Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Adult Swim
Format: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Microsoft Windows, Mac OS
Released: July 26, 2016
Headlander is the latest title from Tim Shafer’s Double Fine Productions, a company perhaps best known for cult favourite, Psychonauts. It’s a quirky mix of 2D puzzle-platforming and shooting wrapped in lush, 3D environments inspired by late ‘70s / early ‘80s sci-fi. Try picturing the lovechild of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon on a Star Wars budget and you’ll get the general idea.
The plot is relatively simple and exists purely to move you from one area to the next. You are the last flesh and blood human, albeit only a head. You are kept alive by your helmet which also allows you to fly around and pull the heads off enemies and NPCs alike. You can then hijack their bodies, which you do primarily to get access through colour-coded doors. There are 7 colours in total, so having the right body and the right time is very important, especially for a handful of relatively simple puzzles throughout the game.
As the game begins you are introduced to your tutorial guide and narrator, Earl, who fills you in on some of the details of the plot. The evil A.I. Methuselah has subjugated the human race after they uploaded their minds into robotic bodies. Humanity gained immortality at the expense of freedom, and Methuselah gained a compliant workforce of flaky, pleasure-seeking morons (a.k.a. space hippies). Naturally, Earl expects you to take Methuselah out and free the human race from eternal servitude.
As a head, you can pull off hatches to gain access to service areas as well as pull the heads off of enemies. Some hijacked bodies come equipped with lasers that you can use to knock the heads off of other enemies or bounce off of walls and mirrors to solve puzzles. There are some areas that can only be accessed with certain bodies, so there’s an extra challenge in that as well. Overall, the puzzles are fairly simple. More often than not you’ll find yourself getting shot to death by enemies rather than getting stuck on the puzzles. It can be frustrating at times, especially in areas where there’s only a single save point, similar to the backtracking through large, mostly linear levels.
Throughout the game you can unlock new abilities, such as shields that briefly protect you from laser fire and the ability to pull off heads faster and from greater distances. However, these don’t change the gameplay to a massive degree and upgrade points are plentiful enough that you’ll probably have unlocked all of them by the end of the game.
What Headlander has in its favour at least is its art design: the game oozes retro sci-fi charm. The Shepherds – Methuselah’s robot henchmen – sound like the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. The mid-game boss, who sounds like General Kala from the Flash Gordon movie, was a real highlight for me (and bloody hard to beat too). There’s also a scene that features a spot-on parody of Joan Baez’s Rejoice in the Sun from Silent Running that I’m not sure anyone other than myself would actually get.
Headlander is very much a game that is more style than substance. That being said, its innovative head-swapping mechanic, quirky sense-of-humour and art design kept me entertained throughout. It’s certainly a unique gaming experience that I would highly recommend everyone to try, but I do not think it’s one that I’d revisit now that I’ve finished it. At the end, Headlander will leave you feeling satisfied, but not craving more.
Final Score: 3.5/5
Written by Tristan Hankins