8/5/16: “headlander” needs to get its head on straight

Winters, more familiarly referred to as the Headlander, is an intelligent, jetpack-mounted head that escapes from cryogenic sleep aboard the Starcophagus to seek out its original body. That’s not far off from a description of the game Headlander itself, which is a coldly cerebral title desperately seeking a heart. Its aloof narrative is sometimes justified by the plot, which revolves around an out-of-control AI caretaker, Methuselah, that protects its wards by installing thought-suppressing Omega Gems in the robots that carry the last remnants of human consciousness. Instead, however, the game keeps insisting on a pun-filled, Hitchhiker’s Guide-like irreverence that undermines the narrative, whether it’s the psychedelic special effects that wash over the screen after each death to the disco dance moves that each hijacked (sorry, head-jacked) chrome civilian can perform for purely comic effect. The game’s stylish retro flair never enhances the setting or the stakes–it just distracts from it, as if the game’s missing “soul” might be replaced with the gaudy, flashing neon soul of laser light shows, shag carpeting, and new-age-y statues.

When Headlander is more than a series of confrontations with the homicidal Electrosux cleaning bots or the chromatic-laser toting Shepherd security forces that are but one step away from being generic G.I. Joe fodder, it’s at least a decent Metroidvania. The ability to detach and fly one’s head about on command offers some unique exploratory options, and the controls are deftly balanced between the clunkiness of the durable robotic bodies and the Headlander’s nimble yet vulnerable space-helmeted cerebrum. (The far better half of the game, however, is the one in which players must cautiously navigate the protagonist’s skull through hazard-filled ventilation shafts; not the one in which players must outlast emergency lockdowns by killing every guard in the room.) The various upgrades that allow players to turn their dispossessed bodies into auto-firing sentry guns or overcharged time bombs are fun to play with, but then again, the game rarely requires any of these abilities, and the bodies that players swap between have an uninspired sameness.

Instead of building upon clever mechanics, the game repetitiously and literally gates progress by way of the exasperatedly smug Routine Operation of Doors (i.e., ROOD, get it?), a computer program that refuses to open doors that are of a higher chromatic hierarchy than the machine players are currently possessing. A green body can access green, yellow, orange, and red doors, but not a blue one: “It’s CYAN-tifically proven this door won’t open for you.” Puzzles, then, are just shades of the same task: find a helpfully hued host and safely guide it back to a locked door. In a few rare instances, these bodies have unique functions–a wheeled sentry that can travel over electrified floors–but for the most part, each body is just a palette-swapped version of another. Each might be capable of shooting an extra laser or two, but despite all the flashy colors reflecting about a room, the game itself sometimes feels a bit monochromatic, like a missed opportunity to find a new Kid Chameleon or Kirby.

All that head-swapping seems to have gotten to the developers, too, because Headlander has an unhealthy personality disorder. The latter half of the game suffers from a sharp difficulty spike in which rooms are overcrowded with enemies (to the point of occasional skips in the frame-rate) as opposed to featuring new mechanics. Laser-splitting puzzles are increasingly complicated, not just because trigger points are occasionally hidden out of frame, but because enemies keep spawning in the middle of a player’s attempt to line up a perfectly refracted shot. Why does a gravity-warping corridor, in which controls are reversed, appear in just one room? Why are tricky mechanics, like a battle in which players must swap between white and black bodies/polarities (as in Outland), confined exclusively to one of two boss fights? Headlander has a great premise, an appealing style, and great controls–but it simply doesn’t have its head on straight.

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