Remember that episode of Strong Bad Email where some kid asked Strong Bad what it would be like if his head could move independently of his body? Have you ever wondered what it would be like if someone made a game out of that idea? Neverdead? Okay, now take the head mechanics from Neverdead, and make them actually good.
Headlander (which I’m guessing is supposed to be a pun on “Highlander” because, y’know, heads), developed by Double Fine and published by Adult Swim Games, places you in the role of a literal head in a jar. Due to a distinct lack of lungs and throat, your head-case can’t talk, so we don’t know their name, but their facial expressions convey pretty much all you need to know about their feelings on current goings-on. By the way, you can pick a lady head, a guy head, or an old guy head. I picked the lady head because, I dunno, she’s pretty.
Your Headlander wakes up in a mostly empty spaceship after god knows how many years in stasis, to find that they are under attack by a malevolent AI known as Methuselah (life advice: never name your AIs after biblical characters, something will almost definitely go wrong). Guided by a friendly southern voice named Earl, you are taught to take control of Methuselah’s Shephard robots by docking your head on them, and escape to a space station, where a good chunk of humanity has moved their minds to robot bodies and live in a self-indulgent hallucinogenic haze, thanks primarily to Methuselah installing logic dampening chips in their heads. Your mission isn’t exactly clear, but there are two things for certain: you need to put a stop to Methuselah’s reign, and find out if you’re truly the only lump of flesh and blood left in the universe.
Headlander’s style mixes that of retro-futuristic depictions of space travel, like something out of Buck Rogers, with the psychedelic weirdness of the 70s. The robotic citizens of the space station all wear baggy clothes with outrageous metal hairstyles, and drone on about signs and disco and how “far out” things are. The only coherent residents are the utility AIs, such as ROOD, who controls the doors and never passes up an opportunity to make a rude comment at you when you walk by. Amusingly, if you plop your head on a citizen’s body, you can do lots of little dances, including a bit of Michael Jackson-esque pelvic thrusting. It doesn’t serve any purpose, but it’s fun to look at (kind of like most of the 70s, actually). There are lots of vibrant, glowy colors, including a rainbow splash over the screen every time you upgrade your abilities or die. Hopefully, you’re not prone to seizures.
The game plays in a Metroid-Vania style, utilizing a large map that you can explore freely, provided you have the right upgrades and abilities. As a disembodied head, you can fly around with a little jet in your neck, and manipulate things with a built in vacuum, such as ventilation covers or robots’ heads. As you progress, you’ll gain new abilities for your flying pickle jar, such as a reflector shield for blocking lasers and a boost function for shooting past dangerous situations.
More importantly, though, any machine that moves, you can suck the head off of (that sounded better in my head…) and replace to take control of it. Citizen bodies allow you to blend in, robotic dog bodies and vacuum cleaners allow you access to small ports (each with a letter codename, like B-hole, F-hole, and A-hole), and Shephard bodies allow you to fight.
The basic Shephard bodies all have a laser weapon that can bounced off of walls to snipe off enemy heads, made easier with a laser sight that you can toggle freely. The Shephards have a hierarchy that follows the color spectrum; red is lowest, violet is highest. The higher a body is in the spectrum, the more times their shots can bounce, giving you the ability to plan very long attacks against enemies hidden in cover. You’ll also need higher colored bodies to get through color-locked doors, lest you receive another scathing comment from ROOD, but if you’re clever, you can open a door with the right colored laser, then fly through it before it closes with just your head. There are other Shephard bodies as well, such as enforcers with rubber wheels that allow them to move over electrified floors or oddly apologetic wall-mounted laser turrets.
Puzzle progression feels very organic; rarely will a solution not be readily apparent. Even if your body is destroyed, the game will usually provide more to help keep things rolling smoothly. Only a handful of times did I need to drop what I was doing to hunt down a specific color or variety of Shephard. Really, the only major complaint I have is an occasional problem of bad checkpointing. In one room where I need to pull several crystals out of their sockets to cut power to a machine, I was killed by a stray shot after I already pulled all the crystals out, and had to do the whole room over from the beginning. In another room, I was briefly trapped behind a laser due to a bad checkpoint, and when I used my shield to bypass the laser, a Shephard would shove me back into it. Still, these instances are few and far between and nothing that can’t be overcome with a little perseverance.
Headlander is, overall, a solid game. The puzzles strike a good balance of difficulty, requiring you to think without being outright unfair, the strange characters are fun to watch and listen to, and besides everything, you can attach your head to a robot dog.
The odd overabundance of dirty jokes and phallic imagery might turn some people off, but if you’re not above, well, this:
then I’d say it’s more than worth checking out.