3.5 out of 5. A fun puzzle platformer novelty that sets itself apart from the competition with Double Fine's usual bizarre world building.
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How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. Headlander's progression is fairly linear with little reason to go back to previous areas if you're diligent in finding all of the secrets the first time through
Primary Challenge: Spatial-Reasoning Puzzles
Time to beat: ~5 hours
Review Info: Headlander was played on Steam

More Info

Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Sub-genre: Puzzle Game Hybrid
Features: Map System, Skill Trees, Guide/Hint System, 2D Platformer, Ranged Combat, No Jumping, Flying/Swimming, Spatial Reasoning Puzzles, Fast Travel/Teleporters, Environmental Storytelling
Difficulty: Medium
Linearity/Openness: Linear Guided
Platforms: Windows, MacOS, Steam, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 2016/07/25
Available Languages: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian

Store Links

    Steam    Humble Bundle    Playstation    Xbox Store    

Buy Headlander if you like…

  • Unique Game Concepts
  • Spatial Reasoning Logic Puzzles
  • 80s style aesthetic
  • Tim Schafer's Signature Style
  • Short but Sweet Games

▼ Review continues below ▼

In a dystopian future where everyone’s mind has been transferred into machinery, you are uniquely the last human alive. Sort of.

Every once in a while “weird” is all you need to be entertaining, and Headlander defines that phenomena in the same ways that Double Fine has delivered its brand of world building in the past. You play as a disembodied head equipped with a rocket powered helmet and the apparent ability to socket into any machine and control it through sheer force of will. You use these abilities to use and discard various robot bodies, or link into elevators or teleporters. The resulting gameplay never really moves beyond novelty, and the science fiction, while interesting, doesn’t build up to any sort of satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, Headlander will still provide a few hours of unique entertainment if you can enjoy its absurdity.

Headlander is probably more comparable to the Adventure Game genre than it is to any action game. Your main goal is to access new rooms, which is accomplished by transporting the correct body to the appropriate doorway. The most stark example of this is the world’s rainbow coded security system, where the color red represents the lowest access level, and violet is able to access basically any door. Taking over specific colored androids will make the talking doors open for you, and if you have no body at all they will snarkily turn you away. There are other “body gates” besides the main doors, including small doors accessible only by robot dogs and floor cleaners, and electric floors that require your robot body to have insulated treads to pass without being destroyed. Exploration is also gated by the more traditional Metroidvania-style upgrades which, as an example, let you dash past crushing traps or bash through specific walls.

The primary gameplay loop is then trading out bodies and solving puzzles using their unique abilities. This often requires you to memorize what room useful bodies are in so you can plan your routes accordingly. This does lead to some very interesting situations, although shuffling around can be a little tedious if you allow yourself to get confused in the process. While the puzzles do have shining moments of cleverness, they never get too difficult. Much of the game’s 5 hour run time is spent in each “zone” turning on 4 or 5 different macguffin-style objectives simply because a smooth southern-accent voice is telling you to, and not necessarily because of any logical implication. This means your activities feel more like busy-work rather than a more naturally unfolding puzzle box, and the value comes from single room tasks rather than solving a bigger-picture riddle.

There is also a bit of combat, but it’s generally too chaotic to have any depth. One of the main gimmicks is that lasers fired by both you and your enemies ricochet off of walls. Theoretically this could lead to some dynamic aiming situations, but in practice, each room becomes an incomprehensible bullet hell in a matter of seconds. You’re almost always better off dismounting your body and vacuuming the heads off your enemies for the instant kill. Late game enemies might have shields that require at least a little bit of laser fire before they become vulnerable, but you can still avoid getting good at ranged combat through some overpowered upgrades, such as the one that lets you set your body off on its own to do your dirty work for you. Perhaps in a last ditch effort to add some skill to the ricochet shooting, there are also button puzzles where multiple buttons have to be pressed within short succession to unlock your prize. Even in those situations though, I found that randomly firing my gun and hoping for the best was more efficient than trying to land a perfect shot. Combat really needed to slower and more feasible to react to, perhaps with bullets doing more consequential damage at lower rates of fire, in order for Headlander’s combat ideas to accomplish anything interesting. As-is combat is a throw-away aspect of Headlander; it’s not bad, but it’s also not great.

What Headlander excels at is general atmosphere, and the decision to make this game a pseudo-Metroidvania is what makes it solid. In spite of the game’s objectives being seemingly random, the world it takes place in is fun to explore. Paying attention to your map, and what extra objectives can be accomplished through body swapping, reaps health upgrades and experience points that can unlock things like the aforementioned overpowered combat abilities. More importantly, environmental story telling is fairly well done, even if it is nestled within some padding. Your understanding of the plight of future humans is gained primarily from simply observing how robots behave and interact with each other, rather than being spoon-fed to you. Of course, everything is treated with comedic whimsy, and perhaps a majority of what you see is unpretentiously there simply to provide a chuckle rather than to make any kind of statement. While your mileage may vary depending on what you bring into the game, for me at least the satire hits just enough depth to be relatable.

Ultimately though the story, just like everything else in the game, fell just a little short of being “must-see.” Some of the exposition is dumped on you within the third act of the game, and the motivations of the major actors are never properly explained. It all builds up to some cliche feeling encounters that rely more on your experience with other works that use the same tropes rather than earning any emotional impact by itself. It feels incomplete, particularly because the premise has such a solid foundation to build on. At its best, Headlander gives you a lot to think about with its environments and random interactions with its NPCs, but it fails to tie it all together thanks to an unsatisfying main plotline.

Even though it never rises above just being “pretty good”, there’s still enough novelty and polish in Headlander to set it apart from much of its competition. If you’re a fan of Double Fine’s other weird works, or just enjoy a good absurd situation, I think you can still get a lot of enjoyment out of this game. The combat and puzzles are fun even if they’re not particularly challenging, and the exploration at least is mostly satisfying. Just don’t go into it expecting anything groundbreaking or complex and you will likely to have a good time with it.


Final Score

3.5/5

Scoring system overview


Metroidvania Breakdown

Combat
– 3

Some combat mechanics are pretty easily exploited, and because of the general chaos of ricocheting weapons exploitation is the way to go.

Platforming
– 3

Platforming is practically non-existent, which means it can't be a detractor either.

Exploration
– 3.5

While there isn't a ton of depth to the exploration, it's still fun and rewarding to find all the secrets.

Puzzle
– 3.5

Shuffling through which bodies are needed where is the primary challenge of this game, and while it never gets too challenging it's still enjoyable.

Story
– 3.5

Some decent overall sci-fi that has more style than substance. The style is quite enjoyable however.

Graphics
– 4

Style is one of the main things carrying this game and the graphics are an integral part of that.

Music
– 4

Mostly forgettable 80s style ambience, but it fits the mood perfectly.

Replayability
– 2

There's very little to entice a second playthrough, so once you've completed this game 100% it's pretty much done.


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75 63% OpenCritic
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