I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t know too much about Headlander until its recent release on Xbox One. It’d previously come to the Playstation 4 and PC and whilst it’s from the esteemed team at Double Fine Productions I somehow managed to overlook it. I don’t know how – after checking out some trailers for the game I realised what a zany adventure I was missing out on. It looks like an adventure that amalgamates the jar heads of Futurama with a massive 70s twist… how can it be bad, right?!
Headlander takes its style straight from the 1970s with its dynamic mind-bending visuals that look fantastic and set up an amazing playful vibe. The fact that Headlander takes place in a futuristic time (the combination works, trust me) where humans have developed the ability to upload their consciousness into the ‘cloud’ and in turn replace any robots mind with their own via switching heads only adds to the charm, plus it sets the game up with an incredibly enjoyable gameplay mechanic.
The story of Headlander isn’t exactly the most in depth one you’ll find in a video game though (especially by Double Fine’s standards), but I found that it explained enough to keep you in the know and also keep you engaged with the adventure you’re having. You play as a head (that’s right – just a head) that has awoken with zero memory of who or where he is. The overall aim is to make your way through each zone and eventually take away the power from the evil AI known as Methusaleh.
As you can imagine given the crazy premise of the game, Headlander doesn’t take itself too seriously and comes with a lot of the humour we’re used to from the guys at Double Fine. The humorous side of things isn’t as engaging as the likes of some of their point and click adventure titles thanks to the fact you play as a silent protagonist, but the characters you see and events that occur around the world certainly keep things lighthearted and bizarre.
Headlander’s gameplay felt like a breath of fresh air, taking a step back from your typical side-scrolling shooter and adding the ability to float wherever you want as a… well… head. Being just a head comes with its advantages though, such as being able to pull the head off of any enemy Guard Bot and replace it with your own in order to take control of them. It actually had a bit of a ‘Abe’s Odyssey’ vibe to it with the ability to essentially control those around you, whether it be an aggressive Guard Bot with a laser gun or a simple bystander that’s equipped with a funky pair of flares to make you look good as you dance the night away. I’m being serious too, there’s a button in the game that’s just for dancing – I never figured out why you need to dance, but who’s asking right!?
Each Guard Bot has a certain colour assigned to it, with these colours playing a very important role in progressing through levels. The only way to make it through a red security gate is to take the body of a red Guard Bot, whilst a yellow security gate needs a yellow Guard Bot… you get the picture. Each coloured Guard Bot has its own style of weapon and its own weaknesses/strengths too, whether it be fighting, the ability to walk across electric floors, having a huge amount or armour, or the ability to shoot lasers – all these skill are vital for making it through each different area of the game.
It wasn’t always easy to find the colour Guard Bot you need in order to progress though and once I finally did find them it was just as hard to simply make it back to the coloured gate in one piece. I never felt frustrated with it though, with Headlander’s gameplay always feeling rewarding and satisfying enough to offer an incentive to keep wanting to push through, regardless of how often I met my demise.
Your main ability is the power to pull off a head and attach your own, but the developers of Headlander have gone a step further and added a great upgrade system to the game. These upgrades are well varied with the likes of extra health, armour, and speed joined with the things like a stronger damage output. The new abilities you could unlock were the best though, with my personal favourite being the ability to headbutt a Guard Bot so hard that his head flies off and is immediately replaced with your own. It epitomises the humour and silly nature of Headlander and reminds you that you’re in this absurd yet fun little universe. There are other upgrades too such as an increase to your speed and a shield, but really, who needs them when you can HEADBUTT SOMEONE’S HEAD OFF?!
The way the abilities work combined with the emphasis on taking over Guard Bots for their skills and ability to open specific doors added a sort of Metroidvania vibe to the game, with progression coming from empowering yourself as opposed to simply getting from point A to B. I could appreciate that, but also the way that Headlander doesn’t focus on outright action too – there’s an emphasis on solving puzzles and each tricky situation you find yourself in sees you needing to use your brain rather than your brawn, which is pretty fitting given that you’re a head. You’ve got a head, so use it… or something…
Headlander offers a great mix of shooting and puzzling that all runs at a great pace thanks to the humorous and vintage setting that surrounds it. The often hilarious dialogue will have you actually laughing out loud, whilst the puzzles will keep you perplexed but motivated to progress.
Double Fine really have come up with a great meld of the future and past in Headlander – both from a stylistic standpoint and with the gameplay mechanics. It’s the age-old gameplay we’ve been enjoying from side-scrolling action titles for years, yet the head-swapping mechanic manages to make it feel fresh and exciting. Let’s not forget you can headbutt someone’s head off too – any game that let’s you do that is a ‘must play’ in my eyes…
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Release Date: 18/11/2016
Format(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), Playstation 4, PC