A few hours in
Answers to previous questions: yes, yes, and yes.
I figured that getting on the escape pod spelled the end of Headlander‘s tutorial section, but it turns out that on this I was hella wrong. Headlander actually opens up significantly once you get onto the space station. Like, one of the first things it introduces? A four-tiered system of unlockable traits and abilities, powered by experience orbs you can find by exploring each area’s nooks and crannies.
And speaking of nooks and crannies, hoo boy, there’s quite a lot of those. Headlander‘s map — it has a map, that’s another thing you’re taught later on — starts out small, but slowly and gradually unfolds as you explore, find the right bodies to open new doors, and use new abilities to bypass obstacles. Or, alternatively, you can rip the head off one of the wheeled map-dispensing drones and steal their knowledge by force. I’m sure that’ll have no repercussions down the line.
I spent several hours with Headlander, following the nonsensical twists of its story through the audiovisually amazing corridors of its space station(s). Many robot heads were ripped off in pursuit of the Truth, even if I still wouldn’t be able to tell you what that Truth was. Or why anything happened the way it happened. Or what any main character’s driving motivation is. Or why the space Roombas have to be so incessantly creepy about things. Regardless of all those confusions, I still stuck with Headlander ’till the end, eventually completing it 100%. So that must mean I like it, right?
Eh. It’s alright.
In a world of perpetual video game over-hype, ‘eh, it’s alright’ sounds like damning with faint praise. But it’s honestly the first reaction that comes to mind. Headlander is alright. It’s a fun enough little game, strong in aesthetic, world tone, and audiovisual design, and a little weak in mechanics, particularly in the long term. I had a good enough time with it to see it through to the end, but I also recognize that the nearer to the end I got, the more I was leaning on completionist drive and spite rather than just ‘fun’.
Early on, Headlander manages to grab by way of raw audiovisual aesthetic appeal. It looks and sounds really good. I’m generally a sucker for optimistic moods and bright colour palettes, and Headlander delivers time and time again. Just flying around in this weird world can be a treat for the eyes.
And it’s not just that it looks good. Headlander‘s levels and worlds have a funky design aesthetic all their own, that really ties the experience together. I said earlier that I understand where the 1970’s aesthetic descriptor comes from, and that definitely pops up here and there. But there’s more to it than just that. It’s… it’s really just kind of its own thing. That’s really very Double Fine, that: creating unique, interesting, nonsensical worlds that are generally just fun to traverse. They did it with Psychonauts‘ psionic summer camp, they did it with Costume Quest‘s monster Halloween, they did it with Stacking‘s Victorian-era Matryoshka Doll world, they did it with Broken Age‘s… whatever the hell Broken Age‘s deal was. Spontaneous Lovecraftian yarn overdose, I guess. And they’ve done it with Headlander‘s groovy robot spaceship. Come for the Pleasure Port, stay because a flying head helmet ripped the robot head containing all your thoughts and personality off your body.
Yes, Headlander does keep the borderline blue comedy throughout the game, how’d you guess?
Gameplay-wise, Headlander is particularly good early on. Particularly right after you land on the space station proper, possibilities open up and the world starts looking like your interactive playground. It’s not just fun to be in, it’s fun to explore. The map is relatively generous with telling you where hallways are and where secret passages might be located, but you’ll still have to find them yourself. And then figure out how to get past them. Maybe that involves an upgrade you literally don’t have yet? It could happen. And your rewards aren’t just nondescript experience points: scattered throughout the game world are upgrade stations for your head’s health, speed, and ‘energy pool’, needed for special abilities. And also just big repositories of nondescript experience points, if that’s your jam. There’s that completionist drive I mentioned: if you’re like me, you’re going to want to catch them all.
And, again mostly early in the game, Headlander does a good job of providing you with the illusion of free exploration. This is a quality I personally like a lot in video games: making you believe that you’re charting your own path through the world, when in actuality you’re ‘just’ following the rails. On multiple occasions during Headlander‘s early ‘Satellite Chalet’ quest, I stumbled onto main objectives when I thought I was off exploring some hidden path. Done right, this can add to a player’s sense of being a cool capable badass explorer. ‘Look at what I found, all on my own!’ And Headlander delivers on that, to some degree.
Oh, and there are also side quests. Three of them, matter-of-fact. I… haven’t actually been able to figure out what these do, except count for your 100% completion.
But tying Headlander‘s cool world traversal and interesting quest exploration together is the combat. And the combat is… not Headlander‘s strongest suit. I would rate it as a tolerable annoyance at the best of times, which means ‘during the first half of the game’. You get to shoot colourful lasers and forcefully rip robot heads off of bodies, I guess that’s nice in a way.
