Allergic To Laser Beams
HIGH The concept and aesthetics are tops.
LOW Forgetting that higher color sentries can pass through lower-color doors
WTF It took hours to realize Circle had a non-combat function.
I can’t understand why games that have a lot going for them frequently fail to play to their strengths. I often see some perverse drive to do something that doesn’t make sense within the larger context of the work, an inability to let go of a precious idea, or the desire to add a rough final boss out of nowhere… because video games? I’ve seen it happen time and time and time again, and despite advancements in design and all the poor examples we’ve had the chance to learn from, developers keep making the same mistakes.
Take Headlander, for example. It’s got quirky humor, an incredibly strong art style and a fantastic concept. What it doesn’t have is satisfying combat, yet combat is exactly what the developers seem hell-bent on including. The gunplay they scrape together is ill-fitting at best, and incredibly frustrating at worst. The experience as a whole is brought down by this choice, and the project would have been better served by dialing back on it instead of doubling down.
Headlander’s premise is a good one. In the future, people have inserted their minds into robotic bodies in a bid for immortality. The AI meant to manage things is out of control, and the situation is going south. Their only hope is a person’s head (yes, just the head) that’s been revived in a lab and encased in a special tech-enabled helmet. With the ability to fly, to commandeer robot bodies it finds, and a number of other abilities, the head sets out to put things in order.
I was onboard with this setup from the get-go. It’s wonderfully bizarre and perfectly complemented by the incredibly strong visual style reminiscent of sci-fi films from the ‘60s and ‘70s—things like Logan’s Run or Barbarella. Everything feels kind of groovy and kind of mod, and every screen is super-saturated with rich colors and smooth curves. It’s an outdated vision of a future that never happened, and it’s both totally backward and super cool. The art direction is the strongest asset Headlander can offer, I’d say.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a simplified 2D Metroidvania, and I don’t mean “simplified” as a negative. The map and objectives are clear, there aren’t an enormous number of barrier types that correspond to new abilities, and in general, the action is pretty breezy and welcoming… Well, up to a point, anyway.
As one might guess, the options available to a head are fairly limited. In order to get things done, the head will constantly be appropriating robot bodies it comes across by ripping off their heads and using the neck stumps as a docking point. Sometimes it’s for laughs, as when attaching itself to a small vacuum cleaner or robo-dog, but usually it’s to take control of sentry robots.
One of the biggest elements of Headlander is that each area is gated by doors of several colors, and these doors are only accessible by controlling a robot of the appropriate color. Blue robots can pass through blue doors, and so on. It’s not a bad idea, but the game goes crazy with it in the first two chunks of the campaign—the bulk of playtime is going back-and-forth trying to find the right body for the right door, and then when passage is gained, it’s right back to finding a different robot for the next door. Although it’s not the most compelling gameplay, it’s not bad in short bursts. The developers simply rely on it too much and it becomes an annoyance rather than an engaging challenge.
When the head is flying around, stealing bodies and opening doors, it starts to take on a fairly puzzle-like vibe, and I think it generally suits the style well. With a few more varied tasks and a bit more dialogue, I would have happily signed off on this and given it a solid recommendation. Unfortunately, there’s more gunplay in Headlander than is warranted, and the combat here is not great.
Most of the robots the head hijacks come equipped with laser arms, and the devs have an unhealthy obsession with ricocheting shots. Once there’s more than an enemy or two in a room, the screen becomes a mess of crisscrossing beams bouncing off of the walls, ceiling and floor. The head can buy some abilities which mitigate this danger—more life, some shielding, faster health regeneration, and so on— but the combat never feels good and death can come quickly. Dying isn’t a huge setback since the save points are extremely generous (often in the exact room where the player died) but like the over-reliance on colored doors, it’s just more irritation.
This misguided focus on bouncy laser shootouts hits its nadir in the final leg of the adventure. There were a few rooms that verged on absurdity, and it’s worth noting that the game does an exceptionally poor job of explaining certain mechanics. I got absolutely stumped at the eleventh hour thanks to a force field I had no idea how to deactivate, and only stumbled across the solution by accident after resetting the game. By taking the wrong approach, I had rendered the puzzle effectively unsolvable, but didn’t know that I couldn’t solve it because I wasn’t sure how to complete it.
Although I absolutely love the aesthetics and concept of Headlander, the non-combat gameplay is only fair, and it’s brought down further with too much combat detracting from the things it does well. I was interested enough to stick around and see how things turned out at the end, but there were definitely a few times when I walked away and took a break out of annoyance. Like so many other examples before it, Headlander is another could-have-been that just doesn’t play to its strengths.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Double Fine Productions and Adult Swim and published by Adult Swim. It is currently available on PS4, PC and Mac. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains suggestive themes and fantasy violence.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Subtitles are available for all dialogue and no audio is necessary for successful gameplay. It’s accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable in any way, and there are a large number of skills, some of which require holding down two or more buttons at once.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
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