I Can’t Keep ‘Headlander’ Out of My Mind
The stylish sci-fi game is scratching a metroidvania itch that I never knew I had.
Lately, my idle mind's found itself filling up with thoughts of a new, original sci-fi video game. You know, when drifting off on the train, taking a shower after nowhere close to enough sleep, glossing over in front of weeknight TV. Of how much I want to get back at it in the moments where I can't, how it's hooked me after the smallest taste. It's the work of an indie studio with a strong following, and its looks are immediately striking, setting it apart from any game of its kind on the market. And no, it's not No Man's Sky.
Headlander is the latest game from the Tim Schafer–founded Double Fine, whose Broken Age adventure of 2015 was one of the biggest Kickstarter successes ever seen (here's VICE speaking to Schafer and actor Elijah Wood, last year). This is no crowd-backed venture, however, with Adult Swim Games on publishing duties. Given these companies' previous form for singular, nudging-on-surreal gaming experiences—Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, Robot Unicorn Attack, Jazzpunk, I could go on but let's stick to the game at hand—it was inevitable that their first collaboration would be a game apart. And "apart" is a conceptual tenet that's been incorporated into the way Headlander plays, too.
'Headlander,' gameplay trailer
Sporting a retro-futuristic aesthetic, like 1960s Star Trek beamed into a present of PlayStation 4s and PCs via a stopover in Blake's 7, Headlander's unique twist on the metroidvania genre of two-dimensional exploration, and unlocking areas you've already seen the way to once will literally see you lose your head. After selecting from one of a handful of different faces to play with, you realize that you have no body whatsoever. Instead, you propel your helmeted head around the environments, connecting with and taking control of robotic bodies in order to complete puzzles and traverse the sprawling, map-essential stages. Sometimes this means popping off the noggin' that's already in place, and you can achieve this a number of ways, my favorite being to suck it from its shoulders, super-powered vacuum cleaner style.
The body you're controlling has a bearing on what areas you can access, with doorways color coded to match your attire—your head alone cannot pass, unless zipping through after a well-placed laser shot (which can be directed to bounce off walls). Sometimes there are ways around, though—sucking the cover from a handy vent can open up shortcuts and reveal stat upgrades to boost shields, increase speed and firm up each new body's resistance to exploding. It's all very simple to read, with objectives clearly marked and power-ups self-explanatory, while menus fit the feel of the game without any confusing icons cluttering up the screen.
There's plenty for your fingers and thumbs to do, and the action can get pretty intense as the enemy Shepherds—the game's name for the robots gunning for you, all of which are controlled by a nefarious AI by the intriguing name of Methuselah (check your nearest Bible)—increase in numbers, rooms locking down until all combat is calmed. The controls can get a little fiddly sometimes, as the button to aim your weapon-cum-skeleton-key contraption also sees you duck into cover (in a fashion reminiscent of Roll7's Not a Hero, but without the bloodlust), but quick restarts after each demise—and there'll be a few, accompanied by a psychedelic ripple of colors—ensure that frustration is rarely an issue. Die, retry, die, retry, done it: The core cycle of risk and reward in Headlander is a better greased machine than, say, Titan Souls, which infuriated (me, anyway, in a recent Vita revisit) with its slow turnarounds between boss retries.
Also: There is dancing, some wonderfully thick carpets, a Southern-drawling AI called Earl who's on your side, a psychotic chess player (sort of), and escape pods that look like a dick and balls. Though, the whole game's about giving head, right? So the occasional aesthetic nod to the male body's most sensitive parts comes with the territory. But it really is the head alone, apart from anything else, that makes this game—it's simply never not fun jetting your voiceless dome from point A to point B, dodging all manner of deadly things as you soar.
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It's another cracking independently made game, then, in a year already enjoying its share, from Oxenfree to Firewatch via Hyper Light Drifter and Inside. The tone is playful, the visuals hypnotic, the gameplay hook flexible (want to take control of a robot dog, sentry gun or cleaning drone? Not a problem), and the difficulty curve just right—so far. I need to stress that last part because I'm not much more than three hours deep into Headlander, so it all might fall apart soon. I'm not expecting it to, though, as everything I've seen up to this point has had me itching to return to proceedings whenever possible.
Which I might just do tonight, given No Man's Sky isn't out until next week. Consider this your recommendation to do likewise, too.
Headlander is out now for Microsoft Windows and PlayStation 4. More information at Adult Swim.