Don't lose your head in this enjoyable metroidvania
While always seemingly popular, the so called metroidvania genre has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Between the indie projects and the big publisher-backed releases, it seems there is still room in the modern gaming scene for the familiar mechanics of exploration, backtracking and progress gating. The latest release in this vein is Headlander, and it comes from Double Fine Productions and Adult Swim Games. This brief, but mostly satisfying, adventure offers some solid gameplay, a notable setting and a few laughs along the way.
The game begins with a nameless and voiceless protagonist of your choice, aboard an exploding spaceship. A man’s voice coming through the comms in your helmet tells you that it’s probably a good idea to abandon the vessel. The reason you’re unable to speak is because you’re just that – a head in a helmet. It’s the future, but told through the retro-70’s vibe, and apparently the humanity is near extinction. People thought it would be a good idea to upload themselves to robot bodies to carry on through life, but an evil AI has overridden the system and trapped them in those robots. You are one human (or at least a head) that has managed to escape, and must defeat the evil program and free the human consciousnesses.
You are attached to a nearby available robot body, and make your escape to a large nearby floating city, where the rest of the game takes place. Headlander’s setting does feel rather original for a video game, and something you might expect Double Fine to craft. The 70s vibe is present throughout – from the hippie color scheme and carpet, to the way robots and tech look. The visuals represent very well what the people in the 70’s thought a future might look like. The voice acting is decent as well, with the voice on the far end of the radio guiding you through the game. But despite the setting, Headlander’s campaign is actually quite forgettable. Having a speechless protagonist and underdeveloped characters, as well as a rather thin and predictable plot, means that this isn’t a game you’ll remember for its narrative.
As mentioned, Headlander is a 2D metroidvania, and while it sticks fairly close to the genre clichés, there are elements that help the game stand out. First off, you’re a head in a helmet, and you’ve got thrusters. That alone provides the game plenty of vertical and exploration gameplay, as you are able to enter narrow vents, manipulate objects, and so on. You can also pull the heads off any other robot and take over their body. The game carefully points out that the owners of the robot bodies you “borrow” are safely transferred to another host later. Taking over robot bodies gives you whatever function they may have – whether its security access to bypass doors, weapons, and so on. This rather ingenious mix of exploration as a floating head and combat/grounded gameplay while controlling robot bodies gives Headlander a unique and well-crafted gameplay feel.
The level design is much of what you’d expect from a game in this genre. There are plenty of side rooms, color-coded locked doors, and secret passages sprawling in multiple directions. The relatively straightforward puzzle and pathfinding elements focus on controlling the correct robots to pass through checkpoints, or having the right weapons. The combination of walking as robots and floating as the head in a helmet is seamless and fun, letting players go anywhere they may choose while not having actual platforming elements (your robot body cannot jump) .
Exploration nets you instant upgrade parts, as well as points to spend later on abilities. You can upgrade things like the range of your “suction” to free bodies of their robot heads, regenerate ammo and health, and so on. It’s standard stuff and it works. There are different sets of improvements for both your head form and when controlling robot bodies. The improvements feel well adjusted to the game’s general difficulty increase later on.
The weaker aspects of the gameplay occur when the game tries to break up the pace with infrequent bosses and set pieces, which force you into laser gun combat. The issue is that the gunplay often feels imprecise and more annoying than it needs to be, even though you have an option for more controlled shots. The lasers often bounce off a surface or two, presenting some tactical opportunities to attack enemies in cover. The boss encounters and setpieces also sometimes use mechanics that aren’t really found in the rest of the game, and as such often feel like a difficulty spike in an otherwise calming experience. Although playable with mouse and keyboard, a controller certainly felt more suited for the game.
The combination of the whacky style from Double Fine with the equally comedy-focused Adult Swim Games results in Headlander being rather focused on inducing at least a bit of laughter. Aside from the obvious ridiculousness of the setup itself (you’re a floating head, and you land on things! Hence the name of the game!), and the abundance of 70s culture references, the game enjoys plenty of random dialog from its robot inhabitants. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but the light slapstick comedy fits the game well and makes the journey feel carefree.
Despite its original setting and some genre staple gameplay, Headlander doesn't really amount to anything very memorable. It's certainly a case of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts. Metroidvania gameplay is alive and well, and the concept of a floating head that can attach to robot bodies is certainly fresh, as is the retro aesthetic, but the story is forgettable and uninvolving, and the whole thing is over in a few hours with a few frustrating sections in between. Thanks to a bit of humor and rock solid mechanics, Headlander should earn a spot on your summer play list if you enjoy games in this genre, even if it doesn't stick around for very long.