Headlander was released for the PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows on July 26th, 2016 and a few months later on November 17th of the same year the game made its debut on the Xbox One. Developed by Double Fine Productions and published by Adult Swim Games, Headlander is a 1970s themed Metroidvania title centered around a future society’s decision to store their collective consciousness in the cloud. This means that there are no humans in the series of spaceships Headlander takes place in and instead people move around by implanting their consciousness in different robots depending on the task they need to get carried out. For the most part though, the humans just lounge around and dance. This is due in part to the fact that an A.I. program named Methuselah has trapped all the humans inside the robots and tasked them with carrying out his mysterious plan. This leaves the protagonist to sort everything out after being awoken from their mysterious slumber. Only one problem: the protagonist only has their head left and that head is also plagued with a serious case of amnesia.
So the adventure begins as the player is tasked with flying around sans body as they explore different areas of the space colony they reside in, all while guided by the voice of Earl who found the protagonist as they woke up. Fear not though, the player can easily take the head off of nearby robots and take control of it for themselves. This means the protagonist can play with or without a body depending on where they need to go and what they need to do. For example, there are many instances where the player has to take control of a security robot in order to attack other robots or to pass through security gates. This is where the color-based security hierarchy comes into play as security levels are separated in the following order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet (shortened to the acronym ROYGBIV in-game). What this means is that a red robot can pass through the most basic security gates while only the elite violet robots can access any colored gate they choose to. Not only this, but there are also a handful of rooms that only vacuum robots can enter along with some vents that only a disembodied head can fly through. This, along with different power-ups found in the game, sets up a fairly enjoyable exploration system.
Exploring the topic of exploration (subtle), one of the problems with Headlander is actually the ease in which the average person can play it. Right off the bat, the player can scroll through the menu and see how many rooms they have explored so far compared to the total number of rooms and the same goes with upgrades too. In addition, the player can suck the head off of different MAPPY units that roam different areas and download the majority of that location’s map data. While being able to download map data is not inherently a bad option, the problem stems from the fact that there are too many MAPPY units and they appear too soon when exploring a new area. Not only this, but upon entering a room, the map automatically fills out all the possible entrances and exits to said room before the player has actually seen them. Thankfully, MAPPY units do not tell you where every single room in the game is but the game as a whole would have been better off had it not told the player so much information so soon. In turn, these factors make Headlander a bit easier than it should be and can also make it as if the the player is filling out a checklist rather than actually exploring an interesting world.
Speaking of the world, Headlander is a game that oozes charm which is quite obviously a pairing of Adult Swim Games and Double Fine intermixed for a zany but still easily accessible world. Some robots can be found staring at magical rocks as others lay on shag carpeting that they most likely can not even feel (one of the slight drawbacks of having one’s consciousness implanted in a robot body is the inability to feel shag carpeting). The areas have fun names like the “Pleasure Port” and the “Boob Tubery” and what starts off as a fun 70s fueled romp somehow takes a drastic detour into a chess-themed area where the players have locker rooms and robots designed in the form of chess pieces attack each other with lasers because the A.I. host of the game enjoys chess but wanted to make it *that* much more exhilarating for the viewers. No matter the problems the game has, the setting is still extremely fun to roam around in and, if anything, it is a shame that there were not more areas to flesh out the concept of entertaining seemingly immortal humans. The main problem with this though is that the game can lack a sense of cohesion between different areas, and some more world-building would have definitely been helpful in this regard.
Moving right along, the combat in Headlander is decent, but easily one of the weakest parts of the game. It is not actively bad, just very basic. This is in spite of the numerous upgrades one can accumulate throughout the game. It does not help that the game also gives the player multiple scenarios in which they must clear through a room full of enemies before either of the door unlocks which transitions from being a plot-related “trap” to a way of padding out the game. Another way Double Fine attempts to pad out Headlander is through an extremely useless quest system which is comprised of about three to four quests. None of these quests are particularly inventive, entertaining, or even plot-related and instead just feel like the game was not long enough so the developers decided to add content any way they knew how to. There are also two boss fights in the game, the mid-way boss being “ok” while the final boss was almost completely unnecessary. The music in Headlander is also fine, no track particularly stands out aside from the MAPPY theme which plays throughout the credits of the game. Other than that all the tracks just fit. It is also worth mentioning that the game did crash while it was being streamed for the site’s Twitch account. However, to add context to this event it was directly after the newest PS4 firmware was installed on the console and no other noticeable technical issues occurred during playtime. So while it could be potentially blamed on the firmware, it could also very well be an issue on the game’s side and unfortunately the reviewer has no way of knowing which one is the root cause of the event at this time.
Headlander is a decent game that does not rise up to being more than it potentially could be, which is a shame. The story is forgettable but attempts to surprise the player with a “twist” here and there but none of these twists are monumental in any sense. The music is fine but not anything to write home about, which is the same case as the combat. The quests and bosses feel like padding and the game lacks a general sense of cohesiveness between areas. So while the game may still have visual charm aided by a unique cast of characters, Headlander is still bogged down by its other failures and missteps. Headlander is not a bad game, just an average game that makes the player want it to be better because it is a game that deserves to be enjoyed. The problem ultimately lies with the developers and maybe in the future there will be a second installment in the franchise which fixes the problems the first one has, but this is more than likely not the case of what will happen in the end. Instead there will be more popular games released by Double Fine and Headlander will barely be remembered. Doomed to be washed away by the sands of time. C’est la vie.