Developed by: Double Fine Productions
Published by: Adult Swim Games
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4
Every so often a game comes along that reminds me of how boisterously odd the medium can be. Actually, boisterously odd could describe the house style of Double Fine Productions, the makers of the cult classic “Psychonauts,” which is about a kid who delves into other people’s mindscapes. The San Francisco-based developer is known for the comedic chops of its writers and the zany artistry of its visual department. The team’s latest creation, “Headlander,” makes perfect sense for the publishing arm of the Adult Swim brand. And, as with Adult Swim shows like “Robot Chicken,” it trades on the ironic nostalgia for the entertainment of an earlier era.
“Headlander” summons the look of a 70s-era sci-fi show that’s been recorded for posterity on a VCR, static and all. Set in the future, the game unfolds during a time period where almost all people have been duped into exchanging their human anatomy for robotic bodies that offer the promise of immortality. Players are cast in the role of what is perhaps the last organically-structured being in the universe — a disembodied head encased in an astronaut’s helmet with a propulsion jet at its base. As the Headlander, it falls on your shoulders — er, noggin’ — to try to help a faction of politically-conscious robots overthrow Methuselah, a devious supercomputer who considers you an “aberration.” Taking after its biblical namesake, Methuselah has been around since time immemorial but exactly how it enslaved the human race is a mystery. A hint might be given in its exhortations over loudspeakers that “everything is getting better all the time” or “allow your mind to wander amongst the cosmos citizen.” Methuselah wields pop psychology like a cudgel.
After fleeing the spaceship where your head once lay in cryogenic suspension, the escape pod you commandeer hones in on a space station known as YOUR-topia. Beneath the diffuse lighting that endows much of the environment with a lava lamp-like atmosphere, the robot citizens pass undifferentiated days in a blissed-out stupor. Their unflagging chillness is due to the “omega gem”–an implant that keeps them from pondering too deeply or feeling too emotionally invested in any one thing. As you crisscross the environments you’ll hear the denizens saying lots of dopey things along the lines of “I can see through time!” or “The universe, I get it.”
As for gameplay, “Headlander” presents an amusing take on the type of side-scrolling, power-up-collecting games like “Metroid.” When you’re not flying through the air, you can attach yourself to an array of different robot bodies. This is done by suctioning off the heads of others with the jet engine at the bottom of your helmet and then, with a different button press, affixing your dome to their mechanical corpse — be it male, female, canine or other.
The game alternates between throwing the usual environmental challenges at you — requiring you to find a way to unlock a door or zap a roomful of enemies with a laser gun, etc. — and goading you into strategically hijacking different robot bodies for various purposes like participating in a madcap bastardization of chess.
From the catchy-as-it-is-kitschy lounge music of its title screen to its magic-marker-bright environments that draw the eye, the production values of “Headlander” are generally impressive. However, on the PlayStation 4 version of the game that I tested, I noticed the frame rate tank whenever a wild laser battle broke out between more than a few adversaries. Those technical hiccups did little to diminish my enjoyment of the game.
Near the end there is a part, which probably elevated my blood pressure, where you must impress a music-minded gatekeeper with a show of your marksmanship skills. All told, though, “Headlander” left me in a mellow state with few regrets over the three days that I spent with it.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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