Every now and then, a game releases with such a fresh and interesting visual direction that you almost instantly fall in love with it. A game that you’ll want to play more of just to see what new sights await you. Headlander hits you full-on with a retro sci-fi style that would fit right in with something Stanley Kubrick would have daydreamed about. The washed out rainbow of colors, smooth edges and shag rugs are so wonderfully dated and are a fresh look for a video game. I’ll just admit it; I would gladly marry the art style of this game. I would take it out to a nice dinner and then ask for its hand. But does the rest of the game capture my heart as well?
As you may have guessed, Headlander is a sci-fi romp presented in the much loved ‘Metroidvania‘ style. You take on the role of what may be the last organic human left in the galaxy. Well, the last organic disembodied head of a human. Luckily your head is strapped onto a rocket boost and can interact, or ‘dock’, with nearly everything in the world. You’ll find yourself taking over the bodies of enemy robots, civilian robots, and even robotic dogs. Guided by the seemingly friendly voice of “Earl”, you set off to reclaim the greatness that humankind once had.
The game plays out as a 2D side-scrolling platformer with elements from the so-called ‘Metroidvania’ play style. I really shouldn’t call it a ‘platformer’ though, as with no jump ability, you never truly ‘platform’. Rather, you use your unusual headless abilities to fly over gaps and take over enemies that have varying levels of door access. You’ll unlock upgrades which give you access to new areas. Of course this means a fair amount of backtracking, but that’s how these games play. While the different abilities are interesting and abundant, they all aren’t exactly necessary. The great thing about the way in which the game is presented is you’ll surely stumble across areas and items you have no way of accessing at first, and you’ll need make a mental note to return once new powers are granted. With loads and loads of hidden rooms and items, exploration is very much rewarded and encouraged.
The sad souls you essentially steal the body from will allow you to also shoot the laser gun they are.. er, were, brandishing. These lasers of course ricochet unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and makes for a chaotic bit of combat. While there is the ability to ‘precisely aim’, it still boils down to a massive hail of lasers and seeing who explodes first. The combat isn’t ‘bad’ per se, it’s just not very developed; which is fine, seeing as the game is more about exploration and platforming anyhow.
The levels are massive and maze-like in design, but in a good way. There are loads of areas to explore, with high level of interactivity and interesting visuals. It’s a real motivator to find out who and what lies in the next room. You are able to speak to, and replace heads with, nearly every non-hostile dweller. You can even perch onto some other strange objects, some with combat advantages and others just for a laugh. Oval chairs, neon lights and burnt orange fills this world to the brim with late 60s-70s vibes and tones. You can also dance on command at any time, with anybody. Some bodies hold different dance moves as well, so keep the moves coming.
While there are ‘bosses’, they are few and far between, and a tad underwhelming. Not in the sense of boring or even lackluster, but they can be frustrating at best. Mid-boss battle checkpoints are non-existent, and when mixed with some of the very long and tedious later battles, this can cause some blood vessels to explode. While I do very much love a challenge in game, these never give the feeling of accomplishment, it instead gives the feeling of relief that it’s finally over.
In the end, Headlander presents the player with a love letter to early 70s sci-fi mixed with a bit of humor that we expect from a Double Fine game. While the gameplay itself is nothing new, the presentation and execution is something worth checking out. The art style is so charming it hurts. I say it hurts because after playing I stared at my hardwood floors for hours wishing I had gone for the shag rugs. Taking me around eight or so hours to finish, it’s worth the price if you’re in the mood for some Metroidvania.