Headlander (PlayStation 4) Review

By Gareth F 23.10.2016

Review for Headlander on PlayStation 4

It's probably not a question that has ever been ruminated on much before, now but what exactly would the offspring of an unholy union between Double Fine and Adult Swim look like? On paper it sounds like a match made in Heaven. Double Fine, the much loved creators of unique, quirky titles brimming with humour and personality such as Grim Fandango, Brutal Legend, and Psychonauts. Adult Swim, the cable channel with an agenda for pushing the boundaries with grown up animation such as Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, not to mention giving avant garde comedy duo Tim and Eric an awesome show (great job). Well, the good news is that both have indeed hooked up and birthed Headlander, a side-scrolling, action-packed adventure, heavily influenced by the camp sci-fi of the '70s, set in a world that fans of Shadow Complex or Axiom Verge should feel right at home in.

It's an unspecified time in the future, humanity has survived the 'Ever War,' but everyone now exists purely in robotic form; free from worry, disease, decay and very much concentrating on the kind of hedonistic pursuits that would make Barbarella blush. Immortality proves to be a shallow existence, though, and cracks slowly start to appear in the seemingly perfect utopia that's being tightly controlled by a highly advanced artificial intelligence known only as Methuselah. Enslavement would probably be a more apt description of humanity's predicament.

Little is known about Methuselah's motives but the discovery that it possesses the disembodied head of a human, held in stasis on board a ship called the Starcophagus, comes to the attention of the few malcontents curious to discover the whereabouts of their earthly remains. The adventure kicks off with the liberation of the slightly confused and amnesic noggin, as he's guided to safety by the soothing Southern drawl of Earl, the computer responsible for orchestrating his escape. There's a slow realisation that this solitary bonce is the last remaining biological remnant of the human race in existence, and that, somehow, it holds the key to toppling Methuselah's reign.

Screenshot for Headlander on PlayStation 4

Headlander is actually a very literal description of the main play mechanic that provides the hook for this explorative retro fitted jaunt into the future. The nameless protagonist dwells in a rocket-powered helmet that can effortlessly zip and thrust about the world at high speed. However, it soon becomes apparent that no doors will open for a lone disembodied head, so gaining control of one of the many citizens becomes priority number one. Luckily the helmet has a built in tractor beam which can vacuum the head off any nearby bot so it can be docked USB-style, and used to interact with the surroundings.

Being an organic life form though tends to attract trouble that manifests itself in the form of heavily armed Shepherd bots that will pursue and open fire when in the vicinity. Luckily these enforcers are also fair game for a head pop/possession, and doing so relinquishes control to whatever weaponry they have equipped. Access to certain areas is restricted behind colour coded doors that require a Shepherd of the same colour clearance to pass through, or at least be tricked into shooting it with their laser (yep, that works too), and occasionally finding a Shepherd of the right hue can take a bit of travelling. It's a smart system that restricts progress until the current objectives are met. The Shepherd hierarchy follows the same colour order as the spectrum (ROYGBIV) meaning that those higher up the chain prove to be tougher to kill and are equipped more powerful weaponry.

Screenshot for Headlander on PlayStation 4

The head hijack manoeuvre isn't just limited to the other robotic citizens wandering the world either, as lifts, laser turrets, cleaning droids, toilet systems and robotic dogs, are also ripe for jacking, and can be activated to access hidden, or out of reach areas. Should a tablet-like Mappy droid be spotted, it's well worth interfacing with, as it provides a downloadable mini-map of the current district that reveals the locations of nearby helmet upgrades or service tunnel short cuts. The helmet itself starts off fairly vulnerable, but characteristics such as health, vacuum strength and thrust, get levelled-up whenever a new upgrade station is discovered - which are usually well hidden.

Collecting energy pods or completing additional side quests contribute towards gaining upgrade points, which can then be spent on improving the helmet's capabilities. For example, the helmet really benefits from the addition of a shield (handy for deflecting lasers), a thrust boost (enables battering ram capabilities), as well as the ability to turn any discarded Shepherd bots into an automatic minion turret.

Now, while Headlander primarily sits in the Metroidvania camp there are moments where it firmly embraces bullet-hell, mainly when the helmet residing chum is out there without the relative security of a body to protect him. Of course, the helmet possesses regenerative properties that quickly recover health when in cover, but that doesn't make avoiding death any easier. Fired lasers tend to bounce off surfaces, so wandering into a room full of high level Shepherds all unloading their firepower at once, can require some skilful manoeuvring to pass through unscathed. Ikaruga proves to be an unexpected influence during a particularly excellent futuristic take on Chess (involving lasers of course), which culminates in a colour switching, projectile heavy boss battle with the 'Queen.' It's good to see a game willing to mix it up so freely and succeed.

Screenshot for Headlander on PlayStation 4

Double Fine has totally nailed the '70s sci-fi aesthetic by taking loads of the familiar, commonplace props that characterised that fertile, productive period in science fiction, and have liberally scattered them throughout the world; items which deemed futuristic at the time, but have since dated quite badly, such as lava lamps, reel to reel tapes, and banks of computers that consist of nothing more than blinking lights. The brief onscreen psychedelic wig out every time a life is lost, definitely adds to the nostalgia factor. Further enhancement by the brown/cream/purple colour palette, and suitably dated typefaces, serve to remind of numerous, aging prog-rock gatefold sleeve art of the time.

It's the reverential nods to old analogue classics such as Silent Running, Logan's Run, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as TV shows like Space 1999 and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century that should appeal to gamers of a certain age. The audio also deserves a special mention, as the warm synth layers, heavy vocoder usage, and Vangelis style soundtrack all serve to add further period authenticity. Having sarcastic doors that berate any attempts to pass through with an incorrect colour Shepherd, and apologetic sentry turrets hankering for a career change, are traits unique to Headlander that really help give it endearing character.

Screenshot for Headlander on PlayStation 4

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

Headlander deftly delivers a smart story via a constant stream of varied, original ideas, to ensure a journey that feels remarkably vibrant and fresh from start to finish. Crammed full of Double Fine's trademark humour, and loaded to the brim with references to classic sci-fi, it pays loving homage to that corny, yet fun, era of film and television, that often gets overlooked in the age of the green screen and digital effect.


Double Fine


Adult Swim Games


2D Platformer



C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   


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