Headlander Review

By Cindy Minguez, 9 months ago
Double Fine Studios and Adult Swim have come together to bring us the latest from Tim Schafer’s development company. Double Fine is known for its quirky humor and innovative story lines, so how does Headlander stack up? One might say that it’s a-head of the competition.

Campy art and music are fun.Campy art and music are fun.

Cheesy puns aside, Headlander is both innovative and fun. The game tells the story of humanity following the Ever War that left Earth largely uninhabitable. Humans have moved their minds into “Imposter” bodies, robotic replicas that cannot be harmed like fragile flesh can be. The trade-offs are a mixed bag. One can no longer smell flowers or feel the softness of a baby’s skin, but with the Omega Gem, one can now be immortal. The Omega Gem has been implanted into everyone’s circuitry by Methuselah, the AI that is overseeing the human race.

While it’s true that the Omega Gem preserves life, it has also made humanity slaves. With the Omega Gem, it’s possible to refabricate your body and have your consciousness go with you. Without it, any damage to your robotic existence could kill you since it’s the Omega Gem that stores your consciousness. However, Methuselah is using the Omega Gem to control humanity. People don’t feel much anymore, their emotions controlled just as their actions are. But Methuselah is looking for something, something that he’s missing, something that his creators failed to give him. He thinks that he’s finally found it when he finds you, Headlander.

Um...where's the rest of me?!Um...where's the rest of me?!

As the game begins, you awaken from stasis in a ship that is under attack. A voice identifying himself only as Earl speaks to you through your helmet, urging you to flee and here is where the gamer is in for a nasty shock. Unlike others in the game, you’re human – flesh and blood human. This makes you a remarkably special person. As soon as the camera pans out, however, you realize that your head is all that’s left of you. That’s right; your head resides in a specially built helmet that keeps you alive but you have no body, literally. Once you get over the shock, the fun begins.

Everything in the game revolves around this unique mechanic. Your head can fly, boost, ram, shield, and use suction. It can also dock on any body that is lacking a head, so you can use your vacuum suction to pop the head off a robotic enemy and take his body. You must have a body to go through doors, but when you see a place in the ceiling to explore, simply pop off your head and fly up there to check it out.

Your head can reach places that bodies can't go.Your head can reach places that bodies can't go.

Shepherds are the tough robots that were created by Methuselah to keep his sheep in line. In fights with enemies, you can use a body for melee and/or laser attacks, or you can fly around popping off all of the enemy heads, whichever you prefer. Your nickname, as well as the game’s title, directly reflects your function; you can land your head anywhere that it needs to be. You can even take over the bodies of innocent citizens; unlike Shepherds, citizens are the humans that are living in robotic bodies. Taking their bodies doesn’t hurt them since the Omega Gem saves their memories.

Headlander is a sandbox game that nicely combines side-scroller and puzzler. The game is largely linear but doesn’t get boring. Most of the puzzles come in the form of figuring out how to open a particular door. Doors are color coded with each color representing an area’s security level, white being the least secure (any color may enter) and violet being the most secure (only purple can enter). Each color may enter a door of its matching color plus any door further down the security list and you will quickly learn the different color gradations. Sometimes the size of the door affects what can enter, as well. To enter a tiny door, you will need to find a smaller body to take over but figuring out how to get that body from Point A to Point B can sometimes be a challenge.

Use citizens to explore.Use citizens to explore.

At set points in the game, basic skills are unlocked (like Boost). The four basic skills are story-related and can’t be changed; however, upgrades are up to the player. Energy can be collected throughout the game to use for these upgrades and it floats like rainbow-colored balls in the air, usually very high in a room or in areas that can only be accessed by the head alone. You can use the points to upgrade your skills in whatever order you wish. Basic skills can be strengthened, such as improving boost speed or suction power, and you can learn new skills, too, such as turning a head into a bomb, creating sentries to fight for you, or making yourself invincible with a full-body shield. You will eventually earn enough energy to unlock all of the upgrades, but this will be rather late in the game, so you will need to choose carefully which way you want to go with your abilities.

The game has an auto-save feature that works very well for the most part. The game is saved each time that you enter a room. If you walk into a room full of lasers and die, you will re-spawn in that same place so that you can take another crack at it. This system only becomes bothersome upon encountering large areas or rooms that require a lot of time and effort, due to the amount of action that players will need to repeat if they die.

Lasers can be a pain.Lasers can be a pain.

The only complaint that one might have with the game is with the controls. For most of the time these are not an issue, but it can be easy to make a mistake after several new abilities have been unlocked later in the game, especially since the introduction to a new skill is usually a single sentence in passing. If you’re not paying close enough attention, the instructions to a new skill might pass you by and the instructions would benefit from being slowed down just for a moment. The shield controls can also be a bit tricky as you have to turn cn_RS to change the direction of your shield while you're holding the stick upward in order to maintain its presence.

The game has a distinct '70s vibe, especially in the Pleasure Port where citizens sport afros and bell bottoms. You feel the retro influence even more during loading screens; while you wait for the screens to load, music that can only be described as '70s elevator music is played in the background. You can even make the citizens dance by pressing the cn_O button whilst inhabiting them. The feel is campy and fun without being overdone.

It's the seventies!It's the seventies!

The trophies are a nice variety of story-related, collectible, and skills-based accomplishments, most of which will be picked up along the way. At certain important milestones of the story, you will earn a trophy. Other trophies require that you do such things as learn all of the upgrades, find every room, and use every dance move. There are also those that require that you kill enemies a certain way, such as with melee, lasers, or sentries. Anything that has been missed can easily be found post-game without having to re-start as any place to which you’ve been can be re-visited through zap (aka teleport) rooms, so returning to an area is never too onerous. The trophies are fun without being a grind.

Summary

Headlander is a campy romp through space that makes the outrageous situation of being a living head not only plausible but exciting. This core concept shapes the title's gameplay beautifully, taking the gamer on an enjoyable journey as the story unfolds. With twists and turns that one might not expect, Headlander creates a new kind of gaming experience that's easy to learn and a blast to play.
4.5 / 5
Positives
  • Fun and easy-to-learn gameplay
  • Great voice acting
  • Enjoyable story
Negatives
  • Controls occasionally tricky
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent about 15 groovy hours popping off other people's robotic heads and earning all of the game's 31 trophies along the way. A copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Cindy Minguez
Written by Cindy Minguez
Cindy is the Assistant Manager of the Newshounds here at TT and has been writing for TA/TT for four years now. She's an English instructor at a small college and is considered a remarkably cool teacher for knowing all about Mass Effect, Skyrim, and Diablo III.