2016 has been an odd year for games. Whilst it’s certainly been a busy in terms of big releases, not all have been the triple-A masterpieces we’ve seen arriving almost weekly recently on the Xbox Store. In fact, some arrivals just appear out of nowhere, before pulling you in with their quirky appearances and unusual gameplay. Headlander is one such title, and whilst developers Double Fine have always managed to intrigue me with the captivating gameplay seen in their many other titles, the intrigue this time came from the knowledge I would be in control of a flying head for my adventures.
Headlander is not the usual type of game you expect to play when you hear the term ‘Metroidvania style 2D platformer’. But then again, how many games have you set in a futuristic space dystopia, as the last surviving human head? Yep, I can’t name one either.
In Headlander, players take control of a floating, disembodied head complete with thrusters for movement, as they set out to unravel what is really going in the seemingly innocent, yet odd little space resort in which humanity now resides. With Headlander set in a vastly futuristic, yet 70’s style retro sci-fi period, humans have now ditched the idea of the fully functioning body, and instead taken to a life of robotics in which everyone’s consciousness has been transferred to robotic bodies, with a mysterious component known as the Omega Gem suppressing many of their thoughts and emotions.
Taking control of other bodies is a big part of the game – thankfully this is made easy since your roaming head is equipped with thrusters – with various doors only opening for certain coloured bodies, and other tasks such as shooting only possible with the body of one of the various armed police guards. Mapping robots called ‘Mappys’ enable players to download location data and citizens can help the player to simply blend in.
Whilst the gameplay in Headlander comes down to a rather linear experience, the ability to shift between bodies helps to keep the whole experience fresh and more engaging than the usual 2D sidescroller. It is this shifting that is the real key to progression, with the A.I. that governs the facility surprisingly choosy as to who goes where.
Those looking for a game that they can sink their teeth into straight away should note that the real action isn’t found until later in the game. Whilst the beginning does very little more than see you get involved in simple body swapping and mild exploration, it doesn’t take too long to get into the deeper side of what’s on offer; enemy types grow stronger and more complex, skill trees are in place to pay attention too, and bullet hell gameplay makes an appearance alongside an ever increasing difficulty.
The other main component of Headlander is based around upgrades. These come in various forms, from those that are completely necessary in order to progress, to those which are almost needless,. However, with upgrades being one of the core components of the game, exploring every nook and cranny of each level really becomes a big deal. Whilst some upgrades can provide things such as increased health, thrust and power, or improved shields that are used for deflecting turret fire, others bring the chance to headbutt an enemy whilst swapping into the new body at the same time. Whilst not a vastly important upgrade, it is still one that feels empowering nevertheless.
Other than the upgrades, the mysterious A.I and the weirdly satisfying body swapping, there isn’t much more to say about Headlander. However, with the simplistic gameplay seen throughout and the predictable evil villain storyline, there’s no denying that there’s something about Headlander that just makes the experience quite enjoyable.
One thing that really stands out however, and something that I initially passed off the first few times, was how weirdly sexual parts of the game tend to be. For example, in one specific area – the Pleasure Dome – I noticed several of the stations residents would imply things that seemed rather explicit. It wasn’t until I noticed a room in which several people were rubbing themselves against the floors that I actually twigged on to what was going on. Nonetheless, even with the weird behaviour and random gameplay elements on show, there is no denying that Headlander is an enjoyable and unique take on a classic genre…one that I will certainly find myself coming back too.
Headlander provides the player with a fresh and original approach to an overdone genre, and whilst the pacing of the game would be better off starting a little quicker, the gameplay on offer is certainly great entertainment and something that we can only hope to see more of in the future.