Headlander is a Metroidvania. Of sorts. While this Double Fine and Adult Swim joint looks like a Metroidvania, has the map system of a Metroidvania, and has doors that can’t be opened until later like in a Metroidvania, it doesn’t actually feel like a Metroidvania as much as I expected it to. That’s because it makes use of a body switching mechanic, with each body effectively acting as a keycard to open doors. This differentiates Headlander from other Metroidvanias, but by doing so it ends up being a bit Metroidvania-lite. Metroidvania.
Set in the future, but a future designed as if created in the 70s, the population is entirely made up of robots. You are a human head inside a special headset which you can fly around in order to dock onto other bodies. Discovering what has gone on and who you are is the thrust of the story, and it’s suitably Outer Limits in tone, introducing you to pleasingly kitsch characters along the way.
To take over the body of robots, your head has a hoover ability that plucks heads from the robots. As the head, you can can also boost around and use a neat shield to deflect lasers. Doors are colour-coded, so you’ll need to be on an orange or higher ranked robot to open an orange door (or shoot the door with an orange or higher laser). The order is always conveniently conveyed in the lower right corner of the screen.
Upgrades made to your head over the course of the game also allow you to access new areas (such as a charged boost to blast through barriers or more boost juice to clear traps), but Headlander doesn’t give off the same sense of discovery as found in the genre’s leaders. What Double Fine has here is part puzzler and part Metroidvania, and part shooter. Let’s talk about the shooting.
The right analogue stick is used to aim your weapon, with R2 used to fire the weapon. You can hold L2 to fine tune the aiming with a line, then firing with R2. You can also roll and use cover. Your head is also pretty nifty in combat, either as a battering ram (when upgraded) or simply used as the aforementioned hoover to disable enemy robots by removing their heads. This all sounds good and works fine, but during intense battles with a handful of foes or more things get rather awkward. The control system just doesn’t seem suited to high-octane combat, and better results come from a more methodical approach.
Combat in Headlander sums up a lot of the game. It’s decent but not as good as I hoped it would be. Take the game’s style, which is wonderful, achingly 70s yet still clearly futuristic sci-fi. This is a wonderful looking game in a lot of ways. Yet for whatever reason a lot of the areas are drab in terms of level design. Rooms with a couple of platforms, each with a semi-respawning enemy on it, crop up a lot, while secret areas for your head to explore couldn’t be more obvious. Occasionally you’ll come across a cool moment or witty line of NPC dialogue that shows the kind of Double Fine smarts you might be expecting to find more often.
A final boss makes use of all your abilities and is nicely climactic (even though there’s a small sequence directly after), although also a tad annoying thanks to numerous attack stages and no checkpoints. There are other boss fights that aren’t as memorable, but a couple more would have livened up the combat and lifted things after the odd bit of busybody work you’re asked to do in order to meet objectives.
Headlander is so close to being a really great game, but it doesn’t quite get things right. The game we have is entertaining, looks and sounds excellent, and gives off a cool vibe, but this isn’t a classic. It’s not quite exciting or inventive enough, and neither does it offer an epic sense of adventure and discovery. This is a game with many hats, but only one head – and that head is unfortunately simply OK.
Version Tested: PS4