E3 2016: Headlander is a ’70s Metroidvania Twist on Classic Double Fine

So a short while into the E3 demo showcased for Headlander, we get our first hint of the game’s possible villain, a computer known as Methuselah, as they broadcast over a PA system. The PA system, however, has speakers shaped like giant bearded stone mouths, delivering some full-on Zardoz flashbacks. It’s at a point like this that you realize you may truly have something special in the making.

Playing as the last known human in the universe – or rather, the last known human head – in a world where everyone else has decided to have their minds implanted into robotic bodies known as “impostors,” you have to navigate a lavish space station in order to eventually understand just why things are the way they are. To do so, you’ll need to travel through the likes of discotheques with floating lava lamp-like displays, lounges where robots are rolling all over shag carpets, intergalactic ski chalets while people introduce themselves with their astrological signs, and much more. And that only covers the demo!

The demo itself is about thirty or so minutes long, but really shows off its ’70s sci-fi inspirations quite well, mixing trippy, colorful art styles and scenery that wouldn’t be out of place in the likes of Logan’s Run with simple yet effective character designs and various retro technology. And to get through all of these areas, you’ll have to have your rocket-powered head jump from body to body, with each type of person having their own unique skill. This requires you to have to swap bodies in order to solve different parts of puzzles (made trickier by the fact that impostors can’t jump), and to navigate spaces only your head alone can fit into as well.

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Does any of this sound familiar? That’s because Headlander is being developed by Double Fine, and the central mechanic bears some rather obvious similarities to one of their previous successes, the adventure game Stacking. There, you controlled a tiny matryoshka doll who jumped into larger dolls in order to control them. The big difference between the two, of course, is that Stacking was a 3D adventure game, and Headlander is a 2D metroidvania game. And in this game, that means a greater emphasis on platforming (or flight, in this case) and combat, as was shown off.

Things do appear to get pretty intense in Headlander, as lasers are fired in all directions, either from cannons in the air ducts or from guards detecting your organic self. You can choose to fight back if your current body allows for it, dodge their beams and eventually get close enough to lop their heads off, or reflect their lasers back at them with your shield. The latter is apparently one of the many upgrades you will unlock along the way, per metroidvania standards.

Indeed, the standard hidden and locked areas which require special skills and backtracking to get through were here as well. Some may consider elements such as those to be a bit standard for this genre, but it does indeed suggest the sign of a huge world to explore. And it definitely does indeed look like it’s worth exploring, because aside from the aforementioned visuals and how stunning they are, there’s also Double Fine’s trademark sense of humor on display, with cheeky dialogue coming out of everything with a voice possible (including the security doors, which are rather snarky), and countless objects and people to interact with in each area.

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So even with just a thirty-minute demo, Double Fine looks like they’ve been able to tackle their first metroidvania game quite nicely thanks to a unique theme and feel, along with a new spin on an already clever idea. Headlander is due out this Summer for PC and PS4 with the help of Adult Swim Games publishing the whole shebang, and it looks like it could easily be one of 2016’s best indie darlings. This game’s utterly demented and groovy automata world is one we just can’t wait to see more of.

Oh, one more thing: as this is a game tied to Adult Swim with a plot where people put their brains into robot bodies, there really needs to be at least one part where we get to control a Barbeau-bot. Just saying.