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Review: Headlander


Harrison Lee

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Adult Swim Games

Platform: PC, Mac OS, PS4

Release Date: July 25, 2016

ESRB: T for Teen

 

 

As a kid, I was raised on schlocky sci-fi movies with the infamous “stereoscopic 3D vision”. These movies were trashy, gaudy, and silly, but absolutely charming. Actors in rubberized suits whacked each other over the head with plastic swords or fired hilariously fake lasers at space aliens. Chief among these films were the Godzilla and Space: 1999 series. Both movie and TV franchises were terrible in their own right, but the creative vision and imagination powering each series kept me engrossed.

 

Double Fine“s Headlander attempts to recapture that nostalgic glory, albeit with an action-puzzle platformer overlaid with ”70s funk, shag carpets, and double entendres. It“s the kind of game that was made with me in mind. While Headlander doesn“t always hit the mark, it“s still an entertaining head trip for those who dig sci-fi with a little disco.

 

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Headlander takes place in the far retro-future, where humanity has abandoned its need for organic bodies and transferred human consciousness into robotic vessels. Lording over this mechanized version of human society is the ever-vigilant, sinister AI known as Methuselah. For reasons unknown, the sentient computer program has made humans docile in their new robotic hosts.

 

Methuselah“s ambitions are never made clear, but Headlander doesn“t care about a dense plot so much as it is invested in a plethora of sci-fi tropes and in-jokes. One such (inappropriate) joke is derived from the game“s primary conceit, the player avatar. You take control of the last organic human being known to the galaxy, but there“s a minor issue; you“re just a head. Encased in a rocket-powered helmet, you are humanity“s last shot at beating Methuselah and freeing society.

 

To outwit and outlast the AI overlord, you“ll have to navigate a series of complex environments, steal bodies from the robotic Shepherds, and solve a variety of relatively simple puzzles. The head can vacuum off the electrical noggins of opponents and “headland” on to them to seize control. This allows players to unlock color-coded security doors and gain access to a variety of flashy laser weapons. Pressing F will also unleash a super funky dance, just for kicks.

 

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Stealing robotic bodies is crucial as your head is incredibly fragile. One or two direct hits is usually enough to end your day on a dour note. As you progress, you“ll gain access to upgrades that allow you to add protective shields and more health, but it won“t be enough. Methuselah has a literal army of robocops to send your way. Mercifully, his Shepherds come with a variety of weapons to make the war easier, from single-shot laser pistols to room-clearing hand-shotguns.

 

Lasers zig, zag, and ricochet all across game levels in a delightfully stupid, chaotic manner. If a useful enemy body stands on the platform above, you can bounce a shot off a wall and remove his or her robotic skull for an easy body steal. You can also hijack robo-dogs, rolling maps, and almost any robot you can decapitate. Naturally, Headlander will find a way to insert a NSFW joke about it that either induces a chuckle or sarcastic groan.

 

The puzzling side of Headlander is mostly straightforward. You“ll have to backtrack and disable various laser walls or sneak through air ducts to find power-ups and switches. Every now and then, there“ll be a puzzle that“s bloody frustrating. The chess-match sequence comes to mind, though I“d consider a few of the bullet hell combat sequences to be just as puzzle-like. Later boss fights also spike in difficulty, so be prepared to smash a few keyboards. Headlander is never impossible, but there are a few points where it feels that way.

 

The other knock against the game is the focus on repetition. Most titles have lists of three tasks to accomplish, but Headlander bucks the mold with sets of five. Doing something three times can be aggravating, but five times is a bit overkill. Sure, you get to explore more of the game-world and hear some of the wacky dialogue that accompanies it. It sucks that you“ll have to grind through the same task five times to do it. A few optional side quests help to break up the monotony, but the core quest-line could do without the repetition. It begins to feel like filler after some time.

 

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If you like a ”70s disco aesthetic bathed in a warm filmic haze, Headlander will likely appeal to you. It“s gorgeous to watch in motion, with lively backgrounds complementing pulses of blaster fire and explosions. As you might expect, the shag carpets are also lovingly rendered. The audio is just as strong, with some hammy voice-acting and retro tunes accompanying the action. The audio-visual side only serves to enhance the atmosphere of Headlander“s campy sci-fi playground.

 

Headlander is best thought of as an entertaining distraction. It“s not particularly long, but the implementation of a flying head and the hilarity of body-stealing seldom gets stale. The repetition of tasks can be frustrating, but it“s abated by the visually-rich environments Double Fine has crafted. Just be prepared for a few incredibly difficult segments on your quest to free humanity. If, however, you appreciate the glimmer of a disco-ball, grab Headlander now.

 


Pros

+ A great homage to cheesy ”70s sci-fi movies

+ Popping off robot heads and stealing bodies never gets old

+ Gorgeous visuals and great audio enhance the experience

 

Cons

- Some noticeable difficulty spikes

- Repetition of tasks tends to get old very quickly

 


Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10)

Good

 

If you like a ”70s disco aesthetic bathed in a warm filmic haze, Headlander will likely appeal to you. The repetition of tasks can be frustrating, but it“s abated by the visually-rich environments Double Fine has crafted.

 

Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher

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