While numerous independent developers aspire to ape the art style and gameplay of the 8-bit generation, few titles truly aspire to be something unique and memorable. That’s why I was truly excited about The Messenger in the weeks leading up to its release last Friday. While first impressions may lead one to believe this is simply a Ninja Gaiden clone (which, even if it were just that, would still be refreshing in a sea of Super Mario and Meat Boy derivatives), there is far more than meets the eye in Sabotage Studios’ debut title.
The first half of The Messenger is fairly linear. You’re tasked with delivering a scroll to the top of a mountain in a post-apocalyptic world, which is supposedly vital to the survival of the human race (or what’s left of it, anyways). You’ll have the traditional ninja stuff to work with as far as mechanics go- running, jumping, slashing and wall-climbing. In addition, you’ll also have a technique known as “cloud-stepping”. This will enable you to stay airbone after attacking an enemy, projectile or one of the many lanterns dotting the screens. Fortunately, Sabotage has opted for the “show, not tell” approach in level design and you should have a feel for all of the basics well before the game starts to add in new moves and wrinkles. Doing ninja stuff hasn’t been this satisfying for me since I was an eight year old with an NES and Ninja Gaiden was part of the after-school lineup.
During this portion of the game, you may also stumble upon a few single-screen challenge rooms that will reward you with a floating coin (which are revealed to be “Power Seals”). In addition, you’ll also meet a shop-keeper who not only gives you access to another essential move but also a skill tree that can be completed via paying him time shards (the game’s form of currency).
Undoubtedly, you’re also going to meet Quarble at some point. Upon falling into a pit or losing your last chunk of vitality, he’ll “save” you from death. In exchange, he’ll follow you around for a bit starting at the last checkpoint activated and chow down on time shards until he’s satisfied or enough time has passed. Oh, and he’ll have an insult ready for you each and every time you die, ranging from statements to the effect of “Is your controller working?” or “You did that on purpose”. While these statements tend to get old after the first dozen times, this is still a unique take on death in a platformer, and I believe it really works in the game’s favor over lives and continues. Taking into account just how difficult The Messenger can be, not having to worry about a game-over is comforting. At the same time, the risk of missing out on upgrades until later on or having to be forced to grind for time shards due to shoddy play is enough to encourage the player to improve their skills.
Upon taking down a massive boss that could easily be mistaken for the game’s finale, there’s a major curveball in not only the presentation but the gameplay as well. All of a sudden, you’re thrust into the future and The Messenger goes from an 8-bit spiritual successor to Ninja Gaiden or Shinobi to a 16-bit Metroidvania in the blink of an eye. This was a pretty awe-inspiring moment, and I found myself adoring the “updated” graphics and soundtrack (which, by the way, is killer and will hopefully be released to a platform like Spotify in the near future).
While I found myself absolutely adoring every moment I spent playing through the game’s first several hours as a linear action/platformer, I can’t say I always felt the same way during the Metroidvania portion of the adventure. While seeking out hidden rooms for the power seals is enjoyable and rewarding in its own right once you return to the previously explored areas, this portion can feel like an incredibly drawn-out fetch quest as there is a lot of backtracking to advance the story.
Now, I’ve played my fair share of Metroidvanias and enjoyed them, but the difference between those and The Messenger is that back-tracking often led to far more new areas and hidden rooms in previously explored maps. In addition to this, figuring out where to go is much more difficult thanks to the “hints” of a NPC being fairly cryptic as a nod to the poor translations of early RPGS and notorious NES titles such as Simon’s Quest. I never found cryptic hints to be endearing in those titles, and I don’t have any more enthusiasm for them here. You can pay the shop-keeper 300 shards to decode each “hint”, which is what I opted to do since peeking at a strategy guide isn’t an option just yet.
Fortunately, it doesn’t too take long until you’ll find brand new levels to explore, as it is revealed that the ground you’ve been covering multiple times is home to a much grander map than one might initially think. Also a blessing is that the game goes back to being more linear with an emphasis on platforming challenges for the last chunk of the story, with the final area putting each mechanic to the test in a truly satisfying conclusion. Even the concept of “dimension-swapping”, which is used sparingly during the fetch-quest portion to pick up and deliver items between the past and future, is put to good use in a few puzzle rooms.
Overall, The Messenger is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The two chunks in which it’s a hardcore throwback to 90’s action/platform games feature excellent level design, the unique take on death ensures that you won’t be too frustrated even when the game is kicking your ass and the boss battles are incredibly memorable (though I could have done without seeing a monster’s bare bottom as he whipped me with his loin-cloth). The Metroidvania segment, while still enjoyable here and there thanks to the challenge rooms, can be a slog thanks to having to cover the same exact ground from the first section of the game multiple times with few change-ups. Pacing problems aside, I still enjoyed my initial 12 hour playthrough of the game and can see myself coming back to it every so often for another go thanks to just how great the linear chapters are. I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s a masterpiece like many major review sites are proclaiming, but it’s still well worth checking out for those wanting something novel in the retro-inspired indie game department.