Headlander (PS4) Review: What Kind of Life is That?

It’s no surprise that even by Double Fine’s own eccentric standards, Headlander is  a very weird game. But once you realise that the studio’s art director, Lee Petty is once again in Tim Shaeffer’s the director’s chair, it all falls into place.  He is, after all, the same insane genius that brought us Stacking; A surreal steam age adventure game about a family of Russian Matryoshka dolls.

In the same way that Stacking took the basic tenants of the adventure genre and took them to interesting new places, Headlander does the same thing for the Metroidvania genre. The basics are pure enough. The map slowly opens up as you find the correct keys to unlock different coloured doors, while slowly expanding your player character’s abilities to accommodate the new areas. So far, so normal. But then, your player character is the rocket-powered head of the last ‘surviving’ human, and the keys are the bodies of sentient androids that you’ve just decapitated.

Sound strange? You haven’t heard the half of it.  Waking up from stasis to find that your body’s missing, you can’t talk (you have no lungs and you can’t scream) and you’re being kept alive by virtue of the rocket powered helmet you are currently encased in must be, well, disorientating. Which is the situation the hero of Headlander finds themselves in.

The last ‘living’ human turns out to be aboard a spaceship run by a mad AI called Methuselah, that has uploaded the whole of humanity into robot bodies for their own safety, enslaving them with mind-altering crystals for their own good. You’ve been brought back to life by another AI called ERL who, with a group of freed former humans, sets you off on a quest to free humanity from the clutches of Methuselah, and hopefully reunite them with their lost bodies.

As a floating disembodied head, you’re pretty much defenceless (at least to begin with), save for your ability to suck off the heads of enemy robots with your helmet’s in-built vacuum and replace them with your own. Once attached, you gain control of the robot’s body, and can use any weapons that they’re carrying, and (most importantly) can use their security clearance to get through any nearby doors. Clearance ranges from red through to indigo, and you need to have control of a bot with the correct grade of clearance (or better) to pass through.

There are several different types of bots you can attach yourself to, from hulking security droids, spaced out hippies, and even the odd uppity roomba, and each allows you to get to access different parts of the ship. Droids with wheels can roll across electrified flooring, while scutters can pass under low-lying laser beams and smaller passageways designed specifically for them.

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Fully exploring the ship is vital to success, as hidden all over it are upgrade pods which expand your abilities, such as powerful boosts that lets you fly through enemies to a shield to protect you from incoming lasers. There are also hidden caches to find which provide the resources needed to power and augment your existing abilities via the game’s upgrade menu (hint:This is where the all-round shield is located, and you can thank me later). These in turn allow you to explore deeper into the ship by enabling you to reach areas you couldn’t get to before.

Interestingly, none of the robots can jump, so you need to hop from bot to bot in order to successfully traverse the environment, get through doors and not get killed by the myriad of angry killmatons ‘protecting’ the ship.

Combat is a simple affair, seeing you taking over the nearest security droid, blindly firing in the vague direction of whatever is trying to kill you, waiting for your current bot to be blown to bits, and then finding another to pinch. Rinse and repeat, until everything in a room is lacking a cranium or broken into several pieces on the floor. Shots fired will bounce around the environment, giving battles a vague air of bullet hell, especially when you’re hunting for a new body and need to dodge volleys of ricocheted laser fire.

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After a short while, I will admit I got bored of fighting droids and would flee as soon as I could, realising that it was actually in my best interests just to disable bots by removing their heads (head shots also dislodge them, as well as a handy upgrade which lets you tear them off by headbutting enemies) rather than destroying them. They will simply respawn anyway, lest you kill the wrong bot and find yourself trapped in a room.

Though the gameplay aspects of Headlander are quite well constructed, they’re not particularly revolutionary. Getting to some of the game’s tougher hidden collectibles inspire some genuine ‘eureka’ moments, but the gameplay remains fairly standard. What really sells Headlander is the fantastically weird setting, as players float their way through a retro sci-fi aesthetic that pulls in influences from all over the shop, from the obvious Logan’s Run references to a pissed off door AI reminiscent of something from Hitchhiker’s Guide.  There’s even a weird shoot out to the tune of Joan Baez – ‘Rejoyce the Sun’ from Silent Running for all of the six people that will end up getting it.

Though they’re all pulled together with a funky psychedelic sheen representative of the era of science fiction it apes, tonally it feels a bit off. For all the disco-dancing hippy bots and apologetic laser turrets, the underlying premise is incredibly bleak. That’s not to say that a good satire cant be silly while trying to make some pretty heavy points, but it could do with laying off the one-liners occasionally and let the horror of the setting sink in. It feels like if someone had put a comical food fight in the middle of Soylent Green, sure the concept is funny, but against the dystopian setting it would be somewhat out of place.

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That being said, the game’s voice cast do a brilliant job of bringing the world of Headlander to life, with the warring AI in particular being a high point. The game’s sarcastic door, which comes up with all manner of droll puns as you move from one area to the next is particularly noteworthy.  It also manages to squeeze in a nice variety of settings, from weird futuristic pleasure palaces to industrial hell-holes and a rather cool chess-themed section which has the game used as an excuse to kill a lot of bots for fun and profit. Fast travel points are nicely spread out from an exploration perspective, and there’s plenty to see, explore and find. Thankfully though, not too much that the game outstays its welcome.

The few boss fights we are treated to are quite enjoyable affairs, though with no checkpoints in the middle they can prove to be somewhat irksome when you’ve nearly killed the bugger and a couple of cheap shots send you right back to square one.

We haven’t exactly been starving for Metroidvanias of late (Insomniac’s Song of the Deep came out a couple weeks beforehand), but Headlander floats above the competition by successfully marrying a unique approach to the genre’s usual door puzzles to a barmy retro sci-fi vibe that successfully lampoons the films that inspired the original Metroid in the first place. Though its jokes don’t always quite land, it’s still an absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable Metroidvania, with a great cast and simple-yet-engaging mechanics that had me hooked throughout the course of the 10 hour campaign.

 

 

 

 

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