If there is one thing that you will notice with indie titles it’s that developers will come up with some more obscure ideas for a game than you will see from popular publishers. This could not be more of the case with the new release Headlander on PlayStation 4. While at its core, it borrows from the famous Metroidvania concept, but also offers so much more. The fact that Adult Swim Games published the game certainly adds to the oddity of its premise. Developer Double Fine Productions has created a game where you will literally be floating around on a two-dimensional plane, in space, as a flying head. In the end, this could not be more addictive and challenging.
The story behind Headlander is that you awake as a head, much like what was seen on the show Futurama. The human race is gone as the universe is all androids. However, there is an underground group that wants to return to their human form. The game is inspired by 1970s sci-fi television shows as it really mixes that style with what is literally a psychedelic “trip”. Plenty of colors and robots that seem as if they are definitely on some kind of drug are spread throughout the game in different areas. You can choose from one of three random human heads to start the game. Your character has no voice because he/she has no body or lungs. You are literally just a head in a glass with a jet pack attached to it. Is this concept strange enough to you yet?
You have a narrator with a southern accent that sometimes you can understand and other times you will not. An artificial intelligence known as Methuselah has enslaved all the human consciousness in these android bodies. The best thing to compare Headlander to is that of a fine wine, as it gets better with age. The more time you spend with the game, the more addictive it will become. As a head, you are able to vacuum off the heads of different androids as you will shoot lasers to pop off other heads and open doors. The lasers also reflect off of walls so this adds an element of strategy. There are tons of upgrades along the way as energy is collected and used to boost attributes, while hidden locations will provide specific upgrades to the actual head. This certainly adds replayability to the game, much like the Metroidvania games, as there will be certain areas that you will not be able to access until you come back across it at a later time.
The map is quite big, and there are other areas you will go to along the way that are not part of the main map. You also will encounter a side mission, occasionally, along with some mini-games, some dance moves, and some amazing boss battles. These boss battles all will require strategy and are up to par with the boss battles from either Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The game might not seem challenging at times, but if you let your guard down, you can die quickly. Let too much shooting go on at one time or take an obstacle for granted, you will die and angrily wonder why. This creates the challenge of always keeping your guard up. Lastly, as enjoyable of a formula as the Metroidvania setup is, there comes that destination that is so far away that you will need to traverse the entire map to get to that location. Luckily, the rooms are not horribly long and traversing can go quite quickly.
While the game is focused on being a head and upgrading its skills as it flies around mercilessly, the android bodies play a big part. There are more things that I just think should be incorporated into the android portion of the game. While you will normally look for teleportation pads to get to certain areas of a room, it would still really be nice to jump. Both Super Metroid and SOTN allowed you to jump. Yeah, you can easily pop your head off and go up, but maybe you want the body that you are in with you? Also a dodge button would have been a nice addition as SOTN featured a back-slide that could be used as a dodge. However, if you understand a game is designed a certain way for a certain reason, that is not necessarily a flaw. Lastly, aiming is used by holding down L2 and using the right stick while R2 is used to shoot. However, if you are facing one direction while in the middle of doing this, it is not possible to turn around and you will instead just run backwards. This can get annoying, especially in the heat of battle as your android body gets close to blowing up.
The visuals in Headlander are colorful and fit the mold of what the developers were aiming for with the 1970s futuristic sci-fi look. The cutscenes use cel shading and overall the art design is good. The androids may become a bit redundant, but some of the bosses have amazing designs and look really cool. The game runs smoothly and the background music also nails the atmosphere that is created. Even the loading screen consists of elevator music which is worth a laugh. Voice acting is well done but the mixing could use some work as sound effects at times were louder than the narrator.
In the end, the experience that Headlander provides is unique, challenging, and addictive. This game will certainly make you think and it is a different, updated take on an old formula that still works and will leave you wanting more. While having to traverse the map at certain times to reach a destination will seem tasking, coming back later on to find a new secret area that contains an upgrade is rewarding. Headlander is easily a candidate for being the best indie game to release this year. This much depth and fun for $19.99 is definitely worth the purchase if you are familiar with the Metroidvania formula and have some patience to actually get into the game.