'Headlander': Disembodied Hijinks Dressed Up as '70s Camp Sci-Fi
You are a disembodied head. You land on things. Really, that's it. That's the game.
HeadlanderPublisher: Adult Swim Games
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Release date: 2016-07-26
In Headlander, you play as a head that lands on things. Yeah, really, that's it. That's the game.
That's the game's basic premise anyway, and it's one that works very nicely for what is a generally well paced, comedic, action-puzzle hybrid.
In Headlander, you play as a disembodied head in a world full of robots, who are (of course) being kept down by the Man, in this case, a dictatorial AI named Methuselah. The vibe of the game is largely governed by its homage to retro, B-quality sci-fi cinema and television. Its goofy and trippy premise aligns itself neatly with the idea of the weird sci fi experiments of earlier decades that fail to take themselves seriously and instead focus on being extra goofy and extra weird in equal measure (Barberella, for example, springs to mind).
Being a product of Double Fine Productions, that the game wants to be funny should come as no surprise, though the comedy is fairly muted in relation to what is its best element, a constant barrage of cleverly executed action-puzzles. The game is amusing at moments, but never draws any full throated laughs as one of Tim Schafer's earlier games do (think Full Throttle or Psychonauts). Schafer is not on board s a writer here, though, and again, in many ways it's mechanics that take center stage in Headlander, not the humor.
There are a lot of sight gags based on your own disembodied nature and some light sexual innuendo played for laughs, but frankly, the game feels strangely restrained for something published by Adult Swim Games, as if it's slightly concerned that it might offend and wants to reach for the broadest audience possible by not making too much hay of locations like the “Pleasure Port” or the “Fondalarium”. Barberella director Roger Vadim would likely tell the development crew here “to lighten up, man”, and have a little more fun with their setting.
Despite its slight sense of self-consciousness, the setting does still have a dated charm to it, but the game's real strength, as noted, is in its head landing antics. In a nutshell, since the protagonist lacks a body, what the gameplay consists mostly of is jetting around a side scrolling, platforming environment as a dismbodied head and then hijacking robot bodies to get things done in the world. Body hijacking is accomplished through a vacuum that sucks the heads off of robots before your head then lands on them. Assorted comic hijinks and puzzle solving ensues.
As noted before, what this results in is a a very fast paced puzzle game in which action and reaction is prized over any heavy thinking. Robot bodies are taken on and discarded rapidly as a means of unlocking security doors (coded to colored clearances, which are the colors of the robot bodies) and just staying alive in romms that are usually under constant fire. In any given room, there is a lot of lasers blasting and ricocheting all over the place at any given time, keeping puzzle solving an enterprise of both quick thinking and rapid trigger pulls.
For example, the player will suck the head off of one robot, don its body, blast another robot's head off (who happens to be of a higher security level), before blasting off from his current body to highjack the one who happens to be on a platform above. Body swapping is a means of travel, unlocking areas, and generally the central mechanic of the frantic and frenetic puzzles that you solve regularly under a barrage of laser fire.
All of which is quite fun, making what is really a fairly simple puzzle game more fun because the action components of the game just keep everything rolling along at a rapid fire pace. There's no time to want to think about complications. Your focus is on constantly jetting forward, swapping bodies, and then blasting off again. The only moments when the game struggles is when it fails to maintain this pace. Unskippable cutscenes and a couple of needlessly protracted boss fights are the major culprits, which add some moments of frustration to what is otherwise a very light and breezy experience overall.
On the whole, Headlander is really a very solid gaming experience with a central mechanic that really has some legs (despite your lack of body) over the course of its playtime. The game occasionally gets a little too hung up on itself, but it's still worth the price of admission to its campy, cheeky, and most importantly, rapid fire world.