Release Date: 26 Jul 2016
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Headlander is a metroidvania-style game in a sci-fi setting in which the player must navigate a map filled with 2.5d corridors and various hundreds of trigger happy robots.
The game opens with your character waking up to find they are the last human in the universe and to make matters worse they have lost their body. This leads to the main mechanic of the game in which you attach your floating head to different robot bodies in order to gain their abilities. This adds variety in the form of different weaponry but it is also key in navigating the huge map. You must take control of bodies with specific colours to get past colour coded doors and some bodies have abilities which allow them to pass certain hazards. This leads to an interesting challenge in which you must acquire specific bodies and protect them from enemies so you can explore the map fully. This is an interesting take on old exploration games and provides fresh challenges. In one instance, there is a challenging boss fight in which you must change bodies to deal with their multiple forms. It is frantic, creative and fun.
In spite of this, the game sometimes delves into repetition and backtracking. Although it allows for precision aiming with lasers, many of the fights evolve into a flurry of lasers and are over quickly. There is a level of strategy in knowing when to disengage your head and try and take over a new body, but in reality there is little choice in playstyles. There is an upgrade system to provide your character with new abilities but the upgrades compliment just one particular style of play rather than offering engaging choices. I often found myself forgetting to use my upgrade points as they never felt like a game changer. This becomes a problem when you get lost travelling the maze-like map and come across rooms with respawning enemies as you are not presented with new challenges or interesting ways of dealing with enemies. However, this is a uniquely modern problem and if you enjoy the linear playstyle of retro games then this will be no trouble.
In terms of story, the game is fairly generic. You play a silent protagonist, guided by a voice on the radio named Earl, who joins a mysterious rebel group to fight against the evil Methuselah. This isn’t a problem however as the game thrives within its setting. With the exception of yourself, humans have had their minds removed and placed within a cloud-like system. From here their personalities have been uploaded onto robots. Through this setting, the game tackles issues such as indulgence and slavery, with a clear divide evident in society. Under a different developer all of this may seem a bit grim but Double Fine underlines all of this with a sense of humour which makes the game and its message accessible and engaging. Doors will talk back as you try and open them, berating you for not having the body needed to open it and gun turrets will apologise for shooting you. Also there are penis shaped space ships. Take from that what you will. There are times when this humour can seem forced and the repeating phrases can be grating after a while, but it all contributes toward the atmosphere of the game and creates a bright and fun adventure as opposed to an overbearing one.
The style compliments this light hearted atmosphere with its bright colours and creativity. Whilst the sci-fi setting of the game means there are perhaps a few too many industrial corridors, the game makes up for this by including inventive new locations. You will travel from a robotic leisure station to a death arena filled with robots based on chess pieces and these new locations provide a motive to keep playing and explore. The 2.5d perspective also adds depth to this, allowing for a level of detail in the background, contributing to the depth of the world and making it one which in fun to delve into.
Whilst Headlander has minor problems with repetition, it provides a fresh twist on the metroidvania genre, providing a fun and interesting environment for players to explore.