight from them if you need their bodies (and you will, because they’re color-coded to certain doors).

You’ll find yourself changing things up quite a bit, as bodies get pulverised by enemy fire (turning them into walking bombs) as well as your need to use different bodies for accessing new areas. You also occasionally have to detach so you can fly around in the innards of the resort ship to find more node points and energy to upgrade your head with nifty little tricks such as laser-deflecting shields and the like. While not exactly the sharpest control system, movement and accuracy in Headlander is never truly frustrating to navigate, or too wooly to handle. It’s pleasant, without ever being exciting.

Head Over Feels

It’s nothing overly special in terms of setup or execution on a mechanical level however. For all its combined Adult Swim/Double Fine quirks, it is just a basic Metroidvania-type at its core and that sub-genre has been done far better elsewhere, but the humour and presentation gloss over much of the banality of Headlander’s mechanics, making it appear to be a far more novel take on them than it truly is. It’s like Double Fine doing a modern Tim Burton film; offbeat, and unlike a lot of what’s out there on the surface, but relies too much on the safety of well-worn game design. It’s a rather mild criticism to be fair, but when you know what a studio such as Double Fine is capable of making, then it does make it a tad disappointing when it relies on more established formulas.The boss fights are particularly unoriginal and downright frustrating to endure, a standout moment in terms of defining the game’s shortcomings.

The game also features plenty of environmental puzzles to solve, using the aforementioned body-swapping, but also a manipulation of the ship’s systems (such as positioning satellites) to progress through the ship’s areas, and to further advance the story. Again, nothing spectacular mechanically, and there comes a point where traipsing back and forth gets a little tiresome, but it’s made more enjoyable thanks to the great writing and fun ways of interacting with the game world. 

The ship’s computer is a highlight in this regard, full of withering disdain for your fleshiness, and rife with terrible jokes (the ones about oranges being a fantastic shade of rubbish). The NPC’s spout some chucklesome nonsense too, showing their arrogant ignorance through their ditsy little remarks that cling to some semblance of humanity, albeit the more vapid part. This is very much Double Fine’s work at large, but by giving the whole package this adult swim sheen, we get something a little better than expected. The game isn’t afraid to make crude, childish jokes, but it rarely tries to bash you over the head with. You can see when something is meant to be phallic-shaped for giggles, for instance, but it’s just so openly there, and unremarked upon, that it feels absurdly normal, and that is what ends up making it funny instead.

Hell in the Head Space?

So, Headlander is another solid outing for Double Fine, and Adult Swim show that it can definitely bring something to games given the right partnership. Headlander probably won’t be quite so fondly remembered as the best from both worlds, but its unique collection of glorious 70’s space soap opera nonsense drags up the merely decent game it’s draped over. 

Score

7

The Final Word

Headlander is an okay game made much better by a suitably daft concept, and the way it’s presented. It’s an amusing take on the Metroidvania-style genre that adds little new mechanically.