By Chris Byrne
Double Fine has had a somewhat troubled reputation of late. With Broken Age spawning from a Kickstarter campaign exceeding 3 million dollars yet still going over budget and being split into two halves, Spacebase DF-9 remaining in Early Access unfinished and the long anticipated sequel to Psychonauts being financed through their own funding scheme known as Fig, Double Fine seemed unable to deliver us a quality product outside of remastering Tim Schafer’s classic titles, such as Grim Fandango. Thankfully, with Adult Swim as the publisher, Headlander manages to deliver a strong experience that can give us some hope for the future of the company.
Headlander is a 2.5D Metroidvania game inspired by 1970’s science fiction. Humanity has decided to forego their bodies and instead utilise robots. However, as you would expect in this style of science fiction, the antagonist Methuselah has taken over these bodies to be used for his own purposes. You control the last human, awoken from cryogenic stasis in order to fight him, but only your head has survived the process. The story for this game is an intriguing concept and one that I was interested in delving into. At times though it was a little hard for me to follow. Its narrative elements weren’t sufficiently strong to pull me into the world enough to truly engage with the story.
Thankfully though, where this lacks, its art direction certainly does not. Double Fine have done a great job of building a world that drips with that 1970’s Sci-Fi vibe, and it was very refreshing to play through a game world which offered this to see. This stretches into every aspect of its aesthetic, from the soundtrack, to the menu’s colour scheme and character design. Characters both friendly and otherwise have some great dialogue, particularly the snarky remarks from the doors. It’s not Double Fine’s best humour, but it’s still a welcome inclusion.
The mechanics of the game are pretty unique. The character you control can fly around in helmet form and can also use robots to attack. However crazy a concept, controlling the head is both intuitive and enjoyable. Both forms of gameplay are crucial to getting through this world, and both are interesting enough to hold you throughout the game. For example, your head can fly around and pull the heads off of enemies, but has no long-range weapon and can die rather easily. On the other hand, using a robot normally means you will have a gun at your disposal and higher survivability at the expense of the mobility offered to you through flight. As you progress through the game, you’ll find that you’ll need robots to unlock certain doors, and this becomes part of the game’s core progression mechanic. For example, the robots are colour coded by rank, and to get through certain doors your robot has to be that colour in order to advance. It’s an interesting concept for a game and not one I’ve seen all too often, and the designers actually manage to find ways to change this up. Sometimes it can be a little frustrating when the body you need isn’t close to you, however.
That being said, this does come with some caveats. Combat in this game is…well…fine. That’s about it. Not Double Fine, just....Fine. It’s nothing special; but it gets the job done. As you don’t have a lot of mobility when controlling a robot, combat is mostly firing your laser at the other guy until that robot dies or its head pops off. If yours dies, you have to fly to another robot before your head is killed, reverting back to the last auto save. To be critical, the shooting at times feels a little bit clumsy. The combat works and it’s ok, it just isn’t anything that feels particularly invigorating to play. In some cases, it seemed easier to just skip it entirely. I did this in one section towards the end of the game, as I could just fly over all the enemies. Not only that, but the game’s two boss fights feel a little underwhelming due to these limitations. Couple this with some issues with performance that I encountered on PS4 and it makes the overall feel of the combat a little underwhelming. I do however like how the progression tree works. It focuses on adding to your move set in ways that are both useful and interesting, such as your head being able to repair the robots your control, head-butting the enemy to instantly take control, access to a twin-sided shield for your head and so on.
As with any Metroidvania game, there are plenty of secrets and you’re rewarded for exploring this world. You can find upgrade points to spend on the skill tree, or upgrades to basic stats such as your health and stamina. You can gain new moves, which, when backtracking through the game, will uncover previously unreachable areas (although I found it wasn’t as encouraged in this title as it has been in other Metroidvania games). For the most part, I’d say this game actually feels a little more linear by comparison, but I wouldn’t say that’s to the game’s detriment, depending on what it is you want from a game. The game also has some puzzle elements to its world. I wouldn’t say they’re overly challenging to figure out mentally, but they’re a satisfying addition nonetheless.
Headlander hits some stumbling blocks on the way, with its occasional combat issues, somewhat disappointing narrative and a few issues with performance. However, this doesn’t stop Headlander overall being a fun and engaging Metroidvania game that does enough within the genre to feel both fresh and interesting. With its take on the 1970’s Sci-fi, unique gameplay and intriguing premise, Double Fine have a game which has managed to be something stand out in a genre that can often be saturated with games too alike. If you’ve been looking for something a little different, and would quite like a dose of that classic Double Fine humour, Headlander may be worth a look for you.