I think it’s understandable to have a bone to pick with Double Fine Productions these days. Even if you’re cool with the modern video game crowdfunding paradigm, which can be traced directly to Double Fine, they’ve dropped the ball a few times lately. Many would say that Broken Age’s second act was iffy; the questionable launch of Spacebase DF-9 was, to some, an abuse of Steam’s Early Access model that has led other developers to release similarly unfinished games.
That doesn’t mean that everything they produce is meh, however. The Costume Quest games are polished and focused RPGs done right; we’ve also seen some solid remasters of Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. Even Massive Chalice was a nice turn-based strategy game reminiscent of XCOM. With Headlander, released through Adult Swim, Double Fine shows that, despite all the controversy and hullabaloo, they’re still able to crank out creative and enjoyable games when they want to.
As with most of Double Fine’s games, Headlander is easily summarized: you’re an astronaut consisting of only a head in a space helmet. You’re able to fly around with jets built into your helmet and “headland” onto various objects, including other bodies, to take control of them. Your job is to escape from a maniacal AI known as Methuselah and his army of robotic Shepherds; the latter have itchy laser trigger fingers and are dangerous to an ill-equipped head, but also serve as a source of bodies to steal.
Also like with most of Double Fine’s games, Headlander’s heart and soul develop from having this concept toyed around with endlessly. Your head can fly through air vents that a body couldn’t reach or fit inside of, for instance, and while humanoid armed bodies are the obvious choice for hosts, you can also attach to robotic dogs and civilians. You’ve also got a vacuum attachment that’s useful for removing grates and moving objects as well as popping heads off of potential hosts.
Despite this creativity, you do spend a lot of time engaged in ray gun battles; fortunately, Headlander’s combat system isn’t awful, and naturally it revolves around making precision head shots. Weapons come in various color-coded levels a la the classic tabletop game Paranoia, with each increasing level allowing for another ricochet. Bouncing shots off walls to hit switches and enemies is a key mechanic in Headlander, so you pool sharks out there will probably have a good time with this one. There are also upgrades strewn about the game in true Metroidvania fashion; the most significant of these are mandatory, like a directional shield for bouncing lasers, but there are some neat optional tricks like a headbutting melee attack.
The game’s 70s aesthetic is a very nice touch that helps the game stand out. Everything is groovy, man, from the graphics to the music, and even the animation when you die brings to mind the psychedelic era. You’ll never catch me complaining about heavily stylized games; they tend to look fresh years later, and I think that might end up being the case here.
Honestly, one wonders why Double Fine can’t just keep making great games like this without faffing about with alternative funding and release models. Headlander is a good time for a reasonable price that lasts around eight hours, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It runs well and looks quite nice, and it certainly stands out from the crowd. What more can you ask for in 2016?