Headlander (XB1) Review

Who set this thing to head games?

There are a lot of indie side-scrolling adventures to sort through this year. However, when one comes in from the folks at Double Fine, I tend to pay more attention. Headlander is finally hitting Xbox One, and while my colleague already took a stab at the PC version earlier this year, I wanted to see for myself just how this game ended up.

Headlander is one part Metroid-style exploration, and one part statement about humanity’s reliance on technology, and while that combination shouldn’t really work out, Double Fine makes the best of it. The game is genuinely funny, and even contains elements of being a bullet-hell shooter when the exploration bits take a backseat. It is a weird combination that works, at least most of the time.

MSRP: $19.99
Platforms: XB1 (reviewed), PS4, PC
Price I’d Pay: $19.99

The world of Headlander feels like a futuristic version of That 70s Show. Everything drips with that vintage sci-fi feel, while pulling in jokes and references to culture from that era. The dialogue from NPCs is often hilarious and well-written, but also minimal. Double Fine was wise not to flesh out too much of the world, simply because the focus on the game is not the narrative or world building, it is the game play.

I have a hard time when a side-scrolling game doesn’t offer a jump button. It feels unnatural, and it takes me forever to train my brain to not use it. Headlander does not have a jump button, and for good reason, as the design is all about detaching one’s head in order to traverse the world. Still it took time for me to break this habit, and levels are designed with this in mind.

Players can detach their head and place it on new bodies, thus allowing them to fight enemies, when a body has served its purpose, discard it for a new one. It is a neat mechanic, but one that would grow stale without some substance. Amazingly, Double Fine has managed to compensate the simplicity with a full-on skill tree and new abilities. These spice up the game play, while also allowing for some clever puzzle-solving mechanics. The pacing of upgrades feels just right, and the more complex the game becomes, the more the progression feels perfectly paced. It is weird how it works, but it just does.

Visually Headlander works, thanks to the setting and theme. The muted colors create that sense of 70s sci-fi perfectly. The angular levels also feel right at home with the design. Exaggerated characters and vintage design round out the world, and the ambience is nearly perfect.

Headlander is a unique take on a familiar genre, and one that works thanks to its design. The humor is classic Double Fine, and even a bit dark at times, but it succeeds in what it sets out to do. The progression is great, and the challenge is there, but never unfair. For those that missed this game on PC or PS4, now is the time to dive in. This is one trip worth taking.

Review copy of game provided by publisher.

  • Great style
  • Nicely paced
  • Funny dialogue
  • Limited world building
  • No jump button
Written by
Ken is the Editor-in-Chief of this hole in the wall and he loves to troll for the fun of it. He also enjoys long walks through Arkham Asylum and the cool air of Shadow Moses Island. His turn-ons include Mortal Kombat, Metal Gear Solid and StarCraft.