This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy.
It's early August, No Man's Sky doesn't kick off the pre-Christmas release schedule until the 9th, and I'm finding blood in my urine, so you know what that means: I've undergone some severe kidney damage. And it's time for another Indie Double Bill! This time with a bit of a retro sci-fi theme as we kick off with Headlander, a game by Double Fine in which you play as a disembodied head that flies around and lands on things, so at least the title is not as misleading as Day of the Tentacle which I thought was going to be a documentary on the origins of Japanese fetish porn.
In Headlander, you wake up in the far future to find that most of your body has gone walkabout and yet you're still the most intact organic lifeform in the universe as everyone else has been digitized and put in robot bodies. Then through no conscious effort on your part, you become involved with a resistance movement against a sinister overlord so that the human race can win back the right to their organic bodies and the freedom to get verrucas and Alzheimer's disease and poo their pants. I want to know if there's any option to go back and forth. Sure, I'll take the organic body for my afternoon wank, but I wouldn't mind being a giant robot tarantula when the time comes to help someone move.
All of this is presented through a 70's sci-fi aesthetic. There's even a shootout to the sound of Joan Baez's song from the Silent Running soundtrack and Christ knows how many players they expect to get that. There's also a comedic tone which is not quite the same thing as being funny. I do sympathize with Double Fine; they've made their name with funny games so they clearly feel an obligation to keep the same tone going. But in Headlander, an obligation is precisely what it feels like. Yeah, there's some humour value in the very Douglas Adams-esque joke wherein the turrets have personalities and apologize every time they fire, but by the three hundredth apology, the titters have become very saggy.
The point I'm desperately groping for like the tissue box during my vinegar strokes is that the plot and setting aren't inherently funny the way, say, Psychonauts were, so it doesn't feel like a comedy game so much as a game with too many comic relief characters, like a production of Henry IV with seventeen Falstaffs. And now I've raised the intellectual tone of this review a bit, let's talk about blowing up robots with lasers!
Headlander is a metroidvania game where the core premise is that you can detach your head and stick it on different bodies to acquire different abilities and access different areas. Thematically not that dissimilar to the body-swapping mechanic in Double Fine's earlier game, Stacking, which makes me wonder if we've inadvertently discovered Tim Schafer's fetish. I had to play the game in short bursts 'cause I found it rather boring and it isn't any one thing that brings it down. Progress is locked off by a linear sequence of colour-coded doors rather than any organic movement ability. And in combat, the rooms can get so filled with enemy lasers that it overloads the senses. But if the enemies shoot your current body enough to blow it up, you can easily nick one of theirs, so I might as well not even bother to dodge or move or play the game at all, and what the fuck am I still doing here? I've got laundry to do.
The game has a bit of the simulated retro computer effects indie games seem to like so much these days, and the enemy robots make glitched out noises as they die. Which is all very well, but I was having issues with the frame rate and audio stutter, and I was two hours in before I realized that they weren't supposed to be part of the aesthetic. In brief, nothing specifically kills it but nothing made me particularly moist either. What a perfectly milquetoast point to make for the exact middle of this video.
Let's talk about something I did like instead: Quadrilateral Cowboy. Not to be confused with Quantum Conundrum, which isn't actually that similar but they'd be very close together on my Steam list if I hadn't bought all the Quake expansions. I picked Quadrilateral Cowboy basically at random from the Steam new releases because I was two days to deadline and midway through a Domestos binge, but I'll be blinded by household chemicals if I didn't find myself enjoying it!
You'll swiftly notice that it's got a title that doesn't really mean anything, a very disjointed interperative storyline with no dialogue and an art style wherein everything looks like it's made out of old cereal boxes including the characters, since it's a game by the Thirty Flights of Loving people and these are the things you have to accept as such, like the cloying sense of disappointment and shame that the Americans will feel after they vote this November.
The game's setting is sort of like steampunk except with computers instead of steam which I guess needs a name. DOSpunk? CRTpunk? Pentiumpunk? So-nerdy-my-underpants-are-spontaneously-wedgieing-themselves-punk?
You are a member of a small team of hackers and your job is to use VR to plan a series of heists against The Man, man. Pretty much the same premise as Volume thinking about it, except the main character is a cereal box rather than a liberal arts graduate in their parents' basement and with the generic stealth replaced by an actually interesting mechanic: You have to solve problems by programming your way around them with your portable DOS-prompt which starts out simple: you see a door so you type "door1.open()" and sit back awash with the pride of a newly blooded hunter, and by the end you're binding complex commands to a specific blink sequence so that you can remotely disable a laser grid at the precise moment your self-satisfied erection would've tripped it.
It's a game about carefull preparation rather than twitch reflexes. It specifically appeals to me because I've been known to code it up myself now and again, and there's something very satisfying about finding the quickest, most elegant solution. Or it could be that the mere act of typing my commands makes me feel like a hacker in a Hollywood film from the late 90's, as long as I crack my knuckles a lot and say tragically outdated things that a middle-aged screenwriter once heard on an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
My major complaint is that there's just not enough of it. Right as enough mechanics have been added to the gameplay that it started to get interesting, the game drops it all for two missions where out of nowhere, you solve puzzles with the old "multiple iterations of yourself" chestnut that in puzzles of games in this day and age might as well have been replaced by footage of a man saying "Etc., etc.," while making a faintly masturbatory gesture with their wrist. The coding comes back later, but I never felt like there was a point where everything you had learned came together for one great climactic challenge before the game abruptly ends in a, "and they all lived happily ever after, now piss off" sort of way.
I like the core mechanic, but I get the impression the game's less interested in exploring it to the full as it is pushing it through the, dare I say it, ever so slightly pretentious storytelling elements. You wanna make everyone look like Tupperware snowmen, that's your bag, but the story itself left me cold 'cause the characters have unclear motivations and never experience much adversity. Gameplay is like a jar of peanut butter; it might be fun to stick your knob in, but kindly wait 'til after I've made the sandwiches!
- Head of the class: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I just question the word 'cowboy' in the title cos there weren't no cows and barely any boys
- And I didn't see no mishandled building projects neither