Review: Headlander (PS4)

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Title: Headlander
Format: PlayStation Network Download (5.10 GB)
Release Date: July 26, 2016
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Original MSRP: $19.99
ESRB Rating: T
Headlander is also available on PC.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Headlander is the latest game from the fine folks at Double Fine Productions and it continues in their tradition of releasing charming games. The game follows the heroic tale of a disembodied head in search for its body in a retro futuristic space setting.

You play as what is likely the last human (the Headlander) in the universe, as everyone has moved into robotic bodies and now lives forever. And while everyone appears to be living happily ever after, a mysterious artificial intelligence has begun to wreak havoc in the universe and it is up to you to stop it.

This is a side scroller heavily influenced by 1970’s science fiction. The game falls into the category of a Metroidvania, with players allowed to explore a large map and backtrack at their leisure. There are tons of rooms to check out and often some are inaccessible until upgrades are acquired.

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As the Headlander, you can zip around the map using the helmet’s booster to fly and headbutt enemies. It also doubles as a vacuum which is used to take the heads off enemies as well. Once an enemy’s head has been removed from its body, you can take over the body to control it and whatever weapons it has equipped.

Shooting is a key component and it’s an enjoyable mechanic with most enemy bodies featuring different laser gun variations. These can be a single shot laser or multi-shot guns. Players can take cover behind designated cover points or just run and gun.

… I was never annoyed if I had to backtrack a little bit …
Defeating foes is as simple as shooting their heads off, thereby giving yourself a new body to work with, but some enemies require a little more skill and patience. The game does feature the ability to aim precisely at targets and in doing so, showing the trajectory of the laser and the possibilities of the laser bouncing around.

This mechanic becomes essential in solving some puzzles and taking out rooms full of enemies. It is easy to learn and use and, most importantly, it is fun.

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The main puzzle element is getting through locked doors using the standard key card mechanic seen in other games. The twist here though is that the key cards are robots. Most robots are associated with a color which is indicated by the color of their laser or their health bar once you have taken over their body.

Often you will come across a locked door and you must find the corresponding robot color to open it which might involve backtracking or finding another way around the door. The game does a good job balancing this component without forcing players to backtrack too far and/or by having other doors or vents available to circumvent the door. That is not always the case, but I was never annoyed if I had to backtrack a little bit to push forward.

… the game lets you continue after the credits …
Outside of the combat and the body elements, a majority of the time is spent playing as nothing more than the head. As the head, or Headlander as she or he is referred to, you are not super strong nor are you defenseless.

The Headlander has regenerating health and an upgrade tree with plenty of options on how to spec the character. Throughout the game there will be collectible orbs that can be used to purchase upgrades as well as secret areas that will reward upgrade points or extend health or power bars.

These can be spent at any time on the various upgrades like an advanced shield, a more offensive boost, or stronger vacuum. The upgrade tree is not overwhelming, but it is not small either. It finds a happy medium that I almost maxed out before I hit the end credits. Luckily, the game lets you continue after the credits and you can continue to find any missed secrets or missed side objectives.

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Visuals:
I absolutely love the art style of Headlander. It’s a stunning blend of 1970’s science fiction and the 60’s psychedelic vibe. It’s a colorful and wonderfully crafted world that fully utilizes the art style it was inspired by.

Characters move and act like it’s the 1970’s, with animations that feature body movements reminiscent of the disco era. Robots will strut, dance, and even roll like they just saw Saturday Night Fever.

… there are some framerate issues …
It really comes off like the development team has a real love for the time period and it shows while still making fun of the ridiculousness of the 70’s. Everything from the world to the characters, it all comes together for a memorable experience.

I do have to mention one particular problem that occurred on a few occasions, there are some framerate issues. This didn’t happen a lot, but it was noticeable when it happened because for the most part the game ran smoothly.

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In one particular instance I had the framerate drop to a slideshow level, and it even crashed my system. I would have just mentioned it briefly if this particular event was not unavoidable, but you have to pass it to continue the game.

In this section, what appears to be the issue is that there are the many turrets shooting lasers that bounce within a small space. This area could be fixed rather easily and I hope it’s taken care of soon because it took me a couple tries to get by due to the framerate issues.

… one of my favorite games of the year so far …
Audio:
Much like the visual design, the audio emulates the style of the 70’s science fiction scene. The game features a solid electronic soundtrack that fits well with the world and encourages exploration and action.

The whole soundtrack is solid and easy to vibe out to especially the main menu music which I left playing a couple of times because I enjoyed it that much.

There are some audio issues though, mostly with sound cutting in and out with dialogue or explosions in the background. It was hard to tell if the audio cut out or if the background music was drowning it out. It was an inconsistent problem that never took away too much from my experience, but it was noticeable in the instances it happened.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

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Conclusion:
I loved my time with Headlander. I did not know what to expect honestly and I am glad I played it. Everything from the story to the art style and music comes together to make for one of my favorite games of the year so far.

Fans of Double Fine Productions will be happy, as this continues the studio’s legacy of fun and quirky games. The story is lighthearted, with the ability to get deeper when it wants while maintaining the humor throughout.

It does have some technical issues which would have been a bigger deal if everything else around them was not so enjoyable. I hope in the future those issues can be worked out and if not that would be a shame because those are my only knocks against the game.

It’s a solid Metroidvania style game that finds a smart balance of not being overly difficult nor too easy. I completed the story in around ten hours and still had areas left unexplored and side quests needing to be completed. Luckily after the game is beaten, players are free to explore the world and there is even some new dialogue that reflects upon the end game.

I highly recommend checking it out just based on its art and story, though it helps that it is fun to play too. In a year filled with great indie games, Headlander should stand out from the crowd when 2016 wraps up.

Score:
8.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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