Headlander Review


A Head of the Game

Game: Headlander
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided by publisher)

The future isn’t what it used to be. While most creatives now envision it as being a dark, apocalyptic wasteland or subject to oppressive machine overlords (as if there’s any other kind), people used to think everyone would be wearing jumpsuits and eating tiny pizzas by now.

Enter Headlander, a game set in the future of the past. The central mechanic, that of possessing other bodies and switching heads, is one that has certainly appeared before; Dave Perry’s cherub-simulator Messiah and underrated MegaDrive classic Dynamite Headdy spring to mind as two examples. Two dated examples admittedly, but I’m quite old and this is what happens to your pop culture references when you hit 30.

You begin life on a spaceship, receiving instructions from an omnipresent Texan. Also, you are a head in a flying jar. So far, so Futurama. This Southern drawl narration is fairly essential, as your character can’t speak on account of not having lungs, and is therefore very much a silent protagonist. You can choose one of three playable noggins, and then you’re off, launching yourself at and commandeering robot bodies in order to get through the side-scrolling levels.

You fly around like a chubby firework using your jar; not just a means to an end, it’s hard to resist throwing in a few acrobatics when airborne. Rather than simply being limited to taking over headless bodies, you quickly pick up the ability to point a vacuum at other heads and forcibly remove them; this is pretty fun for something so darkly grim. I suppose violence doesn’t count if it’s towards robots, our undervalued metal servants (and future overlords, obviously).

As a central idea, the body swapping has obvious applications for problem solving. They have different abilities which you use to get around and fix fairly straightforward puzzles, usually opening doors. While most of the civilians don’t do much besides dance and walk, there are various levels of soldiers with various levels of weaponry and security access, as well as other less obvious hosts. There’s also cleaning bots, robot dogs, a gently bobbing snowman and a sort of iPad on wheels that you can latch onto and use. Actually I don’t think the snowman really has any practical application, but it’s pleasantly strange and disconcerting all the same.

The game also fancies itself as a bit of a shooter, but not a straightforward one. All the lasers ricochet off walls, and there are conveniently angled surfaces so you can take out guards around corners. The targeting and blasting is a little shaky, and not one of Headlander’s strengths. If there are more than a couple of combatants in a room, things quickly get chaotic as projectiles bounce around like a swarm of angry wasps under an upturned beer glass. The aiming isn’t wonderful either; you can use the right stick and hit R2 to fire, or use L2 and the left stick to fire more accurately and get some idea of the trajectory your shot will take. Neither of these is really ideal, the first method being wildly inaccurate in a panicked firefight, the other being too slow to use unless you’ve managed to remain unseen.

There’s not a huge amount you can do to avoid incoming fire, either. There’s no jump or crouch action (although there is a snazzy forward roll) so you’re mostly at the mercy of the infrequent opportunities to take cover behind allocated objects. This isn’t the best, as there’s a delay in being able to duck back into hiding for no discernible reason. If one of your chosen bodies takes all the hammering it can handle, your head simply detaches, leaving you to find the next chump to do your bidding. It can still become frustrating when you’re left with little shelter from the hail of lasers, though. There is, however, a decent upgrade system for your flying face. You can strap shields, boosters and a number of implausible augmentations to it as you progress.

But it’s fairly unlikely Headlander is going to attract many people looking for a shooter. The ricochet element has obviously been added to prevent it from feeling like a straightforward blaster, and it hasn’t entirely worked; simply making things messy and chaotic in what is otherwise a precise game. But there’s still plenty about this that does manage to satisfy. There’s a strong sense of humour running through the middle of this adventure. It’s odd to find a game where the doors are entertaining, but here we are; they’ve all gone a bit Paranoid Android, moping about their menial jobs and offering sarcastic congratulations when you find the relevant access card. Much of the dialogue is permeated by this dry, eye-rolling wit that entertains and hits the mark more frequently than your gun will. There’s also some attempts that miss quite wildly, such as the escape pods being shaped like a penis and two balls, a joke that I’m pretty sure was old when the Austin Powers movies did it two decades ago. But humour in videogames is notoriously tricky to get right, and Double Fine have got far nearer than most manage.


I’m probably giving the impression that this is style over substance. That isn’t the case, although Double Fine aren’t completely blameless of that. While I undoubtedly enjoyed Headlander, I was always dimly aware that there’s not a huge amount to it. The story is fairly intriguing, but gameplay wise things are quite streamlined, and the shooting element of that experience is so streamlined it’s transparent.

It’s quite likely Headlander will get buried beneath an avalanche of procedurally generated planets and cut-and-shut alien lifeforms with names like Callum69-420. But for anyone not so interested in No Man’s Sky, this has plenty to offer. It’s a puzzle game based around an easily understandable, yet fairly unusual, mechanic with a strong sense of its own identity and humour. Fun, original and distinctive. Bring on the future of the past.


Rough approximation of a human. Reviews and Features Editor at NGB.


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