Double Fine's head-spinning sci-fi puzzler has plenty of style but not enough substance to sustain its lengthy adventure.
Headlander makes a helluva trailer. Its central premise and a lavish lust for early 70s sci-fi kitsch are instantly eye-catching, the fact that it comes from the same studio that made the wonderfully written adventure classic Psychonauts only raising expectations. Take a brief look at Headlander and it looks fantastic, with amazing art, endearing humour, frantic combat and pleasurable puzzles. Which is all well enough, but having now seen it through unfortunately it all seems only surface deep.
It makes for a great first impression though. You're the last flesh and blood human, being given a choice of three ludicrous looking decapitated heads in a future where humanity has abandoned its corporeal form to upload its consciousness into the cloud. Unfortunately, you're just a head. Thankfully you're encased in a high tech helmet capable of flying and using a vacuum beam to interact with the world - most notably to suck the noggins off other robotic vessels before settling into their neckholes. Think Grand Theft Auto meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers and you've got a good idea of Headlander's goofy central premise.
It's instantly amusing the first time you plug your head into a comically mismatched body, like that of a Roomba-like cleaning droid, robot dog, or unsuspecting citizen while your avatar's nonchalant expression deadpans the outright ridiculous situation. Plus, as is typical of a Double Fine adventure, Headlander is overflowing with funny dialogue as you create chaos in this quirky futurescape.
The opening act doesn't just offer a solid premise, but promises a thrilling adventure as well. Early on you're tasked with possessing the bodies of armed guards, each offering a colour-coded level of security clearance and a variety of ray guns. Cowering behind cover, projecting the ricochet pattern of your lasers, and frantically flying from one body to another offers a perfectly serviceable take on 2D cover shooting. It's never particularly deep, but the skittish panic of possessing people's robotic bodies as they all freak out makes for a captivating blend of caution and catharsis.
And yet, the whole enterprise feels bizarrely clinical and workmanlike. Headlander's biggest bugbear is that it fails to build upon its foundation in any meaningful way. Sure you get more upgrades (greater defences, a stronger vacuum, and the ability to make foes fight alongside you, just to name a few), and face off against increasingly hazardous situations, but it all feels mannered and by the book. While combat increases in intensity as you expand your arsenal, it never feels notably different. By the second half of the surprisingly lengthy (10 or so hour) adventure you're able to merely mash your way out of most situations, while a generous checkpointing feature takes the sting out of death.
Equally disappointing is Headlander's overly telegraphed take on exploration. Nearly all of the game's secrets are clearly marked on the map and few require any kind of clever thinking to uncover. If you see a blue hatch you know you can rip it off and surely there'll be some sort of upgrade behind it. For the most part uncovering these doesn't offer an entertaining problem to solve, but rather laborious busywork. Hot off the heels of something as daringly bold and obtuse as Inside, Headlander's transparent approach to exploring and collecting feels dispiritingly sterile.
And that's the rub with Headlander: It lacks surprises, which is the death knell of any comedy game. Humourous titles like Portal and Psychonauts managed to stay fresh by drip-feeding entirely new concepts - both narratively and mechanically - throughout their campaign. You never knew what was coming, so it kept the proceedings feeling fresh. Headlander has a few divergent setpieces in its third act, but for the most part once you've seen the first hour of Headlander, you've basically seen the best it has to offer.
Headlander shows a lot of promise in its concept, but it quickly becomes complacent with its most original ideas and falls into a dull fug. There's little that wrong with Headlander per se - it's a perfectly pleasurable project to while away the spare evening or two - but for a game with such a strong opening act, it's quietly heartbreaking to see it conform to such a tired template. It's got a head alright, but not a lot of heart.