A brain-powered blast from the past.
On paper, Headlander shouldn’t work. With both its clashing tone and humor and its mishmash of 2D mechanics, it successfully blends ideas that aren’t just different—they’re about as dissimilar as possible. It comes together thanks to great retro art, fun exploration, and developer Double Fine’s unmistakable charm.
This is a game that explores humanity and our overreliance on technology, and what it means to be alive. It’s also about a mustachioed, rocket-powered head (with amnesia) and tiny vacuum robots that giggle when they fart out dust. When it’s not a classic, slower-paced Metroidvania-style adventure, it’s a twitchy bullet hell shooter with enough speed to make your palms sweat It’s a lot to take in.
Picture BioShock in bellbottoms—less seaweed, more shag carpet. That’s the groovy, dystopian world of Headlander in a nutshell, and its wonderful style makes the ‘70s sci-fi space station a joy to explore. In this place, humans have transferred their minds into robots and abandoned their flesh-and-blood bodies, conquering Injury, disease, and even death. But in a twist that should surprise no one, an evil AI has implanted everyone with dampener chips to keep them in line. They’ll be happy, but never overjoyed. They’ll have questions, but they won’t think too hard about the answers. Though the world feels original, the premise isn’t, and Headlander is wise not to linger on it.
The liberal use of cheesy robot voice filters fits the fiction well.
Instead, it lets you experience the aftermath: a crowded, bustling world of complacent simpletons, living their eerie half-lives. The writing is sparse, and voice lines are repeated too often, but Headlander finds success with the less-is-more approach. For example, while exploring a place called the Pleasure Port, I found a room where robo-people pay to rub their metal bodies against a swath of shag carpet to stimulate their sensors. As everyone hummed and rolled, I approached a guy standing in the corner. “It’s like a meadow of grass,” he said. Then, in a sad but hopeful tone: “Do you remember grass?” It’s genuine and naive. Across the board the voice acting is solid, and the liberal use of cheesy robot voice filters fits the fiction well.
The fiction also gives us Headlander’s main mechanic (and namesake), which is that at any time you can detach your head from whatever body you’ve commandeered and fly around. In this mode you’re smaller and faster, but your ability to deal damage disappears and you can’t open doors or use warp pads. While floating, you can use a vacuum ability to yank the heads off any robots you find and, if you’d like, attach your own head to the headless body. Both the grounded heft of a body and the weightless glide of your head are smooth and responsive; it doesn’t feel like either was treated as a primary mechanic over the other.
Sometimes your head becomes a veritable spaceship in a bullet hell game.
At first it all feels too simple: use bodies to fight, use your head to explore, and that’s that. However, the mechanic quickly deepens as enemy types grow stronger, environments become more complex, and your skill tree fills up. In more intense situations you’ll dodge lasers and hop from body to body, using them just until their health bars deplete and then discarding them. If there are too many guns firing you can maneuver your head around, dashing and weaving to dodge shots and get close enough to yank off enemies’ heads to render them inert. Sometimes you’re forced into small spaces, and your head becomes a veritable spaceship in a bullet hell game. It’s all furious and fun, with a fair difficulty curve that ensures a challenge but keeps frustration to a minimum.
Your upgrade tree is packed with goodies ranging from 100% crucial to fun but nearly useless. Unless you’re an actual video game wizard, I don’t know how you could forego regenerating health, body armor, and the ability to project two shields around your head instead of one. Because they’re so vital to surviving and exploring, buying most skills feels empowering and rewarding, and that loop encouraged me to explore every corner to find hidden XP stockpiles. Headlander is generous with its power-up orbs as well, so I never felt cheated or underleveled.
When you need a green robot, it usually spawns far away from the green door.
On the other hand, because of the way navigation works some of the cooler upgrades felt too situational to be nearly as useful. For example, the biggest part of the challenge throughout Headlander is that the sprawling world is filled with colored gates; to open a gate you must be in control of a body that matches the gate’s color. (If you’re not worthy, the doors will taunt you with silly puns or lines like “The other side of this door is AMAAAAZING!”) The hierarchy, from common to rare (also weak to powerful), follows the rainbow: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet (sorry Indigo), and any higher-level color can open a door of any lower color. However, when you need a green robot, it usually spawns far away from the green door, forcing you to protect and preserve its body as you fight to your objective.
Conflictingly, a good number of your more fun upgrades encourage you put your frame in harm’s way or leave it behind. One lets you use a body as a self-destructing bomb. Another lets you abandon the body while it automatically fires in one direction like a sentry. Another lets you headbutt an enemy, swapping heads in the process. They’re all cool, fun, and satisfying to use, but putting your rare-colored body at risk is almost never a good idea—especially later in the campaign. Lasers you and your enemies fire ricochet off walls two or three times, and many bots fire several lasers at a time. The screen quickly becomes a bright, laser-filled deathtrap, and collateral damage to your precious, immobile body is nearly inevitable if you’re not there to steer it clear. When it really mattered, I was almost always better off using cover and picking my battles. It’s a shame that some of the flashier moves just aren’t viable.
While not inaccurate to call Headlander a Metroidvania because of the way new abilities allow you to access new parts of an otherwise open map, it plays more like a series of smaller Metroidvania-ish levels rather than one massive map. Hidden rooms with upgrades are mostly easy to find and access with minimal head scratching, and once I was done with a certain zone (usually tied to a specific story event) there wasn’t a huge incentive for me to go back. By the end of the eight hour campaign, with semi-diligent searching, I had every ability node unlocked and well over half of the generic health, power, and thrust upgrades. Completionists have a chance to go back and explore the world after the credits roll, but thankfully, Headlander doesn’t punish you for happily matching its momentum.