While I’m usually a sucker for a well-told story in a game (or, sometimes, a badly-told story with extra explosions), sometimes all you need is the right atmosphere. Take Play Dead’s Limbo as an example, a tale told without dialogue or real context, just the world and its awful, oppressive ambience – and yet it affected me to the point that I can still remember it clearer than a lot of the AAA games I’ve played since. Airhead, from developer Octato and Massive Miniteam, is immediately reminiscent of Limbo, and managed to utterly captivate me even when I had no idea what was going on.
You play as Body, a headless humanoid who comes into contact with Head, an inflatable organic creature that is constantly deflating. If you run out of air, Head dies and Body returns to the last checkpoint, and you’ll need to work together to survive.
There’s a pretty intricate trailer for Airhead which does more to explain the story than the game does, and it’s still pretty vague. There’s no real context to what you’re doing, no reason you’re moving forward other than the movement itself. It’s a game that exists to be a game, and that’s incredibly rare these days.
So as Body you follow an objective marker on the standard Metroidvania map which leads you through multiple upgrades and milestones. The systems behind Airhead are refreshingly simple too. There’s no skill tree to manage, no combat or spellcasting; it’s just you, Head, and the physics engine.
Like Limbo, many of the puzzles in Airhead require manipulation of the environment, pulling switches, pushing rocks to create pathways or bridges, climbing ropes and swimming to bypass obstacles. But the most important thing you own is Head. Without Head, Body can’t survive, so you need to keep it topped up with air from tanks which serve as checkpoints. Normal cylinders contain standard O2, while you also get special cylinders that can inflate Head to make it float or weigh it down, causing you to walk slower but allowing you to sink in water or smash through certain floors.
You’ll receive regular upgrades, too, with expanding Head’s air capacity or granting new powers to open pathways. From the ability to shine a light on the world to a double jump and air dash, Airhead adds a suite of standard moves mixed with some that feel genuinely new just because of the bizarre world you’re in.
In addition to increasing powers and capacities, Body also learns about the environment as they traverse the world. An abundance of weird and wonderful creatures populate the world, such as little light-phobic critters who’ll form bridges while falling over themselves to get away from you, or annoying little sods who’ll nick Head if you leave it lying around. Before long, you’ll learn to use all of these creatures to your advantage.
The pressure is always on in Airhead, as you’re always running out of air. There are lots of cylinders around, which encourages exploration as it reduces the threat of death, but you’ll always feel a little bit rushed. This can cause you to get flustered and mess up a simple jump or easy puzzle, but it’s rarely frustrating. This is due, in part, to the world of Airhead, which can occasionally be stunning. A lot of the early game is spent in drab blue caves, but when you move beyond this point the world really opens up. It becomes more visually varied, but also introduces new mechanics and puzzles with compelling regularity. You want to keep going to see what’s next, even if some of the puzzles are fiendishly hard.
Airhead presents very obvious answers to very complex dilemmas, and I kicked myself many times for failing to spot glaring solutions because the puzzle itself tricked me into overthinking it. Whether or not that’s a good thing might come down to pure preference, but I appreciate that Airhead made me feel smart more often than it made me feel dumb. That said, it’s not always super clear where you’re supposed to go next, despite the objective marker giving you the general direction on the map, and you may die a few times just trying to locate the right path.
Ultimately, Airhead excels at holding your attention with an intriguing world that sometimes feels unsettling for unclear reasons, dastardly puzzles that make you feel clever for solving them, and fluid animation that feels satisfying in the moment. It has an air of Limbo, but also of the PS Vita classic Tearaway, in how it presents its world and its puzzles. It’s non-violent and wastes no runtime trying to force itself around a story, and as such Airhead remains a simple but challenging joy throughout.
Some great puzzles
Physics can occasionally feel off
Not always clear where to go