Headlander Review: Forging Ahead

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Headlander is a game with a pretty damn weird premise. Let me explain. Essentially you are a head and likely the last living organic life-form in existence. Everyone else has had their consciousness downloaded into robots and are living forever as a machine. You have woken up to find yourself without a body and begin a quest to try and stop an evil AI in charge of the robots. Oh and while this is the future, it appears that the 1970s never faded away so this future is undeniably 70s. See what I mean? It’s weird, but at the same time undeniably interesting. The result oozes style, with unique gameplay, and while it has some problems Headlander is a pretty groovy experience.

Like I said Headlander is a 70s vision of the future, with many psychedelic colors, robots that look like they have bell bottom jeans, and they are trying to partake in carnal fantasies in places like the “Pleasure Port.” These people are in robot form, and it becomes immediately evident that a lot of them want their humanity back. This leads to a depressing world view with many robots clearly seeking the sweet release of death that will never arrive. This tone is genuinely intriguing but turns out to be a little inconsistent as the game starts out focusing on dark humor and a depressing world view, but transitions into something more serious. This transition injects intrigue into the world and starts to ask some pretty philosophical questions. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but in this case it would’ve been better off to stick to its original style and tone, the same style and tone that sets it apart from so many other games.

Headlander is a pretty game that oozes style.
Headlander is a pretty game that oozes style.

Back To the Future

Headlander is a 2D side scrolling metroidvania style game but don’t let that term intimidate you if you’re new to the genre. Headlander is an excellent starting point for newbies but still has lots to offer veterans. The reason it’s so accessible is because both the level and world design do an excellent job funneling the player along the correct path. In my entire playthrough I only had one, “Where the hell am I supposed to go?” moments and even that one I blame more on myself than the game.

The secrets and objectives are marked on the map making it easy to find things you may have missed and there are enough teleporting stations that you won’t waste a bunch of time backtracking. So with all this in mind what does Headlander offer veterans of the genre? Frankly it scratches the itch while offering a refreshing setting. Good metroidvania style games don’t come out too often and if you’re like myself and love this genre Headlander will be a satisfying experience.

A Rewarding Upgrade System 

Headlander continues to demonstrate that simplicity isn’t necessarily a bad thing with its upgrade system. While most games in the genre have you picking up dozens of different powers to get to new areas, Headlander only has a few, making many areas accessible early and eliminating the need for lots of backtracking. These powers feature a shield for your head, as well as speed boosts to help you get past certain obstacles. They’re simple but they have the ability to not only allow you to progress but change the way you play. Each one has a bunch of available upgrades that can be purchased by collecting currency and finding secret areas. It’s a system that allows you to choose your play-style, a common practice for most games with skill trees but a less common practice in this genre.

It mostly works well as you have to balance decisions of purchasing a small upgrade for immediate gain or saving up for some sort of new ability. My one criticism would be that there is a particular double shield upgrade that greatly increases your shield’s circumference, and without it I’m not sure how I would’ve gotten through some of the puzzles in the game. It seems weird that the game encourages you to choose how you’d like spend your currency but gives a huge advantage to those who have this shield. Otherwise the system works well and some of the upgrades are awesome and genuinely inventive.

The double shield is good in both combat and puzzle solving
The double shield is good in both combat and puzzle solving

Decapitated

Speaking of inventive we arrive at the actual gameplay of Headlander. Like I said at the beginning your character is just a head, with no body to speak of. So you get around by using the thrusters attached to your helmet, sucking off the heads of robots and taking control of the body. As a head you are weak and vulnerable but once on a body you take over their traits. Certain bodies have access to doors others don’t, while others allow you to fit through small entrances no human could get through. Some bodies can move across electrified floors while others shoot special bullets that can damage invulnerable enemies.

It’s through this interaction that the core gameplay of Headlander is realized. You’ll often find yourself jumping from body to body to solve puzzles, get to new areas, and succeed in combat scenarios. It starts to feel fluid and natural and once to get the hang of it it’s a lot of fun. Not to mention certain upgrades can change bodies into faithful servants, make you move faster, and turn useless robots into killing machines. Headlander’s gameplay is a refreshing take on 2D combat in a metroidvania style game.

It can’t all be good however, as some spots of Headlander can be irksome. The first issue is how imprecise the aiming can be, as playing with a controller can lead to frequent missed targets. This is even more frustrating when near the end the game, it throws an aiming puzzle at you that frankly has no business being there. It’s that typical issue of trying to mix things up too much, as this puzzle section is completely out of left field and feels nothing like the rest of the game. Finally, the game also has some bugs and while none were game breaking I had to quit to the menu multiple times to reset things.

Summary

These few problems however aren’t enough to sink Headlander and other than having an inconsistent tone it’s a solid metrovania style game with some truly unique gameplay. Headlander is a good introduction game for those new to the genre and is different enough to give experienced players something new. The game has some of the best style I’ve come across in a while so check it out for a groovy time.


A PlayStation 4 copy of Headlander was provided by the publisher. To learn more about our score, read our review policy.

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Writer at Victory Point. Has a Bachelor in Business Administration so I'll write about the business end of games from time to time. Passionate about video games and once spent 27 straight hours playing Oblivion. Follow me on Twitter @PattySinc.