headlander review dont lose your head
When the human race is enslaved by an artificial intelligence, you’ll need to use your head to survive””literally. This week featured the release of Headlander, a hilarious puzzle platformer developed by Double Fine Productions and published by Adult Swim Games. When the studios behind Psychonauts and Robot Unicorn Attack work together, you’re bound to expect something fun and ridiculous; thankfully, Headlander doesn’t disappoint.
You play as a head. No name, no voice, and no means to do anything if it weren’t for the highly-advanced helmet keeping you alive. After waking up aboard the spaceship Starcophagus, you’re guided by a voice named Earl to escape the hordes of deadly robots trying to destroy you. With Earl’s help, you gain control over some of your helmet’s niftier features””rocket thrusters, body hacking abilities, and a high-powered vacuum to name a few””and escape from the Starcophagus just in time to watch it blow to smithereens. Turns out that Earth is desolated, and the only way for the human race to survive was to implant people’s consciousness into robotic bodies. An AI named Methuselah rules these former humans with an iron fist, and it’s up to you and Earl to free them.
Of course, plot takes a back seat to the fun of Headlander’s premise. It’s hard not to chuckle when you first rocket your pickled noggin through the air, and as you progress through the game and find more robot hosts, things only get more ridiculous. Picture the space helmet of an elderly Black man on an hourglass-shaped lady bot; now picture that same head on a dog. The bodies seem funny enough with their 70’s disco styling until you discover that the melee button on civilian bots make your character dance! You could spend hours in Pleasure Place hijacking bodies and getting funky!
The robotic NPCs are definitely a key source of Headlander’s humor, especially because you encounter the sassiest character in every room. The Door AIs bringing your character from screen to screen are clearly reluctant to open up for anyone; because, you know, a door has way more important things to do than open and close. Even when you can bypass restricted areas the Door AIs are never impressed, and if you have low-level clearance they’ll even mock you for thinking you’re someone important. The voice reactions change depending on your progress, but no matter what color the obstacle is, the letters on top of each door are a constant reminder that “DOOR” spelled backward is “ROOD.”
There’s another robot NPC that really captures the game’s darker side of humor. In order to update your mini-scan, you need to hack a friendly directory on wheels called MAPPY. This high-pitched rectangle is immune to laser fire and resistant to melee damage, so the only quick way to dispatch it is to suck out its head-shaped control module. Of course, MAPPY’s very eager to be your friend””even when it knows you’re an enemy of its boss Methuselah””so there’s always this strange twinge of guilt that comes with its dying “MA””PPY” before you can update your mini-scan. It’s the same dark humor you find in killing Portal turrets, where their final words are things like “I don’t blame you.” Headlander tries to use the same joke with ART-E, the apologetic laser turret, but nothing really compares to ripping the brain off a helpless robot who only wants to be your buddy.
Headlander’s controls are easy to pick up and make the game feel pretty straightforward. There’s plenty of upgrades and loot to collect, but as long as you can get over murdering MAPPY you won’t be challenged in finding them. The game’s puzzles aren’t difficult, but what’s really interesting is how combat tends to have a puzzle feature built in: each color can bounce off a surface at least once, and the higher you go on the color spectrum (ROYGBIV) the more times a laser can bounce. To make things even crazier, there are double and triple laser weapons to equip, so the bouncing lasers can quickly turn into a deadly light show. With enough practice, you can make headshots on enemies several floors below you!
The biggest gameplay issue might be the deflector shield feature collected early in the game. It takes a while to master, and you have to be extremely careful about where the cursor is on the screen. Using it in combat can be difficult, and trying to get past laser walls can lead to plenty of game overs. The trick is to plant the cursor on the laser wall just a little bit above your head, and slowly move the cursor with your character to compensate for the shifting camera. For obvious reasons, use a mouse.
Overall, Headlander is a funny platformer focused on being as ridiculous as fans of the studios expect. The game itself won’t challenge you much, but neither is it designed to. Players should just enjoy the trippy disco dystopia, and laugh as a bodiless head rockets through space.