When you stop and think about how far Adult Swim has come, it’s pretty cool. Back in the day, I witnessed the first broadcast of Adult Swim and fell in love with shows like Sealab 2020. Now, as I wrap up Adult Swim Games’ latest game as a publisher, Headlander, I’m still impressed and can recognize Adult Swim not only as a home for some truly great programming throughout my adolescence but as a game publisher I’ll be following closely from now on.
Game Name: Headlander
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed)
Publisher(s): Adult Swim Games
Developer(s): Double Fine Productions
Release Date: July 2016
Reviewed On: PS4
Winters is Coming
In case you missed our PC review, Headlander is a game where you basically fly around as a disembodied head in a space helmet, ripping heads off of robots and replacing them with your own in order to solve puzzles. Your helmet can be upgraded, granting you new abilities on and off of bodies, and you’ll need to backtrack and revisit areas often as you power up, gaining access to areas you couldn’t previously visit in a way that only a great Metroidvania title could offer.
You play as Winters, the last(?) remaining human head. As you begin to explore the game, you’ll find that everyone else is a robot whose human consciousness has been digitized. Behind it all is an evil electronic entity named Methuselah. Your main mission is to bring down Methuselah, and along the way, you’ll meet a rebel faction, get help from Earl, a computer AI with a southern accent, and you know… dance.
The overall story of Headlander is fun, but really nothing new in the sci-fi genre. Robot overlords destroying humanity, one human rises up to take them down. There are a few new ideas mixed into the tried and true formula, but even they can be a play on the old tropes. Take the chess battle for instance (which really has nothing to do with chess other than the different chess piece-themed robots). It’s like this futuristic idea of a deathmatch that also has roots in an older cultural staple, in this case, chess. Other examples that come to mind are gladiatorial or survival games that many sci-fi films feature, like Running Man, or even futuristic sporting events like in Tron.
While I do like being in the world of Headlander, the story doesn’t fully flesh itself out the way I would hope. We are given a story where humans have been replaced by robots, and while some of them seem to be having fun, we come to understand that this isn’t the greatest situation. Winters is tasked with turning things around and hopefully delivering humanity back to flesh and bone, but we never get a chance to really care about the struggle or the consequences. We carry out the story because that’s what the game has us doing, not because we actually want to. This is even truer after a somewhat ambiguous and unresolved ending.
Like I said, I’m really impressed with this caliber of game being produced by Adult Swim Games. Double Fine and Adult Swim make a really great pair when you think about it. Who better to publish a game full of Double Fine’s brand of humor than a company known for comedy? So yes, there’s no shortage of jokes in Headlander, and most of them are coming from your AI buddy, but there are some other laughs sprinkled in throughout the environment as well. I certainly praise Adult Swim’s position today, noting that they’ve grown a lot since their first video game outings in the way of browser-based titles and mobile games like Amateur Surgeon and Robot Unicorn Attack. While fun, those games are very one-note when you match them up to Headlander, which has a bit more depth. However, that doesn’t mean Headlander is perfect.
Lest’s be clear. Headlander is fun. It’s a novel idea that’s executed well, offers enough challenge at times to not seem too easy, and looks really good. The problem with Headlander is that it doesn’t go far enough into the Metroidvania territory to make it truly exceptional.
I mentioned that there are a lot of power-ups you can get for your helmet. Some of these are absolutely necessary to progress. Mirrored Shield gives you laser protection from two sides of your helmet, which comes in handy a lot about mid-way through the game, and Overcharge allows you to ram certain walls with your helmet and clear the way to goodies. However, many of the other power-ups are simply nice ideas that may serve to make the game easier at certain points and further the ideas of the core mechanics but are essentially unnecessary. I gained all of the abilities in my playthrough, and I never felt the need to utilize most of them.
There are also a few side-quests that some NPCs offer along your journey. These typically require you to backtrack a bit and complete a few objectives, but the quests themselves are very few and far between, offering no special rewards upon completion, just a few upgrade points. This is okay since you do want to upgrade your helmet when you can, but since most of the abilities are somewhat useless, completing the quests can feel a bit like wasted time. One quest late in the game demonstrated this particularly well. A friendly robot needs to collect some robot bodies, so you need to find the correct ones (there’s a surprising variety of them), take over their bodies and deliver them to her. She needs five different types for her research, and while a few of them are located fairly close by, others take a moment to retrieve. After delivering all five, I received three upgrade points and went on my way. I guess I just hoped that the guests would have an effect on the story somehow.
While we’re on the subject of backtracking, there really isn’t enough of that either, and when you do need to do it, it’s usually quite fruitless, much like the side-quests. You find yourself going back to open up a tunnel with the aforementioned Overcharge ability, but instead of opening up a new area to explore, you typically just find one room with a pod in it that grants you a sliver of health bar growth. It’s always good to have more health, but you find these throughout the game without needing power-ups to get, so when you go all the way back to open up that area and find something that the game’s been giving you anyway rather than something new and special, it can feel a bit like a let down.
Keep Your Head Up
Despite these problems, Headlander remains a pretty fun game that feels good to play. The ability to swap heads with random robots is always fun, and finding the right color-coded robots to control in order to pass through certain doors–the meat of the game–isn’t always easy. The few bosses that you fight offer up the most challenge you’ll encounter, likely killing you a few times before you understand how to exploit their weaknesses. There could be more bosses, honestly, but the few you fight are creative enough for this small game.
The game does feel a bit short in that way, but I would say at the price it’s being sold, you’re getting your money’s worth. The ending could be a bit more impactful, though. When the game finally ended, I thought, “meh.” I mean, the game didn’t focus on the story too much throughout, but while that was okay because it isn’t necessarily a story driven game, the ending ultimately suffered from that decision. All of this doesn’t mean you should skip Healdander, though, just play it for what it is—a $20 game that offers a quick fix and a few novel ideas. And robot dancing. Lots of robot dancing.
*Headlander (PS4) as provided by publisher for review
Summary: You’ll have fun with Headlander—you really will. If you can forgive its few flaws, you’ll get a really solid experience. A bit more utilization of power-ups and meaningful exploration could have made this good game better, but for the price point, you can’t ask for much more that what we’ve been given.
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