Although we already reviewed ABZÛ, Double Fine’s Headlander was actually the title that launched the latest Sony digital-only promotion, PlayStation PLAY 2016. The game features classic Metroidvania gameplay slathered in a retro ’70s presentation.
There are essentially two sets of controls in Headlander, one for when you’re puttering around as a disembodied head and one for when you’re docked to a body. As you’d expect you have increased mobility as the former, darting through the air and entering small ducts, but you’re vulnerable and limited offensively to utilizing a vacuum drive to suck the heads from your attackers.
When controlling a body you have a handful of basic functions, but they vary based on what kind of robot you’re connected to. Most of your time will be spent in combat units, which can do things like take cover, execute an evasive roll, fire their equipped weapon — taking precise aim and utilizing ricochets is a big part of combat — and melee other bots. It handles fine, but the robots’ movement feels clunky.
As you progress and collect energy you can upgrade multiple aspects of both modes. Some of these prove to be rather essential, such as shielding your head via the right stick or the passive regenerating of your body’s health (the head does it automatically), while others are largely superfluous.
You can tailor the upgrades to your play style to an extent, as many fights can be tackled in either mode depending on your preference, but odds are you’ll end up doing both liberally; personally, I’d often blast away with my robot until it was ready to blow, then eject my head and lasso another hapless body. It’s a fun setup that handles quite well.
My only structural complaint is you’ll eventually unlock so much stuff that it’s tough to even remember what combination of trigger, shoulder and face buttons you need to hit to do some of the upgrades like creating a sentinel. The head-butt, which allows you to instantly take over another body, doesn’t work as well as it should, and it’s often visually difficult to determine if it worked.
While the ’70s aesthetic is a little heavy handed, I don’t expect it to be divisive. Even if you’re not into the style, the world design and layout are good enough to carry things. If you do like it, though, and I did, it definitely helps get you into the proper groove.
Either way, where Headlander runs into some trouble is with a camera that zooms in and out on its own; an issue that makes it easy to lose track of your head in those moments after it detaches. Also, with the way lasers deflect, the screen can get really busy, especially when fighting as (or against) security droids that fire three- and four-beam bursts.
It’s hard not to enjoy the soundtrack. Once again inspired by ’70s sci-fi, it lends an air of whimsy that’s echoed by the in-game lines from various robots. Your guide, Earl, has a soothing drawl, and there’s plenty of Double Fine’s signature humor.
You are Winters, a detached head and the last hope of the human race, which had decided to upload their consciousness and operate robot bodies. Unfortunately, a rogue A.I. known as Methuselah took over this process and trapped what remains of their humanity inside the mechanized vessels for its own devices. It’s up to you to stop it.
As noted, Headlander is a Metroidvania title, walling off access to new areas behind a color-coded security system based on the rainbow (ROYGBV). So, to access a red door, you’ll need to inhabit the body of a red security bot. An orange door requires an orange robot, but they can also access red doors — so there’s a hierarchy system with violet droids able to bypass any door.
There are also four core abilities that you’ll learn, each of which can then be upgraded multiple times, that will allow you to reach previously inaccessible locales. With few exceptions, however, you can largely clear an area before leaving, so if you’re thorough on your first pass the amount of backtracking you’ll need to do is minimal by traditional Metroidvania standards.
Difficulty is a relative term in Headlander. It seems like it knows that there’s a ponderous quality to the movement, and that it likes to litter the screen with laser fire, so it never really asks you to be agile or particularly precise. While it’s good that it understands its limitations, it’s still a clear limitation as the chances of dodging much of anything as a robot are minimal, and the cover system is spotty.
This spills over to the boss fights as well, making them more exercises in patience and bulk damage dealing than anything memorable. It may well have been a deliberate decision to make the robot feel cumbersome to encourage use of the head, but I can’t help but feel that there was a better way to do it that didn’t make the robot frames plodding, disposable damage sponges.
Despite a few missteps, Headlander is an enjoyable Metroidvania adventure that captures the ’70s vibe while providing plenty of reasons to thoroughly explore its world to track down every last collectable.