How Headlander and Song of the Deep change the Metroidvania for the better
Last year, a 2D action-adventure game titled Axiom Verge, that you likely have heard of (because of course you did), kind of made headlines. Developed by Thomas Happ, the game genuinely looked and felt like an old-school Metroid. It quickly became considered one of the best in the Metroidvania genre. I enjoyed the game for what it did – Axiom Verge provided that classic Metroid experience, right down to locking me out of areas and leaving me bewildered for slightly prolonged stretches of time.
Most recently, both Headlander from Double Fine Productions and Song of the Deep from Insomniac Games tapped into the Metroidvania market. And while both titles tick a lot of the boxes you'd expect from that style of game, they also do things drastically differently, primarily in terms of flow. This resulted in two games that aren't so much hinged on lengthy backtracking situations and confusing scenarios, but rather geared toward creating a smooth progression all the while still rewarding players with new abilities and areas to explore.
Moving Forward Instead of Backward
A major element of Metroidvanias is having players hit a wall, backtrack, find a new ability elsewhere on the map, and then revisit the previously walled off location. A game like Axiom Verge does this, and its map is so expansive that it can be difficult to really figure out where to go next. This leads to several visited locations, many of which are impassible until you finally collect that elusive power-up. Though the actual journey to pick up said power-up is most certainly fun, it can also get tedious, frustrating or, at its worst, downright annoying.
As much as I liked Axiom Verge, there were times where I became flustered while playing. Not once during my time with either Headlander or Song of the Deep did I ever feel this way. On the contrary, I always felt like I was moving forward at a steady pace, which made me want to continue pressing on rather than flailing my arms in hopeless defeat. Granted, there were a couple of times in Headlander when I was momentarily stuck, but I never felt like I was being removed from my enjoyment of the game.
Both Headlander and Song of the Deep still subscribe to the classic reach-locked-door-find-power-up-elsewhere-go-back-and-open-locked-door methodology that essentially defines the Metroidvania genre. The way these two games do it, however, makes for a more welcoming experience. Neither game requires that you travel back obscene amounts of distance just to check and see if you can hopefully find the necessary item or ability to break down a barrier. Instead, these games place the necessary tools within closer reach, making it so that you don't have to backtrack so much.
Neither Headlander nor Song of the Deep are terribly short games, but at about six hours apiece they're a bit shorter than you'd expect from the genre, though that doesn't mean they're shallow. Compared to something like Axiom Verge, which clocks in around 10 or so hours, six hours may seem like a short amount of time, but take into account that those six hours are mostly made up of forward progression rather than backtracking. What that entails is an exploratory adventure that doesn't have you repetitiously going back-and-forth to the same exact areas all the time.
Hitting a Wall
In Headlander, you play as a flying human head that can take control of robot bodies (even robot dog bodies!), many of which have color-coded blasters that can be used to open appropriately-colored doors. Finding the body with the right blaster to open a new door is part of the battle, but you're also tasked with surviving against gangs of robo-baddies. Taking control of a body sometimes requires that you face an onslaught of enemies, which can lead to a swift death. That's about as challenging as Headlander gets. You'll die in its retro-futurisitic world, but you'll never get lost.
Song of the Deep is an even easier game with a focus on its storybook narrative. I played on the normal difficulty setting and not once did I feel like I was facing a grueling challenge. That familiar, rewarding sense of exploration was still there, though, and whenever I reached a barrier I knew the solution wasn't too far off. This made actually moving around the map a fun task — knowing that the thing I needed to proceed was never all the way on the other side of the game world was alleviating and, in terms of the genre, refreshing.
Speaking of which, neither map in Headlander or Song of the Deep is exactly minuscule. They're both quite sizable, and as you progress further you eventually get the sort of huge, multi-path map you'd expect from a Metroidvania. Everything is so self-contained to specific areas, however, that you're not forced to travel back and forth to the farthest reaches of either game's worlds. I get that part of the allure of a Metroidvania is getting lost in its world, but the way Headlander and Song of the Deep handle this aspect removes any angering, hopeless feelings of bewilderment.
In a genre that's all about utilizing in-game progression as an actual gameplay mechanic, it's nice to see two titles that don't force the rules so strictly. Yes, Headlander and Song of the Deep both abide by the basic Metroidvania concepts we've grown so familiar with, but they're not stringent about doing so. What you get are two experiences that aren't so esoteric, while still providing that rush of discovering a new power-up or opening up a different area on the map.
Given how much games have grown over the decades, it's nice to see simpler, more inviting Metroidvanias like Headlander and Song of the Deep standing shoulder to shoulder with more traditional, outright difficult games like Axiom Verge and Super Metroid. And it's exciting to think of developers combining aspects from all of these games in the future to maybe create something that's a bit more challenging than the two most recent examples, but still willing to allow players a consistently smooth pace of progression.