Wot I Think: Headlander
Beautiful, ingenious and a little bit filthy
Headlander [official site], Double-Fine and Adult Swim's skull-swapping Metroidvania affair is nothing like as funny as it probably thinks it is, but fortunately it's a quiet delight in so many other ways. It's also filthy.
Headlander is, more or less, a Metroidvania game in which you play as a flying head. You can attach this head to the bodies of NPCs, be they enemies or civilians, in order to gain access to new areas, to fight or to bypass hazards. It's set primarily on a psychedelia-styled space station populated by robots, most of whom are too busy having a wonderful time to complain about head thieves.
Initially I dismissed phrases such as "suck off" and "c-hole" as my own dirty mind despoiling a perfectly innocent retro-sci-fi-styled adventure. Even a scene where my character seemingly has a glowing pink dildo for a hand was surely, surely just my own awful interpretation. Then this oddly-shaped spaceship appeared, shown from an array of angles that left me in no doubt: Headlander is a very naughty boy.
In fairness, the Austin Powersish innuendo mostly dries up after that, although there is an extended visit to a pleasuredome area, but it's more Barbarella than Carry On. There are a few 'head' gags here and there too, but it admirably resists the obvious in the main. There's more in the way of vaguely Hitchhiker's-style grumpy and/or sadistic robots (and even complaining doors), but it came across as laboured to me.
Meantime, the apparent inherent comedy of sticking your space-person head onto a ridiculously unmatched body, for instance a robo-pooch or a ladybot in thigh-highs, doesn't last for long. Your interest is not in ho-ho-ho, how peculiar I look, but rather in latching your bonce onto guards wearing suits of specific colours, for those colours act as security passes for the various doors. Leaving possible wasted opportunities for comedy aside, it's a fresh and impressively adaptable idea.
First you've got to destroy or remove the head of a guard, then you've got to steer its body over to the requisite door without getting it killed in the process, and, as the game wears on, elaborate obstacle courses develop. Bodies can do things that just your head cannot, but your head can do things that bodies cannot, so you're switching in out to control lifts, deactivate turrets, zoom through air ducts, switch at speed from deathray-firing bipeds to heavily armoured tankbots, and all manner of laserbeam-dodging to boot.
A couple of hours into the game I was worried that I'd seen all it has to offer, that this was going to become routine and tiresome - particularly given it kept dropping "do this thing five times" objectives onto me. This was, I was sure, going to become another example of the great idea repeated ad nauseum curse that has previously affected Double Fine titles including Costume Quest, Iron Brigade and Massive Chalice.
Headlander does a fine job of continuing to mix things up, by contrast. It's divided into large, large levels (all the better for Metroiding, my dear), each of which has not only their own theme, but their own conceit too. One is set in a sort of robot sex den (though all the eroticism happens in the mind), all tubes and friendly civilians and weird parlours, with a scattered attempt at multi-solution puzzles.
Another is a vast system of elevator shafts and heavily-defended power stations, the most openly Metroid-like in its array of secret tunnels and elaborate mind-mapping. Another still is staged as a gigantic game of murder-chess.
Many punches are pulled and it rarely, if ever, explodes into the full flights of fancy it often promises, but it is brimming with invention, and works hard to remix its otherwise relatively slight set of mechanics in as many ways as it can. There's also a skill tree in there, which you'll end up unlocking most of regardless (some by spending points, some by the level structure directing you to vital pick-ups), but new abilities offer meaningful shifts in what you can do.
Headbutting yourself directly onto an enemy's shoulders' for instance, a shield which allows you to rebound lasers, slide-kicks, and, yes, the ability to suck off, their words not mine, an enemy's head, using a sort of reverse vacuum cleaner where your neck should be.
This is my favourite feature, in fact. To start with, you're taking control of guards with their pistols, trying to shoot off heads, ideally without destroying the bodies, just in case you need 'em later, but by the mid-point of the game my combat style has shifted over to thrusting a severed head around the room, forcibly detaching my enemies' noggins with my own personal tractor beam, which in turn often leads to chained headbutt frenzies. The room is reduced to a neat row of headless corpses, without my having fired a single shot.
The controls are tight (so long as you play on gamepad - keyboard controls are iffy), the animations delightful, the momentum fluid and - well, put it this way. Truth be told, there's a fair bit of repetition in Headlander. Entirely unnecessarily so at times - it's settled on five rather than the more classical three for the number of times a thing needs to be turned on or uploaded or destroyed, and my patience did feel stretched by that.
However, most of the time I don't care that I'm repeating myself. Entering a new room and working out how to remove the heads of anything in there without dying, how it opens a new path in the level's elaborate maze, deciding whose body I'm going to kidnap and also finding my way to various secrets: it's a good time.
Against all this is the sort of unsympathetic checkpointing system that leads to broken keyboards and bitemarks on knuckles. I suppose it's in keeping with the Metroid games it nods to, but it seems at odds with the chummy presentation. It's not an especially difficult game, but there are sections which involve turning off or destroying multiple doohickeys in a maze-like room full of teleporters and elevators, and getting killed just as you approach the last one, knowing that you'll have to repeat the whole damn thing, starts approaching rage-quit territory.
I admit, I walked away after dying in the final fifth (that number again) of a long boss fight for the third time, just too bored of repeating the initial four stages. I'd have stuck with it til the end if I didn't have a review to write, mind you.
As I say, the keyboard controls are a mess too, and I guess PC m*ster r*ace types will also be upset by limited resolution support and a framerate locked to 60. There are also a few bugs here and there, most notably a crash upon alt-tabbing and a tendency for gamepad vibration to remain turned on indefinitely (fixed by pausing then unpausing, mercifully). All told, there is a sense that the PC version of Headlander has not been particularly well-loved, but not to the point that it's actually deal-breaking.
More importantly, I didn't really mind any of that stuff, because it's damned beautiful, and packed with visual invention. This is psychedelic sci-fi in a 70s vein, but able to create scenes that the film/TV sets and budgets of the time could not, and it absolutely goes to town on many of its backdrops.
Sadly the story and characterisation is desperately undernourished by comparison. It's trying to to tell a tale, and hidden audio-logs try to fill in detail and humour about this head-swapping electronic society, but a reason to care on a level beyond "get the new power, get to the new area, get to the end" never really makes itself known. When the presentation and the toys are this much of a giggle, that doesn't matter much, but it does feel like a few opportunities to engage were missed.
Headlander's hugely charming, basically, and though it doesn't run too far with the humour of its concept, it absolutely makes the gimmick work from a play point of view. It's got more steam in its engine than other recent, similarly high-concept Double Fine endeavours too, working hard to stay vibrant throughout.
Also: the shag pile carpets are divine.
Headlander is out now.