You open your eyes. There is an odd reflection shining off of the glass visor in front of you. You attempt to speak, but nothing comes out...because you have no lungs. You are a conscious, sentient, floating head with no body. In Double Fine's and Adult Swim's new side scrolling, upgrade heavy, use every term I can think of to not call it a Metroid-Vania action game, you use this head to navigate your way through a 1970's themed space robot pleasure palace. None of that last sentence was a typo. I played this game to its conclusion and the first half was thoroughly enjoyable, although there were several headaches (GET IT?!?) on the way to its finish.
The mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it...
As your head wakes up, you are greeted by a voice coming through your headset that guides you along your path. This voice, a man with a southern drawl named Earl, tells you that all of the residents of this space pleasure cruise, the Pleasure Dome, have uploaded their consciousnesses to the cloud and now live immortally in robot bodies. However, all space stories need an evil computer, and this evil computer named Mesuthela has used an item called the Omega Gem to corrupt the consciousness of all the residents and has bent the residents to its will. Your mission, if your head decides to accept it, is to take down the evil computer and free the residents from its grasp.
The story of the game is fairly typical; find bad computer, shut it down, save robot humanity, etc., however the environment of the game is altogether atypical. Set in a 1970's theme, this world is positively bathed in color. The background visuals are gorgeous. Color even finds its way into gameplay elements, using different colored robot bodies as its mechanic for progression, which I'll get to in a bit. The Pleasure Dome, the first main area of the game you come to, is the highlight of this sci-fi 70's environment. Each wing of the dome has different area that the robot residents go to to enjoy themselves. Below is a screenshot from my favorite area, the High 5 Lounge, where, naturally, residents go to high five each other:
The fun does not continue though because, as you make your way through these initial areas, you realize that these robots, although trapped on a pleasure cruise, are profoundly unhappy. There are several laugh out loud moments involved in the dialogue that you have with these robots as they exuberantly express their misery. Double Fine and Adult Swim's sense of humor shines in these moments and, initially, I found myself wanting to explore this world completely and see all the silliness that would ensue in each area. Unfortunately this feeling did not continue throughout the entirety of the game.
As the game progresses, the environments of the Pleasure Dome fall to the wayside as you get further into the bowels of the ship. It is at this point of the game that the surroundings become less interesting. Everything takes on a sci-fi factory like quality and rooms seem to blend into one another. Every once in a while, the game will take you out of this and back into the personality filled areas that I mentioned before. There is a really fun sequence that has you use the robot bathroom system as a way to move around the ship and this lends itself to some fun and hilarious gameplay. Unfortunately, moments like those that were very frequent at the beginning of the game become happening less and less as the game moves towards its' conclusion.
My Head is Racing
When you first take control of your head, it is a remarkable feeling. Your head is powered by a rocket thruster and you can move about each area freely, easily flying to every corner of each room that you are in. Flying around as a disembodied head has a really liberating feeling. The movement is very smooth and fun to control. Using the head flying mechanic is how you find almost all of the hidden areas in this game. Much like other, *sigh*, Metroid-Vania titles, there are secret areas located all over the game with upgrades and glowing orbs used to acquire upgrades to your head's many systems. Some of these areas are pretty well hidden but the majority of them are shown on the mini-map so there is not a real sense of discovery when finding these. After a certain amount of play, some of the secret rooms and upgrades required so much backtracking and revisiting combat areas that I just ignored them for the sake of moving forward.
Where some of the puzzle elements of this game come into play is with the bodies of the robot residents of the palace. Using a vacuum upgrade, you can pull the heads off of bodies and use the bodies to access other areas of the ship. This will become your primary way of moving around the palace. The colored guards follow the ROYGBIV structure, so, if you pull the head off of a Yellow Guard and assume its body, you now have access to yellow, orange, and red doors. I learned this early and became very conscious of grabbing an advanced colored body and holding onto it for as long as possible. Sometimes that doesn't last very long with how frantic the combat can be in this game.
The combat in Headlander is something I have thought about a lot when preparing to write this review. When you enter into conflict in a room, typically the doors to each exit shut and you are required to dispatch all of the robot guards before moving forward. There is a cover system that allows you to slip behind objects in a 2.5D fashion in an attempt to dodge the bullets. You can headshot the enemy robots to knock off their heads to allow your head to take them over. However, the gunplay is hard to control and doesn't feel very good. I found myself getting shot up pretty regularly and having trouble hitting enemies across the room. They advise you to use cover but almost every room that you fight in has enemies coming from both sides, rendering the cover system almost useless. What I almost always ended up doing was taking a robot body out into the fray until it was almost exploding, I'd detach my head at the last moment, zoom to another robot, pull its head off, rinse, repeat. It got to a point where I had practiced this method enough so that each time I went into combat, I viewed it merely as an annoying inconvenience as opposed to engaging gameplay.
One place where combat shined in this game was in the boss fights. The boss fights in this game each require you to take a very specific approach to defeating the enemy while also requiring you to swap out bodies and use your head in even amounts to come out victorious. There is only one problem with these boss fights; there were only two of them. If we are to make the comparison to other sidescrollers of the same category, boss fights in titles like Super Metroid and Axiom Verge are some of the games' high points. It is the same with Headlander, there are just not enough of them. Instead, Headlander seems insistent on sending the player all over the map to accomplish little tasks, while all the time engaging the player in wave after wave of smaller skirmishes. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but the combat is set up in such a way that these become a nuisance and I found myself longing for the more epic encounters with more interesting enemies.
Headlander is a decent game that makes me see the potential in this particular genre. There are moments, specifically in the first 3 hours of the game, that are some of my favorite moments from videogames in recent memory. The soundtrack, which I hadn't mentioned before, is excellent and there is one moment in particular that happens about 3/4 of the way through the game that is shocking and fantastic. I suggest that everyone play this game just to get to that moment because this particular sequence involving music was so refreshing and vibrant that I have thought about it several times since. However, despite these moments, the game falls flat during the in between times where the player is mired in uninteresting combat and repetitive tasks to move forward. I hope this is not the last effort we see from Double Fine and Adult Swim in this particular genre because the potential for greatness is there.
Who would like it? - Fans of Metroid style games who are in it for the exploration and not the combat.
Who wouldn't like it? - Those who want a new Shadow Complex, People unwilling to grind
Would I download its soundtrack? - Absolutely. Fantastic music.
Have I thought about it since I played it? - Quite a bit. I've thought about the moments I loved and the moments that fell short.
Would I replay it? - Probably not. Took 6 hours to complete. There is an endgame mode but I don't think I want any more backtracking.
Summary Score: Competent sidescroller with below average combat. Repetitive gameplay and lack of interesting action turned a strong start into a lackluster finish.