It turns out that you’re the last human alive, and even then, that definition’s pushing it. I’d tell you to take a deep breath and calm down, but it’s not like you have lungs, you’re just a head. You see, everyone else has been transposed into the bodies of robots, finding themselves at the whims of an AI called Methuselah, and that makes you the last great hope for mankind’s survival, in any form.
Everything about Headlander screams 1970s Sci-Fi. Double Fine have done a fantastic job getting the visuals for the game just right, with a haze of diffused pinks, oranges and blues in a fairly heavy film noise filter. It looks great, especially when combined with the retro-futuristic architecture that helps to give each of the three main areas in the game a very distinctive look, and the occasional playful twist, such as having your character silhouetted against the colourful background.
There’s something ever so kitschy about the notion of a human head stuffed into a rocket powered helmet, as well, with the laconic southern American drawl of Earl guiding you through the story. It’s this that really gives Headlander its unique style as a game, as you fly around, having to hijack the robotic bodies of others – don’t worry, you might have sucked their heads off, but they’re instantly reborn in a new body somewhere else – in order to open doors that scornfully reject you otherwise.
These doors are colour coded, only opening if you have a body of the right colour or better – a little rainbow coloured strip in the lower right hand corner is a handy guide to this – making for an interesting take on the side-scrolling Metroidvania formula. Instead of earning, say, a charge shot that opens up heavy blast doors, you need to get a blue body to do it for you.
The difference is that bodies are so easily left behind because of the level design restricting their progress, and are pretty easy to lose from taking too much damage in the firefights that often flood the screen in laser bolts. Backtracking through the world to find hidden areas and unlocks is as much to do with getting and protecting a body as it is simply making progress through the game.
You do gain certain abilities for your head that open up new possibilities or make you more powerful. Flying around as just a head is your weakest state, but also one that you’ll find yourself in quite regularly, having to hijack an enemy’s body or simply flying through a small connecting tube. It’s useful to gain a directional shield to deflect incoming lasers, the ability to deal damage by boosting into enemies, and so on. You can also spend upgrade points on new abilities for bodies you hijack, and there’s plenty of upgrade stations tucked into every corner of the world, giving you more power, more health, faster movement, and so on.
It’s an easy game to enjoy, but there are just a few niggles here and there. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the handful of boss battles in the game, which went on for too long, were generally uninteresting and, if you did die after plugging away at them for 5 or more minutes, would send you all the way back to the start. The set up for one, as the game leant on that mid-20th Century notion that chess could really do with a sequel, was a nice and amusing idea – keep an eye out for the Knight’s laser fire – but the climactic battle was disappointing.
Similarly, the latter stages of the game start to lean quite heavily on fighting your way through enemies and the bullet hell of laser fire that they can produce, locking the doorways in and out of the room until you’ve killed everything around you. That would be fine were the combat not largely the same all the way through the game. You attach to the best body that you can, fire away, trying to aim for headshots and bouncing laser bolts off walls, and once your current body has taken too much damage, flee to the next one and take over there as well. The handful of additional abilities, such as being able to turn grabbed objects into bombs when in head mode are either too niche or not powerful enough to bother learning.
Sadly, it’s also undercut by a few technical flaws. A minor annoyance is the endless repetition of certain lines of tutorial dialogue Earl gives you in certain situations, and the coloured doors’ limited stock of lines. More troubling are the handful of areas that spam the entire screen with lasers bolts, the ensuing chaos of lights and particle effects gradually slowing the game down to a crawl and, on a few occasions, causing the game to crash. It forced me to play differently and take out the laser cannons one by one instead of trying to simply skip past them. One time, this actually corrupted my save file, but thankfully the most recent backup was the previous room.
For a certain nostalgic generation of gamer, it’s hard not to fall in love with Headlander’s retro futuristic stylings and the kind of “what if…” set up that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Terry Nation TV show or a film like Logan’s Run. The combat and and boss fights let it down, but this is an eminently enjoyable twist on the Metroidvania genre.
Version tested: PlayStation 4