Headlander from Double Fine and Adult Swim is a game that proudly, and quite successfully, dabbles in surreal presentation and absurdist humour. But the early moments of the game, where you first take control of a disembodied astronaut head and jet around from robot-body to robot-body, feel almost too slight. And the presentation, although very cool, doesn’t really do much to endear you to the story of its futuristic by the way of 1970s dystopian psychedelic sci-fi world. So you’re left wondering if this style of presentation, and surreal premise, could work at all in a game.
Thankfully, the answer is yes. And these feelings and doubts all but disappear after a few minutes. In the end Headlander works as well as it does because at its core it’s a well-thought out and intricately designed Metroidvania-style game. And probably the best since 2009’s Shadow Complex.
For those that may not be aware Metroidvania is the genre term that exists solely for the purpose of describing games that play out in a similar fashion to the brilliant Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Games where vertical and horizontal exploration meets player progression, secrets to find, projectile combat, and giant boss battles. So how does this work with something like Headlander? Well, pretty easy. And quite intuitively thanks to the nature of the premise. One that although may screams gimmicky, turns out to be different enough to elevate it beyond simple Metroid-clone.
You know how in these sorts of games there are doors you can’t pass through unless you have the right weaponry or key card or coloured do-dad? Well, in Headlander different coloured security bots are the only ones that can go through these coloured doors. Which means either shooting their heads off to get their bodies, or dodging incoming fire to get close enough to vacuum their heads clean off and then take-over their bodies. Yeah, there’s certainly a strangeness to what you do in Headlander. And the 1970s sci-fi presentation, which adds a layer of style to everything, thankfully extends to the mechanics.
Which means that it won’t be long before you’re body-hopping from bot to bot, solving puzzles and clearing out large rooms in a fashion that at a glance may seem as absurd as some of the locations you’ll be exploring. But much like with the great Super Metroid from the early ‘90s, the complexity of everything reveals itself the more you play. Which makes Headlander a joy from beginning to end. Something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, because it certainly couldn’t have been easy to create a game that lasts several hours be so fun to play. And with such a strange premise.
In terms of story, Headlander never quite hits the mark with its tale of a future where humanity began downloading their minds into robots and then a rogue AI decided to take over and make things miserable for everyone. The blend of the comedic with dramatic ends up being a bit of a letdown, narratively speaking. In terms of presentation though, Healdander’s 1970s inspired art style is quite beautiful to look at, and the environments and music and attention to detail from the game’s title screen through to the way certain robots walk with a certain kind of swagger that naturally befits their respective moustaches, are two examples of everything great about the experience.
Without the narrative drive to push you along it’s the wonderful environments, great music, and superb level design that’ll keep you hooked. Plus, expecting the unexpected. Some truly inspired moments are peppered throughout Headlander’s lengthy campaign, with a few that are destined to stick with you. Like the part where you enter a robotic chess warzone, to take out a deranged AI Queen. Here you have to navigate and solve a number of puzzles in a large section that plays unlike anything that came before.
Headlander may be a mixed-bag, tonally speaking, but in terms of everything else there’s a clear sense of purpose and intuitiveness to it. From the level design, to the combat, to the puzzle solving, to the secrets, to the progression system and power-ups you can unlock. It’s probably be the best severed astronaut head game you’ll ever play.
And that's groovy.