Headlander sits in a long tradition of games that use nominative determinism. Tomb Raider? It’s a game about raiding tombs. Coconut Dodge sees you doing your best to evade hard shelled fruit, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket Powered Battle Cars speaks for itself and Skate, rather more succinctly, is a game about skating.
As you may well have guessed by now, Headlander is a game about landing your head onto a variety of bodies. This isn’t some sort of macabre blood bath where you’re tossing your own decapitated head from body to body, but instead a sci-fi game that sees you pilot a self-sufficient head through a retro-futuristic world, specifically one that mirrors the future of 1970’s science fiction.
It’s certainly one of the more unique premises I’ve seen in a game for a while, but it works remarkably well and really adds to the both the game’s platforming and combat elements. You are, in fact, far more agile when shooting around as a rocket powered detached head, allowing you to traverse gaps that your robotic body is otherwise unable to, as well as dodging the blasts fired at you by other robots.
Despite the advantages of your head only form, you will still need to grab a body fairly frequently. For starters, being on a body allows your health to recharge, but you’ll also need the right coloured body to get through security doors and to use weaponry. The latter is particularly important when you want to move between bodies, as obviously you can’t attach yourself to a body that’s already got a head attached.
The easiest way to remove said head is by using your laser gun, where a well placed headshot will knock the head free, letting you get your hands on it and disabling the body at the same time. What’s nice is that you can bounce your laser of certain bits of the scenery, adding to the game’s puzzle mechanics and allowing you to pull off awesome trick shots.
The actual mechanism for attaching yourself to a new body is much simpler than you’d think from watching someone else play the game. As soon as you find yourself near enough to a body to actually clamp yourself onto it, a simple press of a shoulder button will draw your head towards the vacant neck and, within moments, clamp you onto it, awarding you control of the body.
If you’re looking for an overall description of the game’s mechanics, 2D Metroidvania style platformer encapsulates most of what you need to know. There are security doors that are only openable by robots of the right colour, and the kind of unlockable abilities you’d expect for the genre, seeming to revolve around your head.
The demo of the game that was made available only featured one of these new abilities, a vacuum pump that your head can use to pull the covers off sealed hatches and, more usefully, the heads off enemies. While using your weapons to knock an enemy’s head off before you grab hold of their body is satisfying, the animation when you literally suck their head off is genuinely funny. Now get your mind out of the gutter.
That same humour is present throughout the game, and Double Fine deserves some real praise for nailing the writing. While your character is voiceless – owing to his distinct lack of lungs – there’s a near ever-present narrator that provides the significant majority of the game’s dialogue. Everything about this narrator fits perfectly with the game’s setting, from his over the top persona to the incredibly American twang to his voice, it’s all gold.
There’s also something about the way he phrases his instructions that suggests a slightly darker undercurrent to the game’s story, as do a few other environmental elements. Although the demo only sees your bodiless head awaking on a ship before the narrator guides you to an escape pod, it’s not entirely clear why you’re on the ship, why you’re just a head, or why the narrator is helping you escape. It’s obvious that the ship’s suffered some form of attack, but there’s nothing to suggest that the ship was populated by humans before said attack.
Back on the more mechanical side of things, while you will spend a lot of time attaching your head onto humanoid robots, that’s not all there is to that element of the game. For a start there are a lot of security consoles etc. that you gain access to by clamping your head onto, allowing you to open up new chunks of the level. However, much more importantly, the trailer for the game clearly shows you taking control of a robotic dog. If that doesn’t pique your interest then I don’t know what will!
When it comes down to it, Headlander is a game that combines humour, a distinctive setting and a unique core idea to create something that I want to spend a lot of time playing. The platforming elements feel tight, the combat is solid, and the flight control for your head feel much better than I’d expected. If you’re a fan of classic sci-fi, Metroidvania titles, or heads then this is absolutely one to keep an eye on.