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Headlander (PC) artwork

Headlander (PC) review

"Quality sci-fi adventure ahead"

Headlander (PC) image

Brace yourself: Double Fine's Headlander is a sci-fi, 'Metroidvania' adventure set in a '70s-themed future. Humanity is all but extinct, replaced by robotic clones and sentient computers. You, however, may be the sole remaining, flesh-and-blood human: a floating, disembodied head that can conveniently connect to any piece of hardware, including the aforementioned automatons. You accomplish this by removing their heads via high powered vacuum and jacking into their neck stumps. Only then can you bust wicked disco moves on shag carpets or slap armed guards (called "shepherds") under the reflective glimmer of a mirror ball.

I wish I could say that Headlander's core mechanic opens a huge world of possibilities. You'd think there would be numerous types of robots with different roles to play, thus imbued with a variety of abilities. Sadly, that's not the case. For the most part, you end up taking possession of a few kinds of shepherds and ordinary citizens, not to mention the occasional dog or cleaner. Sure, there are several chess-themed robots to control in the campaign's arena segment, but they don't serve a purpose outside of that section.

Headlander (PC) image

Headlander focuses less on providing a diverse cast of robots to toy with and more on showcasing a network of corridors to explore, with your typical roadblocks and hidden goodies that require observation to detect. For instance, there's a long hallway brimming with shepherds at one point in the campaign. The constant barrage of lasers might prevent you from noticing an entrance to a narrow shaft in the ceiling. Once inside, you need to be careful, as crushing walls threaten to end your journey. With a handy rocket boost ability located somewhere in the facility, though, you should be able to survive this trap. At the end of the winding series of ducts and hazards lies either a health or power upgrade, or experience points you can use to purchase and hone skills.

Headlander is not as convoluted as your average Metroidvania title, but that makes sense when you think about it. After all, this locale is supposed to be a community, so a disorganized mess wouldn't be a realistic or ideal design. I have to say, it's refreshing to play a game of this nature that doesn't feature a terrible amount of backtracking. You don't often hit a wall after a lengthy search and then return to a central point in an effort to find the next ability. Rather, impediments tend to crop up at pivotal points in the campaign. When they do appear, a voice on your intercom named Earl lets you know that you won't be able to advance, plus he sometimes provides you with hints as to where you might locate the relevant ability.

Traversing Headlander's complex requires some thought, though. Most of the doors restrict access to robots with specific color clearance. The only way through a locked door is with a shepherd's body of that corresponding color, or one from a "higher" grade. Headlander ranks shepherds based on a rainbow scheme, with red being the lowest standing and purple being the highest. In other words, a red guard can only advance through a red door, but a purple sentinel can access a portal of any color. Often, you'll need to scour the vicinity in order to locate a shepherd of the necessary hue, sometimes swapping or abandoning a few bodies in order to bypass obstructions or pitfalls. Forget about leaping over pits, since none of the robots can jump.

Headlander (PC) image

Once you acquire it, ensuring the necessary body's survival is paramount. This can be tricky, because Headlander doesn't want you to succeed. Throughout the campaign, hallways enter lockdown mode and shepherds storm the premises and open fire. Although your body is built for combat, it's not indestructible and will perish if it takes enough damage. However, danger doesn't necessarily spell doom for you, because you have loads of options at your disposal. Possessing a shepherd gives you a firearm with a handy laser sight that displays your beam's ricochet path. The only problem is that precision is key to victory, and you don't always have time to aim and consider trajectory when you're swarmed. Sure, you could inhabit a shepherd carrying a rifle that fires two to four parallel projectiles at a time, thereby allowing you to spam your attacks until your weapon overheats. Unfortunately, that makes for ho-hum battles, even if it is an effective strategy.

You see, Headlander isn't a shooter. It seems that Double Fine didn't want you to linger overmuch on its shooting aspects, as evidenced by the number of tricks your head can perform to dispatch the opposition. The aforementioned speed boost, for example, allows you to zoom through foes, reducing them to burning metal shards. There's also a shield that reflects enemy projectiles. Of course, you need to mind your head's power, because using those techniques consumes it, leaving you vulnerable once it's depleted. Unlike the bodies you steal, your head can't withstand much of a beating before it bursts.

Personally, I was a fan of removing an adversary's head and dropping it on an electrified floor. That is, of course, until I discovered a skill that allows you to turn anything you're carrying via vacuum into a bomb, which you can drop on a shepherd. Then you get to watch in delight as he disintegrates. There's even a self-destruct mechanism you can unlock, for those desperate moments when you're surrounded. You simply press a couple of buttons and your head ejects, transforming the body you just had into a powerful explosive.

Headlander (PC) image

I suppose if you're going to develop a game with middling gunplay, then loading up with lots of enjoyable and cathartic combat options that take advantage of the game's core mechanic is the route to go. Honestly, I'm not miffed by the dull shooting mechanics, for that reason.

However, there's more to Headlander than mere action and exploration. Those are the star attractions, sure, but certain little touches make the game an all around wonderful experience. Earl and his warm southern accent and friendly demeanor help put you at ease, while a central computer's snarky, condescending comments and color-based puns provide much needed comic relief. Approaching a red door without proper clearance and he'll let you know you're not RED-y, or he'll decline entry through an orange doorway and say, "Not opening. ORANGE you glad I told you?" Various other characters offer intriguing backstory, including info on the villain's origin and how you might tie in to its creation.

Again, Headlander is more than just head-based combat and robotic possession. It's a terrific sci-fi adventure that'll occupy you for maybe six hours, then leave you to pine for a sequel or spin-off. I don't know about anyone else, but I'd love see the developer expand on this concept and give us just a little more subtle hilarity and sarcastic computers.

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (August 21, 2016)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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