Does The Messenger…deliver?
At a Glance – 9/10
The Messenger is a game that reaches for the stars, and manages them to grasp them, turn them into ninja stars, and toss them at their enemies. Though swapping from 8 bit graphics to 16 bit graphics could have been little more than a gimmick, the game takes the cool concept and uses it to great effect through the course of the experience. It is equal parts platformer and Metroidvania, with a confident swagger fueled by witty writing and a great story. The game stumbles a few times on its adventure as it struggles with guiding the player in the Metroidvania portion, but it never becomes enough of an issue to drag it down.
The Messenger risks much by invoking instant classics from our past, and they come away with a modern classic of their own that can easily stand alongside the games that inspired it.
I’m going to start this review with one of the most wonderful praises I can give a game—The Messenger reminds me a lot of Shovel Knight.
This by itself is a magnificent statement, because Shovel Knight, I believe, is one of the best new games of the last few console generations. What that game does so well is leverage a retro nostalgia and feel, but the game itself plays like what we think we remember those types of games playing like. In other words, they use pixel perfect graphics, music that would exist during the time, and marry it to game play elements that evolve their chosen genre.
In this way The Messenger succeeds wildly.
It is instantly noticeable by watching a trailer or looking at screenshots that this game is a beautiful game. Pixel art is often viewed as an easy medium by a lot of people, but truly good pixel art is an art form that is extremely hard to nail. When a studio does nail the look, however, it instantly calls to mind the classics of our youth. In The Messenger the developers give us not just one nailed art style, but two disparate ones with both 8 bit and 16 bit graphics.
They expand on this gimmick by providing music tracks that have both 8 and 16 bit versions, and they swap between them flawlessly. That accomplishment is further impressive because the music presented feels like discovering a lost classic from your youth, and it stands toe to toe with most any soundtrack from back in the day.
When you first start the game you’ll be forgiven for thinking you are playing a new polished Ninja Gaiden, as that is exactly what this is inspired from. The developers make no bones about it either, with very clever writing immediately nodding to the prolific title that their inspiration came from. The game quickly becomes more than just a copycat though, as you find that striking another object in midair allows you another jump. This is used to great effect throughout the game, and is the basis upon many levels that you’ll find yourself completing. The mechanic is slowly built upon as others join your array of moves, and before long you’ll find yourself flying through levels with style.
The levels themselves are very well designed, and though the difficulty can sometimes be punishing, checkpoints are frequent enough it never became an issue for me. After playing something like Hollow Knight–where you can lose everything when you die–it was a relief to find that here the only punishment was being followed by a demon that eats money. In fact, that demon was so witty that I never really minded dying, and the money he takes is never so punishing that you find yourself unable to buy new upgrades.
On the other hand gathering all of the optional medallions was certainly a controller throwing challenge at times, but they aren’t required in your playthrough, and really only exist to provide the most hardcore among us with more of the game to play.
Originally the game unfolds like a high quality platformer that slowly increases the skills you have. Moments after you see an obstacle that you aren’t sure how to overcome, you’ll receive the upgrade to do so. It is a very satisfying loop, one made ever more so by the fact that acquiring those at times from the shop keep is the highlight of the game.
The biggest shock to me when playing The Messenger was that the game surprised me with a really cool story, and witty banter and dialogue from the shop keep. I never bored of running into the shop at some saves and finding out what new things the Shopkeeper had to tell me, as they were often outright funny or thoughtfully engaging.
If you’ve watched the trailer for the game you won’t really be surprised by what I’m about to discuss, but there are very mild spoilers ahead. I say mild because the game is kind of based around this, and it is blatantly advertised in the game itself.
After a few hours of gameplay you’ll find yourself all too soon coming to what seems like the end of the game, but instead you’ll experience an event that changes the graphics of the game from 8 bit to 16 bit by traveling forward in time. At this point the game completely changes from a Ninja Gaiden-esque platforming romp to a full blown Metroidvania experience. The swap is done in an incredibly charming way and it is supported by the same witty writing I’ve described previously.
I will say that at this point the directions to moving the game forward become incredibly hazy, and I often had difficulties finding where to go next. I would find myself backtracking through entire levels while trying to find out which item I needed to collect, even if I knew the general location where exactly in that location. It wasn’t until I had almost completed the game that I found out I could buy hints from the Shopkeep in order to mark the next location on my map, and as much as I didn’t want to do this it instantly made the game better for me. For the remaining few things I needed to locate it brought back the joy of making my way through a level.
Really that is where the game shines, as the game isn’t so much about you versus the enemies, but rather you versus the environment. Each new screen is a small puzzle on how to get to the other side, and you’ll find a flow coming as you continue through the game. I can’t imagine how awesome this game would be to speed run, but as my meagre skills increased I flied through areas that previously had challenged me. It was a really cool feeling, and one that never slowed down throughout the game.
The Messenger reaches for the stars by invoking instant classics from our past, and they come away with a modern classic of their own that can easily stand alongside the games that inspired it.
2 thoughts on “Review: The Messenger (Switch)”