Headlander is a brand new (space-y) frontier for development studio Double Fine Productions and this campy sci-fi romp hit all of the right turbolifts on the way out to the stars. Set against a retro-futuristic backdrop, this homage to 1970s science-fiction cinema is both charming and challenging. The Metroidvania gameplay requires quite a bit of patience, but the pay-offs and the power-ups are well worth the potential headaches of backtracking and trying not to be blown to bits as a rocket-powered helmet.
In the far-flung future, something has gone awry. War has left its scar on the galaxy and humans have transferred their collective consciousness to a more stable vessel: robots. These robots owe their fealty of sorts to, you guessed it, an Omniscient AI. This one goes by the name of METHUSELAH. Its motivations are unknown, though unsurprisingly heinous, as it sets well-armed Shepards against you — the last known human in the universe — as you seek to uncover your origin and to overthrow METHUSELAH.
There are three disembodied heads to play as, though the choice is purely cosmetic. Your head can’t speak, after all. Something to do with not having a larynx, I think… Biology is complicated.
Headlander starts the player off by gently easing them into the control structure, introducing them first to the delicate art of “headlanding”. Headlanding refers to the act of attaching the rocket-powered helmet to whichever vessel it is able to inhabit, whether that’s a citizen, a Shepard, a laser-turret with Invader Zim’s voice curiously peeking out, a vacuum robot, a dog, and any number of terminals that allow “headlanding” interfacing.
Then, we get into the lasers. Why lasers? As I had mentioned in my PAX East preview, Headlander really wanted to be a game that made lasers cool again. And lo, how they accomplished their goal. During your escape from the ship, there isn’t much in the way of security. Sure, it’s a little beefy in places, but it’s nothing you can’t handle with a couple of Trans Fiber Node upgrades, providing your jetset-noggin with some extra goodies to get past puzzles and baddies alike.
Once you’re free of your ship of origin (or, at least, your head’s ship of origin), that’s when things get interesting. The Shepards step up their game with Bigger ‘n Badder laser guns (with multiple laser beams, in some cases) and the security doors requiring more than Red robosuits to enter.
As you progress through Headlander, you’ll notice that security doors are more intuitive than meets the eye. They require a piece of a colour sequence, rather than the exact colour itself. An orange robosuit can open orange and red doors. Yellow may open yellow, orange, and red. Green may open green, yellow, orange, and red. And so on and so forth following the primary school adage of Roy Gee Biv (ROYGBIV).
Sometimes it’s necessary to fly into vents and collect secret goodies, including power-ups and increases to your head’s stats.Because yes, your head has a health and energy bar that’s separate from your body’s. For example, a head’s health regenerates over time, while a body’s does not. In order to heal a body, you’ll have to hop over to a Repair station, where you get a new coat of paint and some shiny… whatever those beams are. Et voila: a repaired robosuit that isn’t going to autodestruct on the next hit.
Your head’s power-ups are more than just more rocket fuel, especially when you headland onto a Trans Fiber Node. You’ll gain shields, boost, and psychedelic security busting. Traversing the world as a disembodied head is Dangerous Bidniss, and you need to keep your noggin protected. Collect orbs and spend ’em on bolstering your head.
The puzzles in Headlander are complex and require a fair bit of “hey, where was that thing that I saw and was it near a teleport room so I don’t have to run around all of these regenerated Shepards?” Even when you’re a skilled and experienced Metroidvania player, the backtracking can get a bit much, especially in the more complex areas of the game. Expect to play through the entirety of a sequence of events or risk losing the thread when you load your save during the next session. There were too many instances of me having to wrack my brain to remember what was next.
Thankfully, Headlander’s map is brilliant. It marks out all of the headland interface locations that you haven’t claimed yet. You can see your objective nodes clearly marked, though it’s not always obvious how to get there. (Ah, the glory and agony of Metroidvania games.) You can also see where you’re supposed to go for some of the citizen side missions, which will take you through a little bit of backstory about what it means to inhabit this METHUSELAH-driven existence.
Citizens will react to you differently, depending on the vessel you headlanded on, and may even given you snippets of dialogue that differ from vessel to vessel. They’re less likely to be forthcoming to a Shepard, but may talk to you if you’re in a citizen body. Additionally, there are listening stations peppered throughout, providing even more insight into what appears to be dissent among the populace, murmurs of “don’t let this be for nothing”.
Headlander’s psychedelic colour palette, the mid-century architecture and design elements, the sexy ‘70s character design, and the little quirky details, like the loading screen and over-the-top muzak, created a nostalgia-powered grin-fest from top to bottom. I loved the cheeky one-liners from the security door (“All are welcome… even you.”) and the hapless apologies from the laser turret (“I’m so sorry about this! I’m far too powerful.”) And the fact that you can just break out into dance when inhabiting a citizen’s body is delightful icing on this very groovy cake.
Headlander’s bombastic backdrop and its mischievous wink to ’70s science-fiction takes potentially frustrating gameplay and spins it into a joyful experience. Double Fine and Adult Swim Games gave us exactly what we need for this troubled year: fun, minor frustration, and a little campy nonsense.
(Original Post: The Daily Crate)