The Messenger Review
Spoilers for mechanics, characters and plot twists in The Messenger
The Messenger is absolutely drowning in old school cool. 8-bit graphics? Check. Ninjas? Check. A kickass soundtrack that bumps? Check. Demons trying to take over the world? Absolutely. Tough, reflex heavy platforming? Yep. On top of all of that, The Messenger goes places, and while some of those places aren’t the most delightful, the game’s ambitions shape an adventurous homage of a bygone era that’s well worth experiencing just for the sheer hell of it.
The adventure starts as a sprightly young rogue ninja drops from the brush of a tree onto its arguably strongest branch, chastising his peers and his teachers for being so traditional. “Demon army this and magic scroll that, nothing’s happened in centuries, so why are we still hiding?” the young, naive warrior laments to himself. Soon enough the protagonist is called to a lesson, during which Cloud Stepping, the most unique element of the game’s platforming, is introduced. Cloud Stepping is a mechanic which allows the player to strike an object in mid-air in order to perform a double jump.
Once this lesson was drilled into my head, the village almost instantly combusted into flames in quite the immediate and hilarious fashion. Before almost fighting a flying four-headed demon, I was saved by a legendary warrior riding a tremendously over-sized bird who subsequently tasked me with bringing a scroll to a group of sages located on a faraway mountain peak. With the village reduced to ashes and fellow ninja students seemingly murdered by the demon army’s invasion, the journey begins.
For the next few hours, you’ll play through an occasionally challenging, quirky platformer game. You’ll build out a skill set that includes a wingsuit which grants its user the ability to float, a rope dart or grappling hook, and a shuriken which serves as a projectile weapon. Soon enough you’ll be zipping around between targets and platforms, committing insane balancing acts over deadly chasms and generally working through typical platforming segments. This precise skill-based traversal comes to define that cool factor of the game, as it encourages players to move through rooms without ever touching the ground until eventually the game just ditches the ground altogether and the stylish traversal mechanics become mandatory.
The occasional side rooms present a more gripping challenge than the main path ever does, often testing your Cloud Stepping expertise among a litany of obstacles, though a good number of these optional challenges become easy to maneuver through once the skill tree is fully upgraded. Along the way to the mountain, you’ll befriend a hooded shopkeeper who enjoys hiding in a room between time and space. The shopkeeper, who shares some of the funniest ancedotes I’ve ever read in a game, upgrades and grants abilities while often breaking the fourth wall to reference The Messenger’s inspirations. It feels like a flash in a pan though, with moments of a better game being buried beneath a run of the mill, serviceable retro platformer.
However, everything changes once you reach the mountain peak and fight this guy:
After beating the massive boss showcased above, one might think that the game is over, but then they’ll realize how wrong they were. After playing through one of the game’s hardest levels, the protagonist travels forward in time, revealing the game’s fresh 16-bit coat of paint, suddenly exhibiting the fact that there’s so much more to see and do. Then you go to a kingdom in the clouds and are followed by a dragon. Then you befriend the dragon. Then the game reveals it’s a Metroidvania. Then it sends you back to the worlds you played through and you realize you’ve just scratched the surface of everything there is. Then time gates open up new avenues of exploring the same world and characters.
“Then” is the operative word I would like to use when talking about The Messenger from here on out. It’s the word that most frequently came up after my initial preview with the lead designer months ago at a convention, and it’s reflective of the pace at which Sabotage unveils these surprises in game. It just keeps coming. Quite frankly, it’s baffling how insanely grand The Messenger eventually becomes – especially considering its meager beginnings.
However, once the game has blown up in scale it starts to slow to a crawl, appropriately enough. The shifting goal post inherent in consecutively introducing new layers of game brings about a refreshing change of pace; but unfortunately here is where the game also begins to show its cracks. Alongside the introduction of time travel, The Messenger tasks its players with retracing even their earliest steps in the game. While time travel is a pretty good reason to open up previously blocked paths, the in-game map never explicitly states which timeline a previously inaccessible area is located in. This sometimes makes the backtracking feel like a chore and further expands the tedious padding which is embedded in the genre’s DNA.
Luckily, what never changes is the steady hum of traversal and discovery. The split timelines introduce new paths to new worlds, and while you’re in them new systems and abilities will be unlocked like being able to walk on liquid surfaces or utilizing inter dimensional butterflies to reveal a glimpse at the opposing timeline. The idea is that ideally the player will look back through every world and timeline to find everything that they need – a concept that’s both frustrating and fun thanks to The Messenger’s simple yet satisfying mechanics.
Each ability is designed to help maneuver through a specific area, and despite them not interacting with one another in tremendous ways, they get their fair share of usage before the game discards them. In the face of a game that frequently changes its direction, the trickle of abilities and locations it threw my way ended up being a bit overwhelming at times. There’s a few locations and abilities that feel included for the sake of inclusion rather than utility, and while they all contain varying levels of fun and difficulty, I can’t help but feel the game could be tighter without them. Going into The Messenger unsuspecting of its depth can make it feel like the game is constantly baiting you into thinking its getting to where its going, only to then pull away at the last second on quite a few occasions.
What does work tremendously well, oddly enough, in a post-time travel mechanics heavy Metroidvania, is the writing and characters. The Messenger never loses its sense of humor as it throws you through its various torched hoops. Quarble, the protagonist’s demon assistant of sorts, chews players out between deaths, often keeping a tally of their deaths as well as how much money is owed to him for consistently saving them from impending doom. The Shopkeeper, as mentioned before, is a massive highlight of the game and only becomes funnier as the game explains how he got to his position and drops any and all serious pretenses. Manfred the Dragon and his chosen path in life is an absolute delight that you should discover on your own; and I don’t even want to touch on the bosses, who are characterized before and after their respective battles and even furthermore once players able to interact with them in the other timeline. The Messenger’s humor is the best throughline in the game and helps imbue the whole experience with a charm few games manage to channel let alone maintain.
After experiencing the genuinely amazing conclusion of The Messenger, I’d say the game is more than worth an eye-roll and praise. Sabotage Studio’s retro action platformer is as fun as it is silly, and boasts one of the cooler premises I’ve chanced upon, even if at times it feels a bit bloated. The Messenger is unabashed in a way that only an indie Ninja Gaiden throwback could afford to be. In short, I love it.
The Messenger review completed on a Nintendo Switch with a code provided by a PR representative of the game.