A true service to '80s sci-fi.
Amid a crazy week in the world of entertainment (I hear there was some sort of convention happening in California somewhere), I had the unfortunate experience of a Windows 10-induced computer meltdown. The effects of this were twofold: I got all the Comic-Con news at least a day later because I was too busy trying to fix my desktop, and I was forced to rely on my only other gaming platform for reviews: the PS4. And what should be coming out on the PS4 you ask?
So I’ll ask again: what should be coming out on the PS4 this week?
While not the most high-profile release, and not the most beneficial news-cycle in which to release it, Headlander does have Double Fine and Adult Swim Games behind it, as well as a genuine fascination with all things `80s sci-fi. So while this title may fly under the radar and get lost in the shuffle of superhero movie trailers and a new Blair Witch movie (which looks awesome), Headlander has a unique flair that makes it worthy of discussion, even in this exciting time for entertainment.
In case you just stumbled upon this review thinking it was the new Wonder Woman trailer or something, and you are now asking yourself: “’Headlander’? What is it? A game where you land your head on things?” Well, congratulations! You figured it out.
You play as a head in a thruster-powered helmet that can land on animatronic bodies by “sucking off” other heads (did I mention this is an Adult Swim game?) with a built-in vacuum. Why are you doing all this? For starters, a well-to-do Southern man is telling you to do these things through radio contact. Also, it seems the non-citizens you encounter are trying to blow you to smithereens, so it’s easy to discern the good people from the bad.
And sure, there’s a much more complicated sci-fi plot involving a fringe rebellion in an entire floating head society, whose main goal is to relocate their bodies that have been hidden by a mysterious A.I. named Methuselah. In this side-scrolling, laser-shooting, head-sucking adventure, Headlander offers plenty of stimulation to make you not worry about that whole A.I. enslavement thing.
That being said, when I heard Headlander was `80s-inspired, I didn’t expect this at all. Most games with such a descriptive tag will have the bright colors and synthesizer down pat, but never get beyond this superficiality. Heck, I know those things are born of the '80s, and I was born in the early `90s. But early on in Headlander, it’s easy to get the sense that the creators have a genuine adoration for the genre and the time period. I caught on for sure once I got to the arena level that required me to take control of various chess-piece bodies that shoot lasers in accordance with how that particular chess piece moves.
But Headlander excels not only in its adherence to its source material and its action setpieces, but also in its ability to create engaging environmental puzzles. In order to traverse from room to room, you have to go through automatic doors, which only open if your floating head is attached to a body or the right-colored body (there’s a particularly funny sassy-door A.I. that will crack jokes at your expense if you don’t have the proper clearance). So the puzzle becomes getting from point A to point B when the distance between those two points is littered with multi-colored doors and other nooks and crannies only your floating head can fit through.
Hitting the right balance of puzzle and action with a proper dose of true `80s nostalgia, the majority of Headlander is a treat to play and to watch. That being said, its ending segment has a few head-scratching moments, including an uninspired “Simon says” memory game, and a final boss fight that is as frustrating as it is formulaic; the boss has three main segments of health and changes style after each segment is depleted, followed by a surprise re-birth into yet another form.
Headlander also has an extensive upgrade system for your helmet, but I found myself only making use of a small percentage of them, but this might act as the perfect example for the game itself: a ton of great ideas without fully making use of all of them.