Review - The Messenger
So, I was listening to a podcast that often covers independent, nostalgia-driven games, with old-school art styles. I’ve been very vocal about being bored of that whole idea, and yet, as I continue to try these games despite my prejudices, I’m consistently amazed. If I hadn’t randomly noticed that I had a bunch of free games from Devolver Digital (thanks to Twitch Prime), I would have missed out on a gem.
Like most indie games, The Messenger tries to emulate the look of an early 90’s game. Unlike most indie games, The Messenger’s retro presentation actually makes it a better game than it would have been otherwise.
On the surface, this game is a modern take on classic action-platformers like Ninja Gaiden or Shinobi. It’s a side-scroller where you’ll do a lot of running and jumping from left to right. Most enemies die in 1-3 sword swipes (or shurikens). There’s also a wall jump, a glide, and a rope dart, which will pull the player horizontally a short distance, to either a wall or an enemy.
This all sounds mostly standard for a 2D platformer, but there’s much more going on. To spice things up a bit, The Messenger adds a unique mechanic called cloud step. A cloud step is basically a double jump, but it can only be performed after landing an attack in mid-air. Your sword can be used to destroy certain objects in the environment, and can also stop projectiles, so this basically means as long as there’s something you can hit, you can stay in the air indefinitely. If you’re a fan of games like Mega Man or really any other 2D action game, you’re probably already excited thinking about how cool this idea could be in practice. The Messenger squeezes every ounce of potential out of the cloud step mechanic, and it makes for some of the most enjoyable platforming I’ve experienced in a game since Donkey Kong Country 2.
There’s a hard-to-describe tightness to the controls. That “feel” that we all want from a 2D game is absolutely present in The Messenger. Great controls, familiar mechanics, and the shenanigans introduced by cloud step add up to an incredibly fun gameplay experience, but there are dozens of fun 2D action-platformers out there. The Messenger differentiates itself with its writing and inspired design.
Sabotage Studio is indeed an indie development team, making a retro-art platformer, so sure, they fall victim to the stereotype of filling the game with meme references and fourth wall-breaking humor. For me at least, as someone who usually rolls his eyes at this stuff, The Messenger’s humor landed very well. I laughed out loud surprisingly often, and it reached a point where I was genuinely seeking out more dialog because of how much I enjoyed the characters.
Beyond the jokes, The Messenger’s overall story also connected with me. I’m not sure it will resonate with most people, but they do an excellent job of setting up the importance of your character’s journey. The game opens by introducing you as a ninja being trained to prepare for an imminent demon siege. After a tutorial that lasts all of about 20 seconds, the demons attack, and you’re instructed by a Messenger to deliver an ancient scroll to the top of a distant mountain: pretty standard video game setup.
Things start to hint toward becoming more interesting once you die. You’re introduced to a little demon/Pokemon creature named Quarble who explains that each time you die, he’ll revive you for a small fee. Shortly after that, you enter a shop that exists in a rift between time and space, run by a cloaked figure. This shopkeeper will sell you upgrades, give you some context about whichever level you’re currently playing, and just generally chat with you, if you choose that option. He’s a fantastically written character, and his presence implies there’s so much more going on than just platforming your way to the mountain. The shopkeeper is also the major source of the game’s humor, so I strongly recommend chatting with him (specifically asking him to tell you a story) as often as possible.
We’re about to get into some mild story spoilers. Apparently the trailers and preview coverage revealed this part of the game before its release, but I missed all of that, and seeing this revelation firsthand enhanced my enjoyment of the game. There’s no real way to review it without mentioning it, (it’s even in the Steam description) but consider yourself warned. If you’re not weird about spoilers like I am, carry on.
And so, with Quarble respawning you, the shopkeeper giving you info, and your ninja skills, you’ll eventually reach the top of the mountain. By this point in the game, The Messenger is a fairly accurate NES-style game. It accurately emulates the 8-bit presentation in both its visuals and its sound design. Once you finally reach the mountaintop, you’re introduced to a group of cloaked figures like your shopkeeper buddy, who explain it is now time to “Do the thing.” It turns out doing “the thing” is jumping hundreds of years into the future. The game represents this time jump by changing the presentation from an NES-era game to a SNES-style, 16-bit one. The change in sound effects, music, and graphics is remarkable, but doing the thing also changes the structure of the game itself. It goes from being a level-to-level action platformer, to being more like a Metroid game. All previous levels show up as part of a connected map, and you can then revisit them in any order. The story shifts to the more open-ended goal of finding specific items hidden in each area, in spots that were inaccessible before you did the thing and learned to time jump.
The time jumping mechanic opens the door for Sabotage Studio to flex with some impressively inventive bosses and platforming scenarios, in addition to the visual effects of swapping from NES to SNES. Rather than give specifics, I’ll just put it this way: The Messenger manages to sell itself as both a simple side-scroller and a more complex Metroidvania game, and it does both convincingly. The time jumping trick wouldn’t have worked if the game failed to convince you that it’s basically a Ninja Gaiden tribute, but the way the level, story, graphics, and sound all tie into that time jump are what make this game a remarkable experience. It’s all one cohesive vision, and watching it all come together is extremely satisfying.
The drawback to its sudden shift to being a Metroid game is, of course, the same issue every Metroidvania has. You’ll get upgrades and find secret paths, but that also means you’ll do tons of backtracking. It never grated on me personally, but there are portions of some areas you’ll platform through 10+ times in a single run of the game. I like the controls (and the music) enough that I didn’t mind it, but backtracking in games is almost always a negative, and I can’t help but think there are ways The Messenger could have been designed to somewhat mitigate it.
Through all of this, the game is also incredibly challenging. There are a few dozen collectible items hidden off in secret areas of each level, similar to the DK coins in the SNES Donkey Kong Country games. The platforming sequences to reach these collectibles are rough. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you wonder if you’re really about that platforming life, as a person. It’s always fun, even through these moments of intense platforming, and restarting is fast when you inevitably fail, so basically what I’m saying is it’s a great game for masochists. It’s telling that I planned to stream the game until I realized that I was spending so long stuck on certain platforming sequences that it’d be a painful thing to watch. Maybe I should have invited you all to be entertained by my suffering, in hindsight, but the point is, you’ll die a lot.
If you, like me, are annoyed by all this powerful 2019 game hardware and 4K display technology being used to render games that look and sound like 1987, you probably wouldn’t give a game like The Messenger a second glance. But if you’ve ever liked a platformer, and you have a PC or a Nintendo Switch (Google searches say it’ll eventually reach PS4, but there’s no date announced as of this writing), play this game. While most of these pixel art games are trying to cash in on your nostalgia, The Messenger is using your memory of old-ass games to modernize a classic genre. It’s a game that uses what we know about these kinds of games to improve upon the formula. The result is a 2D action/platformer that ranks, on my personal list at least, right up there with DKC2, Mega Man X, and the other classics. And from a writing standpoint, it dramatically outclasses them.
Precise, tight controls.
Graphics that impact the story.
Story that impacts the graphics.
That old-school “damage when you touch an enemy” nonsense.
(Excellent, with some flaws.)
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Title image source: Gematsu