The first time I saw gameplay of Headlander — during a Let’s Play and interview with Tim Schafer at e3 — I thought it looked really dumb. The basis game sounded like something that college students might come up with at 2 a.m. after a long night of partying:
“Okay, so you’re this floating human head in an astronaut helmet. And you’re trapped on a space station with a bunch of robots. You suck robots’ heads off their bodies, and you land on them. Your head lands in their robot bodies! Ooooooh, snap! Headlander!”
I didn’t think about the game again until I saw it pop up in PlayStation’s annual PLAY campaign. After taking another look, the game’s true setting got a hold of me. Headlander is a 2.5D sidescrolling exploratory action-adventure game with twin-stick shooting elements, set in a sci-fi space world that has been overtaken by robots. I’m a sucker for the space setting, and I know that Double Fine makes quality games; so I pre-ordered the game.
Headlander is one of my favorite games of the year. It is beautiful, plays fluidly, has an interesting story, rewards exploration and is just plain fun. I’ll get the two semi-negatives out of the way, then get back to the good stuff: The game can chug when there is a ton of activity, though this doesn’t happen often; aiming can be a little clunky at first, but the game isn’t too punitive.
From the beginning of the game, Headlander exudes style. The game could well be a rediscovered 1970s sci-fi TV series on a VHS, save for the vibrant colors. You choose your character head at first, then you’re thrust into the tutorial mission, which sees your character escape from a ship with the help of a disembodied voice.
The controls are super fluid: When you’re controlling the head, it moves where you tell it to and when. Connecting to a robot is as simple as pushing the L1 button, and other tools get added throughout the game in a way that makes sense.
As you make your way to the main section of the game, your Headlander character will continue to learn more about the society through the disembodied voice, “Earl.” The citizen-level robots are former humans who had their consciousness placed into these robot bodies to help them live forever. While the idea sounded good in theory, the reality doesn’t quite match up with the dream.
Headlander has some of the hallmarks of a Metroidvania game, though I’d classify it as more of a “Metroidvania-lite” game in its exploration style. You will backtrack a little bit to complete the main story, but backtracking is mostly confined to the area you are currently exploring. For example, security doors are color-coded, with clearances escalating in rainbow order: A red bot will get you only in the red door, while a violet bot will get you in any door. If you come across, say, a blue door, then there is a good chance that you will find a blue robot in the area.
The combat has some interesting wrinkles, but the primary ways to blast your way through levels is by sucking off robot heads, or by shooting. The game’s boss battles are also interesting and memorable, while not being too obtuse. There are only a couple of big bosses, but they are satisfying and make good use of the tools you’ve used to reach them.
Here’s the bottom line: Headlander is a really, really good game. If you like 2D side-scrolling shooters with fun combat, rewarding exploration and an interesting sci-fi story, then it’s a must-buy.
Headlander is a really, really good game. If you like 2D side-scrolling shooters with fun combat, rewarding exploration and an interesting sci-fi story, then it’s a must-buy.