HomePC GAMESForza Horizon 5Airhead looks great, but its puffy platforming is a little lightweight

Airhead looks great, but its puffy platforming is a little lightweight

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Airhead is one of those platformers I really want to like. Freshly announced at tonight’s THQ Nordic Showcase, I’ve been playing an early, hour-long demo build of it this week, and while there are certainly things to admire here, I’m not overly convinced it’s going to be one for the ages. Its colourful visuals and contrasting colour palette cast its deep caverns and sun-drenched mountains in a beautiful, but eerie kind of light, and its strange, scuttling creatures put me in the mind of the night horrors from Dredge and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. But its central premise of you being a headless body carting round an inflatable head to presumably escape to goodness knows where isn’t quite the breath of fresh air I hoped it would be.

Some of my frustrations stem from bits of poor signposting, admittedly, a handful of which are hopefully easy fixes ahead of its full release. In the very first area, for example, there’s a rock you can push to climb up to a nearby ledge, which you can shunt over simply by walking into it. What’s up there, though – a couple of air cannisters that make a truly heinous, ear-piercing sound if you interact with them – is no use to you whatsoever. Instead, what I should have done is push the rock the other way, toward a small, not very obvious gap in the rock face where it will then slide down quite a long (also not immediately obvious) corridor to provide a step up to another ledge. Although the fact that it didn’t tell me I could even grab and pull objects like this in the first place is another matter entirely.

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A machine rips apart a black alien creature inside a cave in Airhead
Your inflatable head doesn’t have a very happy start… | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Handy Games

Okay, sure, not figuring out how to push/pull a rock might not sound like a particularly egregious problem, but there are deeper problems afoot that I worry can’t be rectified so easily. Correctly reading the landscape and picking up on the game’s various visual clues was a recurring problem I had in Airhead’s demo, and I consider myself to be fairly fluent in most of the tricks in the Metroidvania handbook. Minutes later, for example, I came across a small lake area. A black squid-like creature was nibbling on some kind of purple blob just in front of me, and the music took an ominous turn. This must be an enemy I need to avoid, I thought immediately. But the thing was completely harmless and didn’t react in the slightest when I swam near it – which I needed to in order to reach the next available ledge.

The logic of its cause and effect puzzles is similarly obtuse, making it hard to predict how blocked paths will likely open up and what you need to do to progress. At one point, I pushed a rock into the lake from above as that was the only thing I was really able to do at that point, and by smashing it into that purple thing the squid was poking around earlier, the squid then swam to another purple thing on the other side of the lake and fully pulled it out of the rock face, creating a gap for me to swim through. But at no point did it suggest the squid was even capable of unplugging the purple thing, or indeed that that hole was where I needed to go. It’s serendipitous, sure, but it also feels like you’re fumbling around in the dark, smashing square pegs through circular holes. It’s never a good sign when your main reaction to a puzzle conclusion is ‘Well I guess that makes sense, question mark’, all while experiencing a growing sense of unease and frustration.

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A mountainous gorge at sunset in Airhead
I wish Airhead was better, because its visual design is properly stunning. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Handy Games

Sadly, things get worse once you stumble upon the game’s raison d’etre – the inflatable head. After watching it come into being by having some horrible machine literally mince another alien blob creature in half, you’re then inexplicably lumbered with the terrible burden of mortality, simply by virtue of picking it up and taking it with you. Before, your headless body was effectively indestructible, but your poor puffy head friend isn’t so fortunate, and will quickly deflate over time unless he’s topped up with bizarrely placed air cannisters you’ll find at various points in each level. These cannisters also act as your save points, and if you run out of air before reaching the next one, it’s back off to the last cannister with you, despite the fact that you, the body, should be absolutely fine.

Combined, well, you can probably see where this is going, can’t you? Mixing a pressure cooker environment of timed puzzle solving with often-unreadable play spaces is nothing short of a recipe for frustration. There’s little room for error or wrong-footed exploration, and while its air cannisters are mostly placed in sensible locations, the general exasperation of not being able to intuit at a glance what your next move should be makes Airhead feel like a lead balloon on your soul. I didn’t have a very good time with it, although if you think you’ll fare better you can try the very same demo now over on Steam for free.

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