Double Fine’s offerings have been off lately, haven’t they? The decorated developer’s output has left me cold over the last few years. It’s been feeling like their trademark wackiness has been coming at the expense of fully realized concepts. This hurts to say about the developers of some of my favorite games, like Brutal Legend and Psychonauts, but it’s just how I feel.
That’s why it’s delightful to see that with Headlander, the developer still has a good head on its shoulders.
In this odd throwback to 70’s sci-fi, you play as a disembodied head shoved into a space helmet. Armed with a jet thruster and a glorified vacuum, you fly through a labyrinthine space station. You’re tasked by a kindly Southern gent to take on the creepy, fascistic Methuselah group, who have converted the entire human race into pleasure-seeking automatons. Quite literally, actually – they’re all robots.
That’s a good thing for you, though, because you’ll need their bodies.
Headlander’s basic premise is that you, as a head with a vacuum, will need to suck off robot’s craniums, hijack their bodies, and use them to progress. Yes, there are jokes about sucking off heads, and yes, they’re very funny. But in all seriousness, this central mechanic is novel. The game eases you into it, by requiring you to hijack certain colors of robots to pass through specific doors. Eventually, you’ll be doing things like navigating a giant chess puzzle by hijacking the right color and type of body. Switching bodies becomes second nature soon enough, and upgrades that allow you to do things like transferring your head via headbutting expedite the process.
What’s really impressive is how varied the uses of this body-swapping mechanic are throughout Headlander. An elaborate puzzle that involves navigating laser mazes, a boss battle that pits you against a literal chess queen, a reality-show that features robot deathmatches… the premise never feels stretched out or phoned in. With so many games that have a gimmick like this, the central idea wears thin quickly and gives way to repetition. Look at NeverDead, or MindJack. But in Headlander, Double Fine keeps upping their own ante throughout. Despite some clumsiness with the combat mechanics, the gameplay works consistently, and is always used for doing some new, neat trick.
The writing helps carry the game too. This is simultaneously one of the funniest and most insidious games I’ve played in a long time. Headlander is what happens when somebody decides to take the atmosphere of Bioshock, dip it in psychedelic colors and haunting synths, and then launch it into outer space. It’s one of the more memorable ruined societies I’ve visited in a game, and considering how worn those settings are, that’s no small feat. The humor definitely helps prevent playing Headlander from becoming a full-on creepy experience, too. Your Southern companion is genuinely hilarious, and sight gags combined with NPC dialog help piece together Double Fine’s signature brand of offbeat humor.
Headlander was ultimately a deeply pleasant surprise for me. The “retro-futurism” schtick is big in gaming now, but Double Fine nails it without feeling corny. “MetroidVania” games are a dime a dozen, but I felt compelled to explore every nook and cranny here. Gimmick-based platformers have been beaten to death, but this one feels less like a dumb gimmick and more like a crucial mechanic. Headlander is a subversion of many things I hate about modern platformers, and comes with a load of content for a low price.
Funny, memorable, and filled with occasional moments of awe, Headlander is one of this year’s most aggressively original titles. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, while still giving you plenty to sink your teeth into.
Double Fine has sucked its way back into the limelight with this quirky gem.