You’ve got a good head on your shoulders.
Headlander, developed by Double Fine Productions and published by Adult Swim, is an adoring love letter to 70s-era science fiction, embracing the visual aesthetic and sound design of the period. Right from the first images and loading screens, the game often looks like it was ripped straight from a Betamax or VHS tape and the Muzak-style elevator music appropriately sets the tone for an adventure out of time. This retro-future Metroidvania-style game oozes with the slightly off-beat brand of humor that Double Fine and Adult Swim are so well known for.
Headlander opens with a quick character selection screen and immediately introduces its premise: players control a disembodied head in a space station that’s controlled by an artificial intelligence named Methuselah. The Headlander, so named for his or her ability to fly around the station and land on parts of the station and its robot-filled denizens, has been woken by a companion named Earl to try to end Methuselah’s reign and save humanity. Humans, as we know them, have all but disappeared from the world; with the Headlander possibly being the last of them (or at least, part of the last of them). Instead, the space station is populated by a series of robot citizens, whose bodies must be borrowed by the Headlander in order to maneuver through the station. The Headlander does so by using a vacuum in their suit to pop the heads off of these various robots, which subsequently allows them to dock with the body to gain control of it. But don’t worry: Earl explains that all of these robots are linked to a neural network; so when a head is removed, the unit’s consciousness is automatically downloaded to another body elsewhere.
Taste the Rainbow
With these skills in hand (so to speak), Earl guides the Headlander throughout the installation as they work to slowly pick away at Methuselah’s defenses. Along the way, players will have to face off (wasn’t even trying to make that reference) against Methuselah’s Shepherds. Effectively, the Shepherds are the space station’s patrol force: a series of color-coded enemies that can shoot lasers or swat away the Headlander with melee attacks. In true Metroidvania fashion, certain areas of the map will be blocked off until the Headlander either receives the appropriate upgrade to their helmet or until they receive the proper clearance. Just like the Shepherds, certain doors in the game are color-coded along the spectrum – red through violet – and the Headlander will need to possess an appropriate body to proceed. These colors are effectively the Shepherd’s ranks, so Red Shepherds can only pass through red doors while the top-tier Violet Shepherds can pass through Violet doors (and all other doors).
Additionally, the Headlander acquires four main upgrades to their helmet throughout the story: the aforementioned vacuum to suck other heads off their bodies or open vents, a shield that allows passage through laser beams, a boost that allows enough speed to travel through time-sensitive puzzles, and an overcharge ability that restores power to machinery. Each of these core skills have their own upgrade trees; leading to secondary skills like the ability to turn carried objects into bombs or passive abilities like health restoration which can make combat a simpler endeavor. These skills can be upgraded with collectible skills points that can be found by traveling off the beaten path and docking into “secret” stations around the maps. Health, armor, and speed upgrades can also be found throughout the space station.
In addition to the absurd premise that players control a head that flies around popping off other heads and possessing robot bodies, Headlander is filled with quirks that will make you smile. When running around as many of the game’s citizens, a press of a button can trigger the robot’s dance subroutine. Pushing the same button while controlling a Roomba-like floor-cleaner robot will cause it to empty its dust tanks. Players will travel through areas like the Pleasure Port with its, shall we say “mellow”, clientele, or Grid Clash, with its version of battle chess. The dialogue is filled with funny moments, as has come to be expected with Double Fine and Adult Swim.
While the game does well by all of the aforementioned elements, Headlander doesn’t have anything that ultimately makes it stand out above and beyond other entries in the genre. It’s fun and enjoyable in the moment, but it won’t exactly leave a lasting impression.
- Retro-Future Setting
- Absurd Humor
- Somewhat Forgettable