I originally played The Messenger at E3 2018, and I greatly enjoyed my time with it, so I was overjoyed once the release date was finally revealed. The Messenger is a retro style platformer inspired by games like Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi, and as such features a Ninja character trying to defeat an army of demons and break a curse put upon the world.
Title: The Messenger
Developer: Sabotage Studio
Platform: PC, Nintendo Switch
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by Publisher
Interface: Controller or Keyboard
Available on Steam and Nintendo Switch eShop
The story of The Messenger is relatively standard, but has a few neat twists you might not expect. A couple of the key characters you met are particularly intriguing, such as the Shopkeeper and the Ninja Elder. Luckily, you meet them early on.
The dialogue in The Messenger is notable for its use of self aware humor to poke fun at retro tropes, as well as itself. The aforementioned Shopkeeper may just be one of the best video game characters of 2018 for his humorous dialogue and useful assistance.
The platforming in The Messenger is challenging, but never feels impossible, even after failing an innumerable amount of times. One clever feature is the cloud jump, where the player jumps, hits a lantern or appropriate spot for a cloud to briefly appear under them and allows them to jump a second time. This can be difficult to grasp at first, but becomes easier with practice, particularly once the rope dart (a.k.a. grappling hook) is obtained.
Unfortunately, the rope dart only goes two directions, left and right, which can make hopping between certain spots trickier. This limitation makes some areas and boss fights more harrowing, but they feel appropriately challenging once you figure out exactly what to do and how to do it.
The enemies you encounter start out simple but become more complex as you go, meaning that you’ll have to rely on both your basic attacks and ranged attack — both of which requires ki– to deal with your foes quickly. Most enemies take only one or two hits to destroy, but they’re positioning can make hitting them tricky, particularly because you’ll gets hurt if you are even touched by them. When reaching a new area, you will of course have to be mindful about what’s coming up next, but even when you’re going through a previously traversed area you’ll have to be attentive if you want to get to the next area with little to no damage.
Bosses are one of the most entertaining aspects of The Messenger, and each one has its own distinct feel, so that later bosses never feel like just a stronger retread of those previously fought. The first couple of bosses may not take too long to defeat, but once more precise platforming is added along with the need for more skillful dodging, defeating bosses becomes a strenuous task. Gladly, fighting them never feels like a chore, and managing to beat a boss is an incredibly satisfying feeling.
There’s always a save point with lanterns to refill health and ki in the room prior to each fight, but something I noticed is that only one boss gave players the chance to replenish their health and ki during the actual fights, and it would have been nice to see this with a few other bosses, in particular those with destructible projectiles.
Technically, you don’t “die” in The Messenger, and instead of using up a limited amount of lives (or continues). You’re saved from death by a demon named Quarble, who follows you around and steals time shards until a fee has been payed. The fee never felt exorbitant, and most of the time it’s easy to gain the amount you need to get Quarble to go away (and this fee doesn’t apply to boss fights).
There’s also an upgrade that reduces the fee by 50 percent which makes this even less notable. In more difficult sections, what Quarble says can get really annoying, especially once it loops, and an optional feature to mute his dialogue would have been convenient.
As you progress, new abilities can be purchased from the shopkeeper when enough time shards have been collected. A few of these upgrades, such as the glider and aforementioned rope dart, are given to the player automatically, while others take a much longer time to obtain. Purchasable upgrades include slight health and ki increases, a small attack power boost, a swimming speed boost, reduced damage, and limited health and ki restoration when reaching save points. Upgrades become more expensive the higher up they are on the upgrade tree, and some may require grinding for time shards by repeating sections or finding secret areas. Not all upgrades are needed to complete the game, but they all have their uses and help make the tougher sections easier to manage.
In addition to these upgrades, there are also power seals to collect. These power seals are always in a their own room and reaching them is always a challenge. Collecting all of them will allow the use of a special attack, but collection of these seals seems more for completionist types, who enjoy an extra challenge.
The main aspect that interested me in The Messenger is the time traveling graphical style switching mechanic, but this was introduced much later than expected. The mechanic provides a unique way to solve platforming puzzles and lets players see previous levels from new angles. After unlocking the switching mechanic, The Messenger introduces some Metroidvania like elements with backtracking to past levels to gain access to new areas, get new items to allow access to even more areas and to collect what you need to break the curse set upon the world by the demons.
You aren’t just automatically told where to go however, and will receive cryptic hints about what to do next, which can be translated into more easily understood dialogue by the Shopkeeper for a small fee, which also marks the spot on the map. There are fast travel points for most areas so that it isn’t tedious to get around, but restricting each area to having just one fast travel point means you will have to do several sections backwards or over again to get where you need to go.
In the later levels, there are also a few chase sections, where you have to get to the end of the level before whatever is chasing you causes you to meet your demise. For the most part, these sections are straightforward and might take a few tries and some memorization, but usually give you some room for small mistakes. One particular chase section close to the end is rather ruthless, leaving much less room for error and creating perhaps the most stress inducing and infuriating part of the entire game, even if finish it was then a huge relief.
The graphical style of The Messenger superbly replicates the style seen in the 8 and 16 bit eras, with a gorgeous HD polish. The enemy designs all look fine, although the best looking enemies are the bosses. The Timekeeper (pictured above) and a Corrupted Ruler of the Marshlands stick out as some of the less conventional boss designs.
The soundtrack is stellar, and Rainbowdragoneyes did a spectacular job making both 8 bit and 16 bit style versions of each track. There were a few tracks that weren’t as easy to repeatedly listen to as others, but the rest were sonorous and didn’t become irritating even when repeating or returning to a past section. There are also some sections where the graphical styles continuously switch and the soundtrack changes along seamlessly.
The Messenger is one of the best games of 2018 and masterfully accomplishes what it set out to do. With its tough platforming, charming and distinct dual graphical style, outstanding soundtrack, and sense of humor, The Messenger has no shortage of quality and is a worthy successor to the retro titles which inspired it. It would be compelling to see what Sabotage could do with a sequel, learning from their past experiences and making a few improvements.
The Messenger is currently available on PC and Nintendo Switch.