Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Adult Swim
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: July 26, 2016
Headlander is corny, unconventional, and consistently some of the zaniest enjoyment I’ve had with a game this year. Double Fine’s latest embodies the approach of a side-scrolling metroidvania, communicating its retro 70’s sci-fi aesthetic with catchy visuals and stunning sound design. Reinforced by quirky humor sure to provoke a grin, Headlander’s stylistic highs work cohesively with the rest of the experience. This synchronization of strengths creates for a memorable space venture fused together with charm, fashion, and novel gameplay concepts. While the road certainly has some notable bumps in it–including a few truly enraging moments–Headlander mostly comes out on top, offering a wacky and inventive take on a beloved genre.The differences between your average metroidvania titles and Headlander are apparent from the get-go. Beginning with the immediate realization you’re in control of a rocket-powered helmet, incasing a head, Headlander prides itself on subverting common expectations. In comparison to filling the role of a more “boots on the ground” type of protagonist, Double Fine’s nuanced approach to its lead character lends a great deal of uniqueness to the core gameplay driving the experience. In search of a body and answers, you’ll navigate about an array of environments seeping with colorful flare and offbeat humor. Guiding you in your efforts to garner the truth is a faceless man named Earl, issuing commands and humorous interjections over your helmet’s communication functionality. Providing insightful background on the state of the world and leading you from one objective to the other, Earl acts as useful and likable company as you explore. These same personable traits ring true for Headlander’s many exotic robotic NPCs, whom spend their time wondering throughout the world map rambling on about their lives and silly ambitions. A good amount of dialogue overheard during my trek, invoked chuckles, feeding into genuine laugh-out-loud moments that reflected Double Fine’s signature quirky charm.
HEADLANDER IS AN EXAMPLE OF A ZANY IDEA COME TO FRUITION
Keeping with the flashy momentum of the story, Headlander’s gameplay is fast, thoughtful, and well-tuned. In terms of mechanical performance, Headlander acts as one of Double Fine’s finer projects in recent years. Controls are fluid and responsive, applying to both playable forms: jetting around in the helmet and occupying robotic bodies. Attaching to a body is a simple mechanic, yet is one that provides ample variety throughout the experience. Weather removing the head of an unsuspecting robotic bystander, confrontational adversary, or dog, yes, you can be a dog. Headlander does an excellent job at placing you in the shoes of many different characters. More impressively, is the diversity each new body comes with. Some are simply there for your amusement, while others act as a necessary stepping stone to progressing through the narrative.As a floating head equipped with rocket boosters, you’ll zoom around the multilayered map encountering vibrant combat sections, hidden upgrades, and shortcuts to more effectively traverse the world. Headlander’s combat proved to be among the highlights of the experience, imploring players to experiment with different playstyles. Weather constantly body switching, firing colorful laser beams from cover, or smashing into enemies with upgraded helmet attack abilities, the confrontations lining the color-rich corridors and public spaces of Headlander never got old. There was always more than one way to go about combat encounters, with the exception of a few poorly handled boss battles.
By and large, Headlander takes a back seat approach to puzzle solving. Sticking to the graspable concept of color coded admission, the most common obstacle to push through being doors that only allow specific robots coated with the required color to enter. Thanks to the amusing body switching mechanic, tricking these security doors are simple, never substantially getting in the way of the title’s energetic pacing. More so than past Double Fine projects, Headlander is an exercise in mechanical refinement, placing a heavier emphasis on gameplay and aesthetic than traditional storytelling. While initially somewhat confusing considering the narrative pedigree of its predecessors, Headlander strikes out on its own merits, developing a unique set of priorities that ultimately lead it to greatness.For as consistently fresh as Headlander presents itself, Double Fine’s 70’s sci-fi romp occasionally stumbles. Chief to the title’s downfalls are two underwhelming boss encounters and an assortment of infrequent, though substantial technical issues. In regards to the boss battles, each climactic sequence is actively at odds with the frenetic and largely accessible pace that proceeded them. The first of the encounters is palatable, if not slightly disjointed from the gameplay interactions before it. The second however, is another story. Acting as the game’s last hurrah, your confrontation with Methuselah (the game’s antagonist) is led up to with vigor, yet the encounter itself falls completely flat. Prolonged and underwhelming, the final confrontation pales in comparison to the bulk of the adventure. Worse yet, I suffered a handful of hard crashes when making my way through Headlander’s close to 10-hour story. Fortunately, thanks to a generous checkpoint system, I was able to get away without losing much progress. Nevertheless, it was an unnecessary annoyance that tainted the flow of enjoyment that was otherwise surging strong. The frustrating thing about these moments is that Headlander has the right to be better, failing to align with the immense polish of the rest of the experience.Conclusion: In spite of a few unsavory design moments and technical hiccups, Headlander remains one of my favorite projects from Double Fine in recent memory. The creativity on display throughout the retro infused adventure is contagiously joyful, proliferating the humor and personality throughout. When it comes down to it, the strange nature of the narrative setup is simply a jumping off point for the gameplay to grow into its own. Flying around as a head, engaging in various combat and puzzle encounters remained a novel concept until the credits rolled. Smartly, Headlander avoids overstaying its welcome, keeping the pace of the project in mind at all times. While I could have gone with a bit more thorough narrative payoff and exploration, the trade-off was a visible and ultimately necessary sacrifice to keep things rolling speedily. This concession holds Headlander back from joining the same storytelling pedestal as Double Fine’s past endeavors, however, it stands as the most mechanically enjoyable of the developer’s offerings this generation. There are certainly a couple of components that could have been handled more effectively, yet they didn’t stop me from having a great time with Headlander’s fresh and funny take on the age-old genre.
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