Developed by Double Fine, and published by Adult Swim Games, Headlander is a platformer dedicated to the question, “So – what if you were a flying head, and you could switch bodies?” Well, okay, maybe not. But since that’s what you spend the majority of your time doing in-game, it’s a fair assumption, right?
Warning: gameplay video and game both contain bright lights and flashing which may aggravate or set off migraines or seizures.
A robotic overlord by the name of Methuselah has taken control of the remains of humanity, who are now just personalities uploaded into immortal robot bodies. As possibly the last real human head (yes, you read that right), you must find your way through a maze of hallways and rooms, utilizing the bodies of your former brethren to both move and gain access to other areas. The goal? Defeat Methuselah and free the hapless robots – the poor things think they’re in a utopia. Along the way, you will be shot, shocked, smashed, and burned. I was lucky enough to experience all of these while learning the ropes.
I was immediately struck by how classically “Double Fine” this game’s design is. If you’re not familiar with what I mean, I weep for you, for you have clearly been asleep for the past ten years. To see what I’m referring to, you only need to look at one game: Psychonauts. It’s ridiculous, it has a lot of detail and challenge built into a pretty simple concept, and it involves situations that are only about one or two steps away from reality. In the case of Headlander, this results in, well, a flying human head that somehow survives without lungs or a heart. (Can we get NASA on that technology? I think it’d be useful.)
Headlander is obviously a punny description of the literal game mechanics. You land a head in places to achieve goals. You can not only control bodies, but utilize stations for upgrades, switch ship functions on and off, and literally pull things apart with a small gravitational field coming from where your neck used to be. That last part was a lot more fun than I thought it would be. I spent quite a bit of time in a room where “red bodies” kept spawning, just dodging their lasers and pulling their heads off, because the mechanic is so great, and it’s well-executed. If something has a head, you can pull it off and control the body, even the vacuums (you can blow dust on enemies – it doesn’t do more than annoy them, but it’s still fun).
The graphics have the distinctive Double Fine flair, and the 1970s retro-futuristic setting is a familiar palette, as it’s been featured in other games, as well. The action is smooth, and despite a few moments where there are entirely too many flares and flashes (seriously, devs, please consider a mod where people with visual sensitivities can turn these off or down – the simple “brightness” setting was not enough), I was overall very pleased with the look. The HUD is ridiculously easy to parse, and it was so nice to have a map that only showed what I absolutely needed to see. In order to access certain areas, you must attach yourself to bodies of a certain color. Red doors require “red bodies,” orange doors need “orange bodies,” and so on. On the map, they show up as simple color-coded doors, so you know what you need to do at any given point. Objectives show up as icons, and that’s it. No frills. You see what you need, period.
There’s not a whole lot of music during regular gameplay. The sound effects are pretty limited to “spaceship” sounds, with the whoosh of doors, the sound of the helmet’s rockets, and the clanging noises associated with metal bodies echoing through the air. They work, and the game is by no means silent, but it’s odd how normal the sounds are for the environment, given the other weird stuff that’s going on (outside of combat, where the soundscape is obviously more intense). The robot voices are pretty nondescript. The narrator (Earl) is the voice filling up most of the silence. Okay, guys, I say “y’all” a lot, given that I’m from Tennessee, and I get plenty of crap about it, but good lord. I think I counted four “y’all”s from Earl in one sentence, and it was at that point that the shtick went from comedic to flat. The voice acting itself was excellent, and I’m sure there’s an in-joke somewhere about him having been programmed based off of the consciousness of some guy from Texas. That is, however, the biggest thing that stuck with me about Earl, and I think that’s unfortunate.
The puzzles in Headlander deal mostly with figuring out where your head needs to be (no pun intended, I swear) to achieve certain tasks, and a large portion of them involve color-matching robots to doors. One early quest has you taking control of a dog to return it to its owner. Navigation is a bit tricky, because you can’t really jump. If you can’t use teleportation pads or lifts to get from one floor to another, you just have to fly your head up and hope for the best (either a body to inhabit, or a pipe access point to fly through). This is all compounded by the fact that, aside from the regular citizens (and a few rebels), nobody wants you there. This is where the “shot, shocked, smashed, and burned” part comes into play. Some of the areas were very frustrating, but thankfully nothing was impassable if I took a few minutes (and quite a number of attempts) to consider my approach. It definitely took some patience as I got further along, though, as did combat. Serious patience.
It’s important to note that the sheer number of different types of bodies I could inhabit nearly made up for everything about this game that frustrated me.
Overall, Headlander is pretty good. I did enjoy myself, and it seems like it’s great for streaming. There is so much going on that it’d be a shame to not have someone watching you play – even if you’re terrible at it, it’s entertaining. I had, as I mentioned, a few eye-rolling moments, but if you don’t take the game (or yourself) too seriously, there’s not a whole lot here to dislike. I’d say it’s up to you whether or not this game has replay value – I didn’t see much in the way of achievement-hunting, so I guess it’s just a matter of how much you enjoy yourself.
[I cannot stress enough that if you’re at risk for seizures, you need to find out whether this is something you can handle, first. Even those at risk for migraine will likely have issues.]
Headlander was released on June 26, and is available on Steam for $19.99 USD. Find out more information about the game on the official website, and follow Double Fine and Adult Swim Games for more information about this and upcoming projects.