Where’s your head at?

There was a period when the metroidvania was a forgotten category of game, with few developers wanting to take on projects in the vein of two of gaming’s more classic franchises. But times have changed, and with the rise of indies and small teams following through on big ideas, the genre has seen a resurgence in recent years—to the point where we’re getting multiple games in the category a month. So, I was tasked with looking at my second metroidvania of July in as many weeks when a game called Headlander rolled into my office. The genre doesn’t get old for me, though, especially when the game is done well—and Headlander is proof of a metroidvania done well.

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In a far off future, humanity as we know it is extinct. In a bid to live forever, people have transferred their personalities into robots, and anytime something happens to their metallic body, their personality is simply shifted to another bot. But Methuselah, the computer program tasked with maintaining this process, has taken things a step further. Methuselah suppresses people’s personalities with special chips, making humanity trapped in a prison of its own design. So, what happens when a lone human head, still feeling and made of flesh, wakes up in a self-sustaining thruster-propelled space helmet? It becomes the Headlander, and must find out why humanity fell so far while trying to fix this haywire program once and for all.

Developed by Double Fine, Headlander carries all the trademark humor and insanity their games are known for. Starting with the visual design, I imagine Headlander is what would happen if Tim Burton decided to make a retro-futuristic film in the 1970s. Neon lights, groovy dancing robots, and twisted security bots with laser beams called “Shepherds” flood many of the rooms you’ll explore on your outer space journey. Even the sideburns on the Headlander—unless you choose the female head—made me flash back several times to Logan’s Run.

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The real joy in Headlander comes from its gameplay. Set up as a side-scrolling shooter, the Headlander’s greatest ability is that he can use a small suction device on his helmet to remove the head of any given robot and screw himself onto the remaining body to move through the world. Citizen robots have access to general areas, but removing the heads of a rainbow-assortment of Shepherd security bots (thus taking them over) provides offense with their respective laser cannons, along with access to different parts of the world depending on their color. Red robots can only access red rooms, but purple robots can access all rooms because of where they sit on the color spectrum. You can also detach your head at any given moment to access air ducts or hidden passageways, sometimes finding power-ups, other times finding recordings that fill in holes of the story, and the Headlander’s missing memory.

Finding the right robot body to advance past the world’s various traps, puzzles, and locked doors plays right into the best parts of most metroidvanias: the exploration. Backtracking with new robots or the Headlander’s floating dome (after some upgrades) to get new power-ups or complete the game’s handful of side quests allows you to both become familiar with the game’s world, and bolster that sense of accomplishment when you clear an area of every secret. One of my favorite moments came when a side quest had me take over the body of a robot dog, having to work my way back to its owner without any of the special abilities that come from humanoid robot bodies. Moments like those highlight some of the Double Fine humor we’ve come to expect, and some of the interesting challenges the game posed on a regular basis.

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Of course, as fun as exploring the world in Headlander is, and how ingenious a lot of the puzzles are, it does become a bit stale after a while. Part of this, I think, is because even though the Headlander has a massive upgrades tree with four separate paths that you can max out by game’s end, you’ll rarely find yourself ever needing to do more than the mechanic given to you at the beginning of the game—popping robot heads off bodies and putting your own in their place. Some upgrades for the Headlander’s helmet do come in handy later—and are even required to collect all the items in the game—but when it comes to combat, really all you ever need is to just jump onto a Shepherd’s body and start blasting away with its laser. And, considering you won’t die if the robot body dies, evading laser fire via cover or rolling (I’d say jumping, too, but oddly enough you can’t do that in the game) you can just snatch another body and continue to mow down Methuselah’s mindless minions.

Headlander is a prime example of the greatness that can come from metroidvanias done right. It’s zany setting, retro-futuristic design, and tight gameplay come together in a nice package that should please all fans of the genre. It might lack the replayability of some games after you one-hundred percent it, and the gameplay can get a tad tiresome when you start approaching the endgame about six to eight hours in, but Headlander is a great summer pick-up if you love exploration or old-school side-scrolling shooters. Just don’t lose your head over it.

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Developer: Double Fine Productions • Publisher: Adult Swim Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 07.26.16
9.0
Headlander is a great metroidvania whose retro-future style, humorous story, and tremendous exploration come together in one of the summer’s most complete experiences.
The Good Clever puzzles, tons of exploration, and a retro-future world that is nothing short of groovy.
The Bad Lots of powers, but not much need for them.
The Ugly The Headlander’s sideburns don’t belong in any decade.
Headlander is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Adult Swim Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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