Even in the gamut of old-school looking indies we’ve gotten over the years, The Messenger stands out. While others may restrict their appeal to only one retro generation, developer Sabotage Studio bucks that trend by bridging the gap between two. Taking cues from both the 8-bit and 16-bit era, the platformer is a love letter to the classics of both. The question here is whether or not The Messenger is more than just a lavish tribute to the history of the genre, and not just another, albeit creative, rehash?
As the titular Messenger, you serve as humanity’s last hope. After your quaint ninja village is destroyed by demons, you are recruited to deliver a mysterious scroll to the highest peak of a mountain. The journey will be far from easy, though, as monsters of all shapes and sizes are out to stop you. From a gargantuan troll duo to a wayward hero, the obstacles in your path will require all of your training to top. You’re not alone, though, as a mysterious shopkeeper seems to always be there when you need him to be. As you come to find out, there’s something far greater here than just a simple mail drop-off.
I don’t want to spoil the great plot twist The Messenger throws at you a couple of hours in, but it’s one of the more creative ones I can remember. It does an excellent job of not only explaining the graphical shift the title is built around, but also re-contextualizes moments that previously occurred. Without veering into spoiler territory, I will say that the writing is solid throughout. The set-up is cliched, but Sabotage Studio clearly relished in deconstructing it in a humorous way. It’s often funny, always unexpected, and really kept me going during the tougher moments of the campaign.
As a young, in-training ninja, the Messenger has a solid set of skills. Although outfitted with a traditional katana and shurikens, it will take more than just fancy weapons to persevere. Enter the ability to cloudstep, arguably the title’s most important feature. Instead of the traditional double-jump mechanic, you can instead hit an object in mid-air, and get another jump out of it. Both enemies and objects alike can be used to do so, and as long as you have something to strike, you can keep jumping. There’s a certain finesse this mechanic has that a regular double-jump simply does not carry. You can use it vault over a massive row of spikes, or to repeatedly do damage to a boss. The downside is that once you miss or run out of things to hit, you’re out of luck. Regardless, it’s a unique facet to the title, and one that lead to several challenging, but rewarding, moments.
As you move forward, you’ll gain access to a few other additional items as well. These gifts, provided by the ever-sarcastic shopkeeper, include a glider suit and grappling hook. In case you haven’t realized, a lot of The Messenger is built around tricky platforming sections, and these two abilities add another layer of complexity. When combined with the cloudstep skill, the trio serve as the foundation for the game’s most memorable sections. There are other skills that are found in the latter portions of the title that I don’t want to spoil, but they’re great at making you feel like a real ninja. Besides dishing out the occasional gift, the in-game store also houses numerous upgrades for you to purchase. Provided you don’t die a lot (since that drains your bank account), it’s not particularly tough to fully upgrade your character by the end of the game, which was appreciated.
Much like its graphical component, The Messenger is very much an experience of two games. For the first half, the title is your traditional platformer. Taking cues from Ninja Gaiden, you’ll be marching through a series of increasingly mystical worlds in pursuit of your goal. The levels are excellently designed, with each one taking advantage of the assorted agility skills you have. The boss battles that come at the conclusion of each one are equally great, and I appreciated that there was not always one direct path to victory. Playing around with the mechanics afforded to you could open up a solution you may not have realized was possible.
Without getting into spoilers, the title takes a turn for it’s back half, though. Instead of sticking with regular platforming, Sabotage Studio turns the game into a quasi-Metroidvania. Now, utilizing the different upgrades you have, as well as dimension-shifting portals, you’ll be returning to previous levels. There’s still a few new areas to visit, and having to move between 8 and 16-bit eras opens up some clever puzzles, but the half still lags behind the first. Most of the areas are best when you first go through them, with subsequent returns feeling more stale than not.
I love me some Metroidvanias, and when The Messenger first started opening up more, I was excited. However, rather than feeling like another dimension to the title, these sections just feel needlessly padded. The leading cause of this is the game’s insistence on only providing vague hints on how to progress. So, you’ll often be stuck wandering around hoping to stumble across a random item. You can pay the shopkeep to tell you where to go, but that’s not a solution to this problem, as much as it is a cover-up. And once you get to where you’re supposed to go, you’ll just have to repeat the process all over again, complete with another unhelpful hint. It’s not only frustrating, but it drags the game out unnecessarily. I can understand wanting to provide hours of content, but at a certain point, trimming down the campaign should have been made a priority.
Besides being clever in how it relates to the gameplay, the fusion of 8 and 16-bit graphics looks great. Both graphical styles are bursting with eye-catching levels, and an excellent use of color. Retro-style visuals has been overplayed in recent years, but the developers do enough with it to avoid feeling too stale. Some different enemy designs would have been appreciated, though, as the same few tend to repeat throughout. The original soundtrack from Rainbowdragoneyes was also a highlight. Again, the chiptune sound is kind of played out these days, but the compositions here are so good, I didn’t grow tired of them after hearing them repeatedly (as a result of dying over and over).
It would have been easy for The Messenger to be nothing more than a clever gimmick. The shifting between different generations is an excellent hook, but it’s the other facets of the game that make it truly worth checking out. The clever platforming provides a stiff challenge, while never seeming too unfair, and the excellent writing makes every bit of dialogue a joy to come across. Outside of some small nagging flaws (enemies reappearing, slight lag), my major problem is that it runs a little too long. Cutting back on the more obtuse elements would have done wonders for the pacing. Still, with an excellent first half and a bearable second, Sabotage Studio’s platformer is still an adventure worth undertaking.
This review was based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Devolver Digital.
Even with a shaky back-half, The Messenger is still an adventure worth seeking out. The agility focused platforming provides a satisfying challenge, the writing is surprisingly clever, and the graphical shifting is more than just a simple gimmick.