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This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy.

Transcript Edit

It's early August, No Man's Sky doesn't kick off the pre-Christmas release 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 about 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 into 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 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 the 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 new 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 discover Tim Schafer's fetish. I had to play the game in short bursts 'cos 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 enemy shoots 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 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 milk-toast 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 clawing 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-wedgying-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 it 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 which 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 them. 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 of 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 that the game's less interested in exploring it into 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 'cos 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!

Addenda Edit

  • 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
Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
Q4 Halo 3 · Tabula Rasa · The Orange Box · Super Paper Mario · Medal of Honor: Airborne · The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass · Clive Barker's Jericho · F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate · Assassin's Creed · Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock · Mass Effect
2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Q2 Army of Two · No More Heroes · Condemned 2: Bloodshot · Super Smash Bros. Brawl · God of War: Chains of Olympus · Mailbag Showdown · Grand Theft Auto IV · Painkiller · The World Ends With You · The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion · Haze · Metal Gear Solid 4
Q3 Webcomics · Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures · Alone in the Dark · Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures · The E3 Trailer Park · Ninja Gaiden II · Prince of Persia Retrospective · Soulcalibur IV · Braid · EVE Online · Too Human · Spore · XBLA Double Bill
Q4 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed · S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky · Silent Hill: Homecoming · Saints Row 2 · Dead Space · Fable II · Fallout 3 · Guitar Hero: World Tour · Mirror's Edge · Left 4 Dead · Sonic Unleashed · The Year in Review - 2008 · Prince of Persia
2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
Q2 X-Blades/Halo Wars · Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars · MadWorld · Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X · Siren: Blood Curse · The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena · Valkyria Chronicles · Velvet Assassin · Duke Nukem Forever · Bionic Commando · InFamous · The Second Annual E3 Hype Massacre · Prototype
Q3 The Sims 3 · Ghostbusters: The Video Game · Overlord 2 · Red Faction Guerrilla · Wii Sports Resort · Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood · The Conduit · Silent Hill 2 · 2.5-D Hoedown · Tales of Monkey Island · Wolfenstein · Batman: Arkham Asylum · Beatles Rock Band & Guitar Hero 5 · Darkest of Days
Q4 Scribblenauts · Wet · Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story · Brutal Legend · Washington D.C. · Uncharted 2: Among Thieves · Dragon Age: Origins · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 · Assassin's Creed 2 · Left 4 Dead 2 & New Super Mario Bros. Wii · Demon's Souls · Holiday 2009 · The Saboteur
2010
Q1 Awards for 2009 · Torchlight · Darksiders · Bayonetta · Dark Void · Borderlands · Mass Effect 2 · Dante's Inferno · BioShock 2 · Aliens vs Predator · Heavy Rain · Battlefield: Bad Company 2 · Final Fantasy XIII
Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
Q3 No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle · Super Mario Galaxy 2 · Singularity · Crackdown 2 · DeathSpank & Limbo · Shadow of the Colossus · Split Second: Velocity · Transformers: War for Cybertron · Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days · Mafia II · Metroid: Other M · Video Game Voters Network · Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart · The Surge · Injustice 2 · Vanquish · E3 2017 · Strafe
Q3 Get Even · Hollow Knight / Dead Cells

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