But there’s just… no skill, challenge, or impact to it. It’s a time sink. Early on, without your fancy abilities, all that fighting really boils down to is ‘try to shoot the enemy robots before they shoot you’. The game pretends that it’s important that you take cover and aim for the head, but neither of those are true. If you just blast enemy robots in the chassis over and over, they’ll explode just the same. And if your body takes lethal damage, it explodes harmlessly, freeing your head to take over another. Which, as I’ve mentioned before, never feels like the scary desperate ploy I think it’s supposed to feel like: your head is tanky enough, and ripping off heads is easy enough, that moving from body to body is less of a lethal mad dash and more of a routine chore. Hell, I’d occasionally win battles just by flying around and ripping off heads! Try it, it’s super satisfying.
Later in the game, you do get more fancy abilities. Turn your head into a lethal ramming force, eject from spent bodies in a wide-area explosion, and even turn robot bodies into minions or stationary turrets. It sounds cool on paper! But in practice, you’ll quickly find that enemies and threats don’t really evolve on par with you. Enemies at higher security clearances have more health and take more damage, and like two or three entirely new enemy types show up. But by and large, you do near the end of the game what you do near the beginning: eschew cover to blast enemy robots, and yank off heads when your head health bar’s in trouble.
“But Jarenth, what if you don’t have any bodies left at the end of combat? Couldn’t you get stuck with no escape and be forced to start over?” That’s an interesting idea, straw-reader! But Headlander will have none of that. When I said the combat in this game has no impact, I meant it in every which way. If you die, you’re teleported to one of the many forgiving checkpoints (in and by itself a good idea) with no penalty. If you win, there are no rewards beyond being able to proceed. And even if all bodies are destroyed (or if you destroy all bodies out of malicious spite), don’t worry! A robot body of the right colour to open at least one door in this room will just happen to walk in! And if you destroy that one, another one! And another. As much as it takes for you to take the hint and beat your feet.
Combat is Headlander‘s weakest part, which makes it unfortunate that the game starts leaning on this more and more as time goes by. Particularly once the Daughters of Lucia-13 get introduced, every quest after seems to be some variant of ‘go to this shepherd-infested area and watch how the plot develops’. It’s not all bad: setpieces like the chess arena and the defense of the Daughters’ tunnel entrance and pretty interesting and oftentimes genuinely funny. But free exploration becomes a lot less interesting if you know that every room is going to have to have at least one battle shepherd in it. Not that you necessarily need to defeat everyone to move on (though you sometimes do), but just the fact that they’re roadblocking you feels annoying. It starts feeling like the game only has one trick to keep you busy.
Which is weird, because it has puzzles! Pretty interesting puzzles even, sometimes! They go mostly unannounced and un-explained, but stuff like this ‘hit all green panels in a single laser-bounce to unlock the hidden upgrade’ is much more interesting than the hundredth shepherd battle room.
When I say that Headlander gets weaker near the late game, what I mean is that some of the spark that makes it unique and interesting starts bleeding out. There’s still plenty of charm there: while the colour palette loses some luster and the game mechanics turn towards extended fights and odd boss battles, the aesthetic theme and the writing are still pretty on-point. Depending on your tolerance for silly jokes and blue comedy, but that’s a general caveat for this game. Still, I can’t help but feel that Headlander should have ended an hour or so earlier. There’s just not enough idea here to support the entire delivered game. Particularly when the game didn’t end after the extended landing pad trek and battle, I just… sighed. Sighed, and resigned myself to the long trek back. And more battles. And probably a lot of backtracking, and more fighting. And maybe another set of mostly-grey environments to traverse.
I want to reinforce real quick that Headlander isn’t a bad game. In true Double Fine fashion, it oozes charm and style; it’s unique in being itself, which is exactly what it wants to be. But also in true Double Fine fashion, the appeal of the raw mechanical gameplay runs out a significant while before the game proper runs out. Just like it did in Stacking, both Costume Quests, The Cave, Broken Age, and even Psychonauts, to a degree. I’m starting to wonder if Double Fine ever playtests their games start-to-finish. Like, really play them from beginning to end, single-sitting. Maybe if they did that, they’d be able to spot that their games have a tendency to… sputter, and peter out, a little ways before the finish line. Fun rides still, for mostly as long as they last. But maybe move that finish line up a little bit.
Headlander currently runs 20 dollars on your Steam platform of choice. Whether or not that’s good value for money is up to your personal value judgment: is endlessly blasting robots with fancy lasers a waste of precious time and robots, or a good use of fancy lasers? Answer that question for yourself, and you’ll know if Headlander is the thing for you.
Jarenth loved the fancy lasers, but he would much rather have a game that focused on the puzzles and the exploration vis-à-vis fancy lasers. Give him game suggestions w.r.t lasers on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?