Headlander review

Headlander is a Double Fine staple: a one-off goof turned into a fully realized reality.

With Grim Fandango, it was a working stiff Grim Reaper in a Dia de los Muertos world. Psychonauts was psychic summer camp. Stacking was Matryoshka dolls come to life, and Brutal Legend was a roadie’s rock and roll fantasy. With Headlander, Double Fine takes a free-floating, body stealing head and makes it a sci-fi hero.

It’s a pretty good hook.

The biggest surprise in Headlander is the flip in priorities it signals from so much of Double Fine’s other output, which ultimately have put the joke and the story ahead of almost everything else. Headlander isn’t Double Fine’s funniest story. But it might be their best game in a long time.

The goofball idea of Disembodied Head Can Steal Bodies is pushed just about as far as it can go

Headlander’s premise is ‘50s-era sci-fi at its best. As humans depleted their resources and poisoned their world, scientists devised a way to move human consciousness into artificial brains and robotic bodies. Hundreds of years later, you wake up in an unfamiliar future as, well, a disembodied head — one of three, choosable at the beginning of the game. It’s not clear where you came from or who you are, other than that you’re the only remaining (tenth of a) human left in the universe. And with the help of the mysterious ERL, you’ll have to use your conveniently socketed, rocket-powered head to unravel the Orwellian Methusaleh AI’s control over everything, and hopefully figure out just what happened.

Mechanically, Headlander is completely on the nose. The goofball idea of Disembodied Head Can Steal Bodies is pushed just about as far as it can go within a structure that most closely resembles item-gated action adventure games like Metroid. See, Methusaleh’s perfectly contained society is awash in harsh security measures. Doors, for example, won’t open for just any head. Instead, you’ll need to be attached to a body to walk through even the most basic portal. As you sow discord in the world, you’ll need to find an escalating color code of bodies to go through corresponding doors, whether by walking up to them or shooting a laser at them.

This is a relatively simple idea that’s explored very meticulously throughout Headlander.

Like I said, security scales up through a color code: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, and each notch is attached to a more powerful security robot, referred to as a Shepherd. Each Shepherd can open their color and the colors below their rank, and each Shepherd’s beam bounces when it hits a wall. The more powerful the Shepherd, the more bounces that laser will get.

This is used to build puzzles that escalate in complexity throughout the game. Early on the most challenging thing you may encounter is needing to open a door that your robot security body can’t access, as Shepherds and citizens alike can’t jump (but doors stay open a bit after their shot, at which point, your head can fly through). Eventually you’ll need to find perfect bounce points for your lasers to hit spots that are offscreen, or to use Shepherds with multi-beam lasers to activate numerous color-coded points at once.

Even combat tends toward the puzzle-minded, rather than twitch shooting. Despite a control scheme that resembles arcade run-and-gun games — you aim with the mouse or right stick on the controller — fights tend toward the methodical, and bodies are broadly disposable. Leaving your assumed body is even a valid tactic, as you can pull the heads off of Shepherds and other enemies if you can avoid their attempts to bat you off. This contributes to a real sense of problem-solving during fights, and checkpoints tend to be room-to-room, meaning failing an experiment doesn’t cost a lot of time.

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And bouncing a shot off a ceiling and popping a Shepherd’s head off is always fun.

You can also use your micro tractor beam to manipulate objects in the world that aren’t just the heads you can pull of bodies. Some passageways are plugged by small grates that can be pulled off, allowing you to find secret areas with upgrades to your survivability or allowing forward progress through the game. This discovery is a key part in Headlander’s continued appeal — there’s a real sense that there’s always another little secret or pickup around the corner if you just look for it.

Some of these pickups are major upgrades for your head, including a refracting shield and the ability to boost. These improvements add new combat options and unlock new areas, allowing for backtracking to enter previously inaccessible spaces. It’s a good loop that doesn’t feel padded. Instead, returning to places you’ve already seen feels like an optional elaboration on the world.

Headlander is, in many ways, the most mechanically sound, well-designed Double Fine action game I can remember. It doesn't feel like it's leaning quite so hard on the personality that's defined the studio's other work. Which is good, because while Headlander's aesthetic is very strong and very cool — it’s reminiscent of ‘70s-era outsider sci-fi like Logan’s Run and Silent Running smashed into the cheap black and white monster movie schtick of the ‘50s. But the humor and story that's dominated Double Fine's previous games feels more thinly developed here.

The premise is appropriately ridiculous and a lot of fun, yes, and there are a number of weird, goofy opportunities to take that ball (or head, as the case may be) and run with it. I got a chuckle out of it the first few times I plopped off someone’s head and stole their body, and once or twice it was even a dog! I was on a dog’s body!

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That’s about enough of a joke to last an hour or two of Headlander’s six to seven or so hours of game. But once that wears off, the funny recedes more and more into the background. There are some jokes in there about an AI obsessed with chess and the pawns she conscripts from robot society for her game, and some incidental dialogue from other citizens scattered around the world. Richard Steven Horowitz — a Double Fine regular, he voiced Raz in Pyschonauts as well as the titular character in Nickelodeon’s Invader Zim — turns in some great lines as the Mappy robots and automated turrets.

But Headlander’s emphasis on a silent protagonist, while narratively logical, leaves something of a vacuum that not even multiple seemingly-omnipotent voices around you can’t quite fill. It doesn’t make the game part of Headlander any worse, but it is just a little less capital-F "Fun" than Double Fine’s usual output.

Not quite as strangely, but somewhat off-putting nonetheless, Headlander features some hooks it never follows up on. There are allusions to sidequests in the games — small collectibles or tasks to grab for other citizens — but in my time playing through and seeing most of the game, I came across just a few opportunities like this. It feels like this was going to be more than it is now, and I kept looking, hoping for just a bit more variety than I found.

Also, in a confusing departure from genre dogma, there are a number of abilities in Headlander’s seemingly-optional upgrade tree that feel like anything but, those these are rarely explained — and I could see a reality where I accidentally leveled the wrong way and screwed myself until I found more points to fix my own mess. It’s not game-breaking, and I had what I needed, usually, but Headlander demonstrates a latent, low-level distaste for tutorial or explanation that can be a little frustrating in hindsight.

Wrap Up:

Headlander isn't Double Fine's funniest game, but it's one of its most consistently fun

It’s not always clear but Headlander doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it doesn’t waste time on extraneous stuff. Instead, Headlander finds smart core mechanics and a really cool idea and pushes them both to smart places that make for a game remains engaging even as it steadily grows more challenging. It’s not the funniest guy in the room, but it’s still a lot of fun to hang around with.

Headlander was reviewed using an advance Steam key provided by Adult Swim Games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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