Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Headlander Review (XONE)

Most Metroidvania-style games take place in gothic castles or an alien infested planet or an army base full of enemies, so the fact Headlander takes place in a still functioning society full of civilians is an interesting spin on the genre.  The gameplay, likewise, is fresh and new since progression is gated by different robot bodies you commandeer rather than finding new weapons to open doors.  Pair this fresh hotness with the sense of humor of developer DoubleFine and publisher Adult Swim Games and Headlander has all the makings of a new genre classic.  Find out all of the details here in our full review of Headlander for Xbox One.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Adult Swim Games
  • Developer:  DoubleFine
  • ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen
  • Genre: 2D Adventure
  • Pros: Sense of humor; new twist on old gameplay style; presentation
  • Cons: Combat is awful; puzzles are one-note
  • MSRP: $20

Headlander takes place in a retro-futuristic space station with a heavy 1960’s-70’s aesthetic where all of the humans have had their consciousnesses transferred into robot bodies.  The leader of the space station is an A.I. that has gone crazy and taken control of the robots.  You play as the last flesh and blood human who is awoken from cryogenic sleep to fight back, but the only part of you that survived the process is your head.  So now you, as just a head strapped to a jet propulsion system, have to explore the station and defeat the A.I. to save all of the humans trapped in the robots.  Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

Just how are you supposed to do anything as a floating head without a body?  By ripping the heads off of the robots you see and commandeering their bodies, of course!  At its core Headlander is a Metroidvania-style game where progression is blocked off by doors or other obstacles that can only be overcome with the use of a specific item or weapon.  In the case of Headlander, the items or weapons you need are in the form of the different robots you find.  For example, robots with wheels can cross electrified floors and red, orange, yellow, and green robots can open the same colored doors.  You can even control little vacuum robots or robot dogs to enter small areas. 

It is a fascinating new spin on the genre, but it also means the puzzles sort of fall flat because there is so little variety.  The puzzles almost exclusively amount to simply finding the right robot body and taking it to the door you need to go through and never becomes more interesting or complicated than that.  Even the occasional twist on it – one section has you using different colored chess piece robots to download and upload data – still relies on that basic core body switching mechanic.  And unlike some other recent Metroidvanias on Xbox One like Axiom Verge or Exile’s End that don’t tell you where to go, Headlander tells you exactly what to do next and where to go on the map screen, so there is no challenge in solving puzzles or exhilaration from exploring at all.  Hidden rooms and powerups are all right on you map, too, which just makes exploring no fun.

Another issue is the game’s insistence on featuring combat almost constantly but the combat itself is pretty awful.  The different robot bodies you take over have different weapons and attacks, but the shooting generally feels terrible and unsatisfying.  The robot bodies can’t take very much punishment, either, so you can only take a few shots before that body dies and you have to find a new one.  My preferred tactic that carried me through most of the game – especially after finding some powerups that give your head way more health and shields and booster speed - was to simply rip the heads off of the enemy robots to turn them off rather than destroying them.  Personally, I would have liked half as much combat and way more actual puzzles. 

The presentation is a high point in Headlander as it is surprisingly polished.  The 70’s sci-fi aesthetic works great here and I love the use of bright colors everywhere and the funky robot designs are awesome.  The sound is also well done with some great voice work.

All in all, despite somewhat bland puzzles and annoying combat, there is still fun to be had with Headlander.  The sense of humor errs on the side of innuendo and robots spouting nonsense, but I dig it.  Having the familiar gameplay rhythm of a Metroidvania in this new setting full of civilians is intriguing as well.  It doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but Headlander is pretty solid overall and worth a look.   
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.