Double Fine is a developer perhaps mostly known through their excellent adventure games – a mix of revamped classics originally by Lucasarts as well as original masterpieces like Broken Age. They’re also the studio behind creative titles like Psychonauts and Stacking, and after initial releases on PS4 and Steam, they have now released Headlander for Xbox One. We played it on Xbox One this weekend – here’s our review.
What Double Fine is also known for is their originality when it comes to their approach of traditional genres. Psychonauts was lauded for its fresh take on 3D platforming, and Stacking was a wacky take on the puzzle genre mixed in with 3D action. Headlander is another example of Double Fine’s knack for coming up with something new, because it mixes 2D platforming and metroid-like influences with the unique ability to inhabit different bodies by attaching yourself to them…. as their new head.
That’s right, in Headlander you play a head without a body in a sci-fi setting, which explains some of what’s going on. Humanity is now leaving consciousness to the head, and relying on (robotic) bodies for everything else. You head/helmet also has thrusters that allow you to move around a little, and you have the ability to grab things. This is often part of a puzzle where you handle access panels, but is also used to remove the heads of other characters so you can take over their body.
Controlling the right body is the key to getting through certain areas and challenges, as the AI presence that governs everything is very picky about who gets to go where. Luckily this isn’t a process of trial and error, but you’ll see visual hints that help you – including color coding. Different bodies also come with different abilities, and the option to use different weapons. Aiming shots from cover is quite similar to what we saw in Steamworld Heist when you consider the many ways you bounce shots off surfaces, and very often it’s just as fun. Headlander wouldn’t be Headlander if headshots weren’t also special in this regard – they allow you to instantly take over another body, as opposed to having to use up time to disconnect the head first.
I found the game to be a little similar to the PSP title Dead Head Fred – that I doubt many have played. The premise is more or less the opposite, but the execution feels familiar. In Dead Head Fred you were a body that was changing heads to gain special abilities, and here it’s the other way around. Headlander also features a skill tree, which unlocks abilities regardless of what body you’re currently using – and of course this helps in getting to new areas as well.
In a way, all of Headlanders’ elements have been seen elsewhere in one form or another – even the head/body-switching. What Double Fine has done very well though, is craft a total experience that is still fresh and fun to play. There’s a mix of humor and questions about morality here that feel like an odd pairing, but that doesn’t mean Headlanders isn’t a fine example of a Double Fine production.