Headlander

EDGE - - GAMES - Devel­oper Dou­ble Fine Pro­duc­tions Pub­lisher Adult Swim Games For­mat PC (tested), PS4 Re­lease Out now

PC, PS4

Dou­ble Fine is rightly proud of the di­ver­sity of its out­put, but re­gard­less of genre, each time you sit down in front of a new re­lease from the stu­dio, you have a pretty good idea of what to ex­pect. You’ll get an un­usual, rich and mem­o­rable set­ting. You’ll get warmth, heart and char­ac­ter. You’ll get in­ven­tive set-pieces, wry one-lin­ers, sight gags, and throw­away asides, with a sur­feit of op­tional di­a­logue that will make you want to in­ves­ti­gate ev­ery char­ac­ter and in­ter­ac­tive ob­ject. Be­yond all that, you’ll get a game that plays at least rea­son­ably well. It might not be spec­tac­u­lar, but it will be en­ter­tain­ing enough, with a chal­lenge that rarely frus­trates. And when you fin­ish, you’ll look back upon it with a cer­tain fond­ness; not, per­haps, with dewy-eyed wist­ful­ness, but nor will you re­gret the time and money you in­vested in it.

So it is with this off-kil­ter sci-fi ad­ven­ture, con­ceived by writer-di­rec­tor Lee Petty, whose pre­vi­ous game, Stack­ing, in­vited you to con­trol not one char­ac­ter but sev­eral, as­sum­ing a range of guises in the form of Rus­sian nest­ing dolls. Headlander is built around an idea not too dis­sim­i­lar in con­cept: you play as a dis­em­bod­ied head that must use a range of dif­fer­ent ro­bot tor­sos to progress. The big­gest dif­fer­ence is struc­tural. Stack­ing was a puz­zle game, while Headlander is es­sen­tially Metroid if Sa­mus Aran’s morph ball could float.

At first, it seems to have enough new ideas to make it more than a witty and at­trac­tive genre piece. The retro-fu­tur­is­tic space colony within which the bulk of the game is set has plenty of space for civil­ians, but the rest is kept be­hind closed doors, which only pa­trol bots called Shep­herds can pass through. They’re coded ac­cord­ing to the colours of the rain­bow, with later colours af­forded greater clear­ance: red ro­bots can only use red doors, while vi­o­lets can use their own colour as well as blue, green, orange, yel­low and red. It’s a clever twist that fits neatly within the game’s fic­tion.

To com­man­deer a ro­bot, you’ll need to fly above them, use your vac­uum power to re­move their head, and re­place it with your own. It’s a plea­sur­ably tac­tile process – you’ll hold down a but­ton or trig­ger to start loos­en­ing the head from its moor­ings and feel a slight up­wards jerk as it pops free. Good job, too, since you’ll need to re­peat it hun­dreds of times through­out the nine hours or so it’ll take you to fin­ish. The AI con­trol­ling the Shep­herds rarely takes kindly to your ac­tiv­i­ties, how­ever, and more troops will quickly con­verge upon you. Larger en­vi­ron­men­tal ob­jects can be used as cover, let­ting you ad­just your aim from a po­si­tion of safety be­fore lean­ing out to fire off a few shots and duck­ing back while your weapon recharges. It’s snappy and en­joy­able, with an in­ter­est­ing de­sign wrin­kle: since you might wind up need­ing their bod­ies, it doesn’t al­ways pay to de­stroy your op­po­nents, or even dam­age them too heav­ily. The ideal ap­proach, then, is to tar­get their heads. An aim­ing line shows you ex­actly where your laser will end up once it’s bounced off a wall, let­ting you de­cap­i­tate them when you’re fac­ing away from your tar­get – though that means they can also hit you when you’re in an os­ten­si­bly safe place.

By the time you find your­self fac­ing green and blue Shep­herds, with lock­downs bar­ri­cad­ing the ex­its un­til you’ve killed enough of them, the ac­tion has be­gun to re­sem­ble an ex­pen­sive fire­work dis­play, with a va­ri­ety of brightly coloured bolts criss-cross­ing the screen. Yet with dashes, rolls, up­grade­able melee at­tacks and a crys­talline shield for the oc­ca­sions you find your­self sans torso, you’ll al­ways have enough to cope, even if the some­times dis­tant cam­era can leave you strain­ing to make your head out amid the chaos. The en­ergy points you’ll ac­cu­mu­late to spend on these abil­i­ties are a lit­tle too easy to come by: just keep an eye out for the grey dots on the map de­not­ing vents, re­move the cas­ing, head in­side and grab your re­ward. With a few ex­cep­tions – such as punch­ing a ro­bot through a like-coloured door and quickly fol­low­ing it through – lo­cat­ing se­crets rarely re­quires much thought. That would be less of an is­sue were your ob­jec­tives not sim­i­larly for­mu­laic: three of your main goals in­volve de­ac­ti­vat­ing se­cu­rity lasers, re­align­ing satel­lite dishes, and shut­ting down com­put­ers to re­move lift locks. There’s a flash of in­spi­ra­tion in the game’s mid­sec­tion, as you at­tempt to keep ro­bot chess pieces in­tact while fer­ry­ing them back and forth across an in­door arena in the heat of a com­pet­i­tive bat­tle; soon af­ter, you’ll fight a bray­ing queen who de­mands you keep switch­ing sides to dam­age her. These se­quences prove Dou­ble Fine can come up with more imag­i­na­tive quest ideas, and it’s a pity we don’t see more like them.

The no­tion that Headlander never fully cap­i­talises on the prom­ise of its prin­ci­pal idea is ad­dressed – pos­si­bly in­ad­ver­tently – by an off­hand re­mark from one of the game’s true stars: the won­der­fully dry se­cu­rity AI. “What are you go­ing to do with that power?” she asks, as you stride by in your vi­o­let ar­mour. “Maybe open up some more doors?” It’s a funny line, de­liv­ered in exquisitely with­er­ing fash­ion, but it also high­lights how mun­dane your new abil­ity is. It’s odd to ac­cuse a game in which you can com­mand a minia­ture dust buster of lack­ing me­chan­i­cal in­ven­tion, but here we are.

It says much for Headlander’s force of per­son­al­ity that lit­tle of this reg­is­ters as you play, be­yond a dis­tant sen­sa­tion of faint dis­sat­is­fac­tion. From the dis­arm­ingly straight-faced plot to the gor­geous, vi­brant set dress­ing, and the puls­ing, Jarre-es­que syn­the­sis­ers of the menu theme, the world is a pulpy de­light: cap­ti­vat­ing, unique, and a gen­uine plea­sure to spend time in. Adult Swim might be the pub­lisher but, for bet­ter or worse, this is ev­ery inch a Dou­ble Fine game.

Stack­ing was a puz­zle game, while Headlander is Metroid if Sa­mus Aran’s morph ball could float

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