I consider myself a bit of a Brutal Legend apologist. While the RTS portion went over about as well as Ozzy’s fateful run in with the invisible urinal on the outside wall of the Alamo, I admired Double Fine's unflinching dedication to the aesthetic. Plus it had Tim Curry as Doviculus, and any time that dude is playing a bad guy, you’re in for a good time.
Why bring this up when so many of their products feature weird characters and weird aesthetics? Because the majority of those take place in something that resembles the real world. Costume Quest holds to Halloween like a pillowcase full of candy, while something like Iron Brigade pastes a ridiculous alternate history of our world after World War I, but nothing dives quite as deep into pure artistic style like Brutal Legend.
Well, nothing until Headlander that is.
Entertainment declaring our future to be nothing more than a dirty, dystopian mess is nothing new, and if you were to simply take Headlander on its head, there might not be enough to make you stick around. It’s almost aggressive in its weirdness, putting you in the role of a person named Winters. Person, of course, is used in the loosest way possible, as Winters is a head without a body. Kept alive through futuristic tech bordering on magical, Winters is kept alive by a helmet that, in order to give her some form of agency, is equipped with a multi-directional thruster, allowing her thoughts to translate into movement in an direction she chooses.
Headlander’s dystopia is a space station populated by robots whose A.I. is built on the memories of former humans as a way of prolonging their life, most of whom have been co-opted by a central A.I. named Methuselah. As a way to keep order, Methuselah employs a number of colored sentry bots, with each color matching a different security clearance. So how does a head that can fly deal with all these robots? Well, using her thruster in reverse, Winters is able to, in the first of Headlander’s overt sexual innuendos, suck the heads off of other robots. Rather then simply leaving them headless, the helmet also allows her to jack into the robot bodies, allowing her mind to override its systems and control it as her own.
While it would be simple to say that the rest of Headlander was a series of body jumps, breaking the system down in that way really robs from the experience. At it’s heart, Headlander is a metroidvania style game, a 2D open world that’s gated off by the need to collect various items and powers to progress. One of the ways it does this is through the use of color coded doors, which require you to be in possession of a sentry of the matching or higher color. To remind you of this, each door is linked to its own A.I., code named Rood. Easily one of the most enjoyable voices in the game, Rood playfully establishes the barrier rather than simply not allowing entrance. There are also plenty of side passages and upgrades to collect along the way, each in the form of a port that Winters plugs into.
As is the case with games of this ilk, other barriers also block the way, and most are unlocked once the section you are in is explored and a new power is gained. Experience is also gained while exploring and solving small environmental puzzles, earning points which can be spent to make the various base abilities better. For instance, Winters gains the ability to produce a shield around her while flying and adding some points into it results in a bi-directional shield. Most powers serve at least two or three purposes, though it takes some ingenuity to make some of the later additions feel useful. As an example, you can eventually set up robot bodies like turrets, setting a direction for them to fire in until they are killed. While it sounds cool, there’s no situations that I can think of where it was explicitly needed, but in hindsight, I can recall at least two or three where I could have used it to make things easier.
Not that anything was especially difficult. With the exception of the final boss, the were relatively few challenges in Headlander, which in itself was a bit of a blessing. You see, while the controls in head mode, flying around, sucking off the heads of various assundry lethal and non-lethal robots, feel fine, controlling the sentries doesn’t. They move back and forth across the 2D plane without issue, but when it comes to shooting, their primary purpose outside of interacting with Rood, the controls feel stiff and slow. When against a single sentry, it’s not a big deal, but against multiple enemies, I often found that rolling into melee range and then hammering the punch button was enough to get things done. There was only one situation where this did not work, and that was solved by careful application of the “run forward dumping lasers till everything is dead or you have to change bodies” stratagem.
The true draw of the game though, is its visual and audio style. A mixture of decadent disco and dirty sci-fi, Headlander is delightfully out there. From the multicolor light displays of the Pleasure Dome’s butt plug jungle rooms, to the hard coded multilevel rooms housing an A.I. Chess complex, every single inch of the space station is unique and super weird. Its start in the Pleasure Dome even brought audible call outs from the other people in my house, with my roommate calling out specifically to ask if the “trees” at the back of the room I was walking through were in fact the sex toys mentioned above.
The variety of robots you can interact with is fantastic, and almost all of them can have their heads stolen and their bodies controlled. Almost every robot is able to dance for no explicable reason, and others, like Mappy, on top of being incredibly cute, provide a public service. Their digitized voices lend well to the atmosphere, and provide a noticeable audio foil to that of Earl, a narrator of sorts who talks to Winter through her helmet’s speakers, and is delightfully southern. I mean that as a good thing, and not as an off handed compliment you would use to talk about your racist uncle. While the story surrounding Earl and his waking you up is easy to call long before the end, it’s told so well that its roteness is easy to dismiss.
Coming in at around six hours for a pretty thorough playthrough, Headlander was an absolute delight. A true experience for the senses, its unique world easily outweighs the few moments of difficulty presented by slightly stiff controls. As they would say in the Pleasure Dome “Stop by for the Robot Dances/Stay for the Butt Plug Jungle Room.” (They don’t say this anywhere in the Pleasure Dome)
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!