My hand eye co-ordination skills were put to the test through my 20+ hours of playing The Messenger, with at least 3 of those hours made up of many deaths and some moderate cursing. And if dieing wasn’t annoying enough, I was being penalized by a loot stealing creature everytime they would bring me back to life. It didn’t take long for me to realize the true difficulty that the game was set at: Ninja. This “get good” feeling I got was a flashback to games like Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania and Metroid where making it to the end of a level or boss fight after countless deaths was truely satisfying. Indie developer Sabotage delivered a game that felt just like that of a triple-A title, if it was released in 1987…and 1994.
The Messenger tells a deeper story than expected with a couple of twists thrown