Headlander is the quintessential Double Fine game. The world itself is fantastically built. The humor is spot on and it has a visual style unto itself. However, beyond that, there is a level of frustration built into the game that cannot be overlooked. For some players, it might be enough to simply turn off the game completely.
Headlander takes place in a future that seems to have stopped around 1970. Humanity found a way to make itself immortal by putting their minds into robotic bodies. However, over time an AI took control of these minds, turning them docile and enslaving them. You awake as the last human…head. Your head has been put into an astronaut’s helmet with a jet pack. Being just a jet powered head, you don’t have a lot of options until you discover that you can “Headland” by using a built-in vacuum to pop off the robotic heads of the citizens and take over their bodies. The AI Methuselah, however, has no interest in letting you live and you must work with resistance members to take down this rogue AI. There is a lot of crazy and cool ideas at work out of the gate for Headlander.
The killers, though, for really enjoying Headlander more come in two forms. The first is that rather than being able to open any and all doors as a head, you need to attach yourself to a color coded body in order to get anywhere. Normal white doors can be opened by any robot, but as you progress through the game you will hit a wall where you need to seek out another body type to go to the next area. As in most Metroid-vania style games, these paths might be blocked by needing a key or a certain weapon to progress.
The big flaw with having to switch into these bodies is that, for a chunk of the game, they are relegated to specific sections. If you die in between getting a body and going to a door, you have to retrace your path just to have the chance to get to the next area. The only advantage that this provides is that each body is coded a color spectrum. Having a blue body will allow you to unlock almost every door, while having a orange body will only allow you to unlock red and orange doors. By the end of the game, almost every enemy is purple, allowing you to get into every door, but you very easily may have quit due to the other problem Headlander has: the bosses.
While there are only two boss fights throughout the game, they both will convince you that Double Fine has no clue how to program a boss fight. The trouble is the trial and error style they take to each fight. The first of these fights requires you to reflect a giant laser that will kill you in one hit. Up until this point, you are really only explicitly told that your helmet has a shield reflect function, so you try to use this reflect on the boss. However, reflecting this attacks costs so much energy that if you wait too long, you will lose all of your shield and get hit.
Mind you, you also have to deal with enemies that are coming from all sides. You can swap into these bodies for a time and use their attack, but by the end of the fight, you have to use this method..or so you think. See, the game doesn’t tell you that one of the enemy times also has a reflect ability that doesn’t drain your power and provides you more mobility. Using this makes the fight a cake-walk, but until this point, you have no clue. Add to that the fact that this game does not checkpoint between each stage (a cardinal sin of trial and error boss fights), and you might very well just quit at that point.
That said, even using a body doesn’t fix the problems, but it does at least let you fight back. The most effective way to deal with any combat situation is to go in, headland into an enemy and shoot as many bullets into your enemy’s heads as you can. Doing this will disable them and give you a potential new body. You can go around trying to use your vacuum to remove as many heads as possible, but by the end of the game you are taking an unacceptable amount of time to take off enemy heads. You can have almost every upgrade and it still takes seconds and when you are being shot from all directions, that is unbearable.
The other problem with these fights is that when you are outside of a body, you might as well be paper with how quick you fold. Even with a shield, you will die fast and with the final boss fight taking almost entirely out of a body, you will immediately be reminded of the Meat Circus from Psychonauts, one of the more notoriously bad final areas of a game. This is not to mention the fact that even if you reflect an attack, your head is just floaty enough that if you think you are in perfect position,you will float out before you can do anything.
That’s not to say that the areas beyond these fights aren’t good. They’re absolutely fantastic, to be honest. From a visual standpoint, they hit the mark completely. Just seeing the technicolor effects is mind-blowing, especially near the end of the game. When you aren’t in combat, exploring is massively fun and getting every upgrade will drive you crazy. As a Castle-troid style game, it hits the basics very well, There is a huge map and a lot of hidden areas throughout.
On top of that, the humor throughout is quintessential Double Fine, for better or worse depending on your view. In order to get the map outline, you have to Headland into Mappy, a “helpful” robot who feels the need to try to help you find anything you may or may not need. He’s reminiscent of Clippy and throughout the game, you will find his AI programmed into turrets, culminating in one of the most horrific and hilarious twists on this character at the end of the game.
Headlander is a really good game that deserves better combat mechanics and boss fights. The world is absolutely stunning to look at at times and beyond the combat issues, there is a solid amount of fun to be had exploring the world. All of that comes with the huge caveat of the game not having well balanced combat, which seems to be everywhere. This is especially evident with the boss fights which can be unbearable. Headlander shows off what Double Fine does best (making interesting worlds) and what it does worst (making combat mechanics.)
SCORE: 6.0 out of 10
A code for Headlander was provided to Pixel Related for review.