September 11, 2019

Review: Headspun

Back at the start of 2019, Headspun was one of the games I included in an article I wrote for Kotaku UK about my most anticipated British games of 2019. The indie game, in which you help aid in the recovery of a dude in his mid twenties who has just come out of a coma, looked from the outside to be an Inside Out inspired FMV game, where different aspects of the main character’s personality made choices regarding how to rebuild the life of someone who remembers very little about who they once were. The art style seemed funky, as did the perspective of seeing the world from a lens inside the brain, and it has been on my radar ever since.

While the concept of Headspun remains really interesting, it’s not a game I can recommend now it’s officially released, due in no small part to some severe bugs on console, repetitive interactions, and an opening that really wastes a lot of player time.

While not immediately obvious from trailers and official descriptions of the game, Headspun is much more of an office management game than a traditional choice based FMV adventure. You play as one of recently awoken from a coma Theo’s brain cells, the primary driving choice behind his decision making. Ted is driven, but a stressed out panicky workaholic who it’s made obvious early on drinks too much, isn’t happy, and probably pushed Theo into the car crash that caused the coma by making him miserable, discarding his passions in the pursuit of money and power. Ted is the conscious mind, making choices based on what it thinks are logical goals.

We also interact with Teddy, another brain cell dressed up like a mid 2000’s emo kid, the overlooked part of the brain that basically wants Theo to be happy and keeps calling Ted out on his nonsense. Teddy is the subconscious, and wants Theo to be happy, rather than successful

Both of these characters stories seem highly telegraphed from the start, but the game tries to act like there is some uncertainty about what feels like a very cookie cutter plot. Having skipped ahead a little and seen where the plot was going had my copy not become unplayable, it seems my very early game assumptions were bang on the money. The game’s attempts at reveals were clear from the very start.

You manage Theo’s days in recovery by executing small minigames to help build up his brain cells, tapping a button repeatedly to read a book, or selecting missing vowels to fill in single spaces on a crossword. Theo’s stress will occasionally rise, so you may have to have him take time consuming naps to continue doing the game’s handful of repetitive and not particularly inspired mini games. You will be doing these mini games a LOT, and they’re not particularly great.

These brain cell points you accumulate can be spent to upgrade the amount of brain cell points you get from minigames, as well as the amount you get for just letting time pass, and upgrading these early and aggressively will honestly make collecting the currency needed to complete the game feel almost trivial. Spend maybe half an hour focusing on upgrading the speed you get resources, and you’ll never find yourself lacking for progression. I really feel like the game wanted me to be progressing slower than I was in terms of resource management.

You can also use these brain cell points to unlock repair projects around the brain, rebuilding rooms, creating travel shortcuts, as well as hiring staff to complete the repair jobs you have on your plate. These repair jobs will again apparently make your employees happier and increase the speed at which you restore the brain to health.

Over time, repairing the brain will unlock memories, presented in text, which fill in the backstory and start to hint at the story that led Theo to where he is now. The problem is, right from the start all the major plot beats feel predictable enough that nothing I read in the memories really came as a surprise.

In the FMV cutscene portions of the game, where you primarily interact with your doctor and one friend, you can make choices of how to respond to conversations, but all conversation branches seem to lead to the same end result, with maybe a few words changed at the start of the paragraph to reflect your choice. When inquiring about what happened to you, there’s no limit to how many questions you can ask, so the FMV sections don’t really offer any meaningful way to impact the story. It feels a lot more on rails than I had hoped.

However, the game’s biggest issues are early pacing, and bugs. Headspun features a side scrolling 2D world to interact with, but considering the game’s art is simple 2D animations, the loading screens present and the slow walking speed really make the game feel sluggish. A LOT of time is wasted walking from place to place and loading through doors, particularly at the start of the game. In the opening sections of the game, I was frequently having to spent more than two minutes walking slowly from my bedroom to the control room down largely empty corridors to start doing the day’s tasks, before walking another two minutes back. In practice, at the start, at the end of each in game day you have to spend four minutes doing a round trip to your bed to sleep and back. It really doesn’t get the game off on a snappy foot. You can unlock a faster elevator between these key positions an hour or more in, but by then the game’s sluggish feel has done its damage.

I played Headspun on Nintendo Switch, and I can’t attest for other platforms, but the retail version which has been out for around a week is unplayably buggy. I was initially willing to push through bugs that were annoyances but not progression halting, such as menus requiring me to watch a painfully slow text crawl before I could pick an option where they had previously allowed me to skip straight to the choice, or store menus requiring me to exit the room and re enter it between purchases rather than just picking multiple purchases in a row. These sorts of bugs were nuisances, but not impossible to push through. The real issue came when I encountered an issue where the control room of the brain wouldn’t let me switch tabs at all, preventing me from accessing the activities which progress the game. Quitting and reloading the game didn’t fix the issue, and the game’s single save system meant I could not revert to an earlier state to get around it. Around two hours of plodding through the game, I could not progress, and its slow pace meant I was not willing to start over from scratch.

And it’s a real shame, because so much of Headspun seems so promising. The acting was really endearing even if it was predictable, I liked the concept of putting this person’s life back together and shaping whether they move away from old habits. I wanted to see the arc of overlooked Teddy and if he could assert Theo’s needs better. I wanted to like this game.

I’m not opposed to giving Headspun another go down the line. If there was a fast travel option to hop between rooms more speedily, if the movement speed was increased a little, or even just if I could be sure the game breaking bugs were gone I might pick the game back up and give it another shot, but right now I can’t recommend people pick Headspun up. That’s a real shame, I had been really looking forward to it for a while.

Also, note to the developers, your idea of a world in which everyone has super powers, but they all come with terrible consequences, and the one person with no super powers but at the same time no huge consequences is fascinating and I would love to see you some day make a game around that concept.