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