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.

Style and Substance: “Klaus” Wants It All

My full review of Klaus can be found over at Slant Magazine. Worth emphasizing here, however, is that despite the subtle repetition of puzzles (acid and lasers operate in the same fashion; the touchpad-assisted operation of objects never gets any more complex than in the first level), Klaus is still a worthwhile game. All that industrial filler actually works in the context of the Kafkaesque story, for Klaus is rebelling not only against his corporation, but against the Player’s control, and I’m not sure that a more immediate subversion of the game’s mechanics (which doesn’t occur in earnest until midway through the fourth of six worlds) would have been as effective.

The question, then, is a matter of pacing.  Continue reading

“Roundabout” Is Straight-Up Arcade Fun

Roundabout is the game that Grand Theft Auto wishes it could be. Bear with me here: whereas the early GTA games were chaotic, top-down thrill-rides (and I’ll never forget my amazing flying tank from Grand Theft Auto III), at some point, Rockstar Games became beholden to gangster films and real-world stories (most notably in the solemn moments of Grand Theft Auto IV), and even when outright parodying the gaudy lights of Miami, there was always a film of reality there to pull the game back from its inner Michael Bay.

Not so with Roundabout. Giving in entirely to the camp of the intentionally awful green-screen cut-scenes, the game focuses on Georgio Manos, the silent driver of the world’s first revolving limousine service. (And her name has to be pun on the unintentionally awful C-movie, Manos: The Hands of Fate.) The perpetually spinning limo isn’t the weirdest thing in the game, however–not by far. In her quest to earn the love of the excitable Beth, Georgio begins taking instructions from a skeleton and a mechanic who fights cop cars with special “gloves” he built out of duct tape and batteries, slaughters an entire triathlon while hallucinating, and–at some point–becomes a recluse and grows a thick beard. Occasionally, the military drops flaming cars from the heavens to block Georgio’s path, although this isn’t much of a problem considering that her car gains several powers, from simple jumps and boosts to the ability to shrink through tight spaces, change the direction of her spin, slow down time, and drive over water.  Continue reading

“Oxenfree”: Kinda Sorta Possibly A Game?

Though the radio that skeptical, try-hard Alex acquires at the start of Oxenfree can’t pick up any classic rock (given the dismal reception of Edwards Island), the song that’s likely to play through every gamer’s head is Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.” That’s because the degree to which you’ll be watching characters is greater here than in most narrative-style games, most of which at least pay respects to their chosen medium with an interactive quick-time event or the occasional brain-teaser. Oxenfree, on the other hand, takes its cues from Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, with its sluggish movement speed and cryptic, non-linear radio transmissions. Gameplay consists of nothing more than tuning the occasional radio dial and choosing how to have Alex respond to her companions–newly acquired stepbrother Jonas, adventurous stoner friend Ren, archetypal mean/popular Clarissa, and demure Nona. There are a few forking narrative paths, but nothing like that of Until Dawn or Life Is Strange, which offered more tangible consequences and a sense of urgency.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So while Oxenfree borrows its name from a classic children’s game–hide and seek, basically–it fails to justify its format. Not for nothing is it being adapted into a film: the actual story, which involves radio ghosts, is a clever one. But everything else is basically like walking through a pop-up book, and while you’re ostensibly encouraged to interact with each scene through dialogue or extraneous actions (kicking a soccer ball, sitting down), there’s a sense that most of it is just a distraction: the story goes on without you.


Continue reading

The Very Necessary Parable of “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip”

This is the sort of book that makes you ache to have a child, so that you can help pass this wisdom on to the next generation. Ours, and those older than us, are too stubborn, I fear, to hear and understand what’s going on in George Saunders’s The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. As with Roald Dahl, there are selfish adults and a tireless precocious child, and in the style of Dr. Seuss, there’s an absurd threat–the orange, baseball-sized, goat-loving, screaming gappers. Just listen to how well simple sentence structure and repetition are used for comic effect:

There were approximately fifteen hundred gappers living in the sea near Frip. Each Frip family had about ten goats. Therefore there would normally be about five hundred gappers per goat. Tonight, however, with all fifteen hundred gappers in Capable’s yard, there were approximately one hundred fifty gappers per goat. Since the average goat can carry about sixty gappers before it drops to its knees and keels over on one side with a mortified look on its face, when Capable came out to brush gappers that night, she found every single one of her goats lying on its side with a mortified look on its face, completely covered with shrieking orange gappers.

Why the dim-witted gappers do this isn’t particularly important; they’re simply accepted and treated as a fact of life. (Look at how Saunders grounds them, first, with math.) In turn, that makes the reaction of the two other families seem almost logical, as they spend all of their money to get further and further away from the gappers (literally driving themselves into a swamp) rather than addressing the root of the problem, or bothering to actually work. (They thank God for helping them, mainly because that helps them to avoid helping others.) As Swift once proved, that’s the best sort of satire, using a crazy notion to reveal, by association, how crazy all the other things that enabled it must have been. Continue reading

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: