Headlander attempts to take you on a retro journey to an amazing planet full of sci-fi and sight gags, but the recycled jokes and empty story unfortunately cause it to fall short.
Out of This World
Headlander begins with a selection of heads to choose from, and they are a surprisingly diverse cast of craniums: a young asian woman, a middle aged white guy, and an old black man. It took me a while but I finally decided on the gruff old man head because I thought I would have the most enjoyable time if I was playing as a space grandpa. After making the selection, a loading screen displays Headlander‘s colorful 70s-inspired palette, which is appropriately accompanied by a medley of funky elevator tunes. It’s mesmerizing.
Even though the loading screen was short and minimalist, it had an inviting shine. Finally the loading screen slowly fades to black while the music transitions into the pulsating hum of a spaceship, and then neon tinted stars begin to illuminate the galaxy. It was in that moment that visually, Headlander perfectly nailed the retro-futuristic vibe it was aiming for. It was such a visually pleasing sci-fi aesthetic. Developer Double Fine clearly put a lot of work into crafting the look, and it was gorgeous, but the look of a game is only portion of the full experience.
Lost in Space
The world of Headlander is a spectacle, and the context for it is arbitrary but interesting. It is set in a dystopian land where every human has transferred their consciousness into a robot, and everyone is monitored by an all-seeing tyrannical being of artificial intelligence, Methusula. Its task force is a group of colorful robots called Shephards, whose power levels are defined by the ROYGBIV scale. The closer to violet, the more you should be afraid of them. Then you come into play, and for some reason, you’re a flying head. You are woken by another AI named Earl, who tells you that it may seem odd, but you’re the only hope for humanity. Your goal is basically to seek out the evil Methusula and save the robots. The actual story for the game isn’t particularly impressive, it takes the back seat to the bread and butter of Headlander – the head landing.
“Heads” down, it is one of the best mobility mechanics in any game. It offers much freedom of choice, and remains smooth no matter where you go. Uniquely, it provides the ability to suck off an enemy’s head and use their body as a tool to progress. It is such a bizarre concept, but it works. The astro-head is also upgradable with shields, speed boosts, vacuums and more. The playing style is your choice.
While flying around space, plopping in and out of different colored bodies, you get the chance to look at the breathtakingly unique environments. The level design is some of the best work I’ve seen in years, and it breaks the trend of dark and gritty backgrounds in video games. Each color on screen feels like it belongs there. It looks like they were all planned out to create the best experience for your eyes. The PlayStation 4 gamepad‘s lights change colors depending on the your location in-game, adding to the connective immerse of the Headlander.
The downside to the spectacular sci-fi visuals and fresh gameplay is that Headlander has little else to offer. The world building is lacking, and the dialogue just isn’t that entertaining. It looks like they were inspired by different aspects of Bioshock including its method of storytelling. There are some parallels between Bioshock‘s Atlas and Earl: they’re both unknown beings, that communicate via radio and share a common goal with you. However, Earl has a bad southern accent and never stops talking. Headlander also tries to borrow Bioshock’s audio diary method. It is great tool to help flesh out a fictional universe, but the data tapes that Headlander offers aren’t nearly as interesting and feel like a waste of time.
The 70s sci-fi aesthetic wasn’t the only thing Double Fine was trying to master. If it was, Headlander would have been a perfect game. While playing through it you can tell that they were also trying to create a Metroidvania experience with a humorous atmosphere. Even though it’s obvious that they wanted game to be funny, the humorous atmosphere is suffocating and repetitive, dampening the experience. Double Fine humor and Adult Swim humor don’t mix well. The combination of nuanced, subtle jokes and brash, edgy gags create a weird comedic no man’s land, and sadly Headlander is smack-dab in the middle of it.
For each area there are a total of four lines that NPCs have at their disposal, and they aren’t very funny. Every encounter with a robot would trigger lines like “Are you a Taurus?” and “You look like a Pisces-rising.” It is likely necessary to turn down the volume to avoid hearing the same things repeated over and over in certain levels.Every character except for Earl repeats themselves, including the bosses. To further demonstrate the bland nature of the NPCs, some character models are difficult to tell apart. In one section, you attach yourself to a dog so you may return it to the owner. All of the dogs look so similar that you may end up grabbing the wrong one.
During the final boss battle with Methusula, the difficulty spikes to an unimaginable level as you combat a sporadic, unpredictable enemy. Methusula repeats the line “This is pointless, you cannot win,” throughout the grating experience in fifteen-second intervals. The repetative dialogue combined with the unnecessary difficulty buff made the fight unenjoyable, even to the point of abandoning the fight and the game entirely. Jokes are often a good thing, but repeated ones are not.
It isn’t all repetition, though. There are a few stellar moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. One that hit the mark included the sentry bots that are reluctant to fight you. Their dialogue added humor to an otherwise tendious section of the game where you have to travel really long distances to unlock gates. There is another great scene where you unlock a particularly strong piece of armor. Time slows down while your head admires it, then this otherworldly emotional music – reminiscent of Robot Unicorn Attack, another Adult Swim game – starts playing while you desecrate oncoming waves of enemies.
It’s unfortunate that there are only a few little moments like those, because it would’ve given more personality to the game. Headlander doesn’t know if it wants to be being a wacky science fiction parody, or a comedic homage to the genre, and that muddled the humor of the game.
Headlander’s aesthetic to mechanic achievements are beautiful. However, the intense focus on creating a retro-futuristic world full of unique ideas caused other areas like the story and humor to be neglected. It’s still a great experience for sci-fi fans or anyone looking to enjoy a pretty art style. If that sounds like you, then what are you waiting for? Head over to the store and pick up a copy, just don’t expect to laugh from start to finish.