When One Body Just Isn’t Good Enough
I’ve become pretty attached to this fleshy human body of mine. It’s not as athletic as I’d like, and I can’t keep the thing from aging, but it’s the only one I have. My head is literally attached to it. But what if technology evolved to the point that the ol’ flesh and bones weren’t necessary? What if we could plug into a robot body and change it like a tire if the thing wore out? Headlander envisions such a world, in all its absurd, scientifically questionable glory.
Headlander is a Metroidvania style action-adventure game, featuring unique, puzzle-based mechanics. Players control a disembodied head that can fly around the environment and perform a few basic actions. In order to open doors and use weapons, players need to find robots and take control of their bodies. Different robots have different capabilities, which is most notably linked to which doors they can open. Enemy robots are ranked by color, and as that color moves up the spectrum, so too does that robot’s security clearance. For example, a red robot can open red doors, while an orange robot can open orange and red doors.
Players may freely transition from head mode to body mode and must do so in order to fully traverse the environment. Bodies are ideal for combat and opening doors but can’t jump or climb. In order to move vertically, you’ll need to fly around, often avoiding obstacles and finding new bodies to hijack. Puzzling your way through the environment makes up a good chunk of Headlander‘s gameplay. You’ll need to disable traps, avoid enemies and collect upgrades. The levels and hazards are designed well, and the game does a good job of teaching the player how to think and handle different situations.
Combat is also a major element of Headlander‘s gameplay. Enemies can be fought with or without a body, but different moves are available in each mode. As a head, you are able to vacuum the noggins off of enemy robots, which then enables you to take their bodies. This works great in one on one situations but is problematic when there’s a lot of action on screen. Vacuuming heads takes time and leaves you prone to gunfire.
When you do take a body, you get whichever gun comes with it. Higher ranked enemies have better firepower, and their lasers will bounce and ricochet more times before fizzling out. This can make combat a chaotic affair, with lots of projectiles dancing around the screen at once. Cover is sometimes available, and you may also switch bodies in the middle of combat. As you progress throughout the game, you’ll gain more attacks, including some powerful melee options that make fighting as a head a little more feasible.
Headlander is well-paced with a nice variety of challenges. There are a lot of little moments when the game surprises you by doing something different. These sections, no matter how small, instill Headlander with character and encourage you to keep playing. In one segment, players participate in an arena battle that’s thematically based on chess. Here, the enemies exhibit the behaviors of various chess pieces, right down to the style of their attacks. This section throws a lot of unique wrinkles at the player while also providing a great challenge and a fantastic finale.
While the journey is enjoyable from start to finish, the optional side quests feel tacked on and uninspired. At various points, you will find NPCs who will give you assignments. These missions involve traveling the map and either retrieving objects or killing enemies. For example, one character asks you to bring her the bodies of five specific robots. That’s five trips back and forth to places you’ve already been. Quests like these feel like they’re designed more to pad game length than to provide entertainment.
Like most Metroidvania games, players are expected to retread areas they’ve already explored, both to complete missions and to unlock areas that were previously inaccessible. This isn’t always a smooth process because the game mechanics don’t lend themselves to seamless backtracking. Depending on the situation, you may need to read and reread the map to plan routes or search around for the right bodies to commandeer. Certain areas are only accessible through warp points, and the map won’t necessarily tell you how to get to them. There are segmented, remote regions that have special requirements and additional load times to reach. Fortunately, the vast majority of backtracking is optional, and even at its worst, reaching Point B from Point A isn’t likely to take more than a few minutes.
The game’s presentation is comical and campy, enhanced by a 1970s sci-fi aesthetic. NPC characters crack silly puns and say odd, irreverent things. The voice actors do a good job of conveying the game’s lighthearted tone. The soundtrack ranges from groovy to ethereal but is often understated and easy to miss. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The music, sound effects and voice acting all converge to help craft a believable, coherent world.
The graphics are fine, with sharp visuals and lots of color, but the enemy robots and NPCs are generic, with designs so familiar that they could have come from any space movie or video game from the past fifty years. The backgrounds lack variety, primarily composed of metal walls, pipes, and other sci-fi staples. A few areas break the monotony by introducing lounge areas and gardens, but Headlander could be better and even brilliant with more visual diversity.
Headlander doesn’t rise above the genre in every respect, but it honors it and enhances it through clever gameplay and inventive new mechanics. It succeeds because it adds a wonderful new spin to the action-adventure side-scroller while maintaining a distinct aesthetic and personality. It’s quirky and fun with a big dose of silly humor. Fans of the genre shouldn’t miss it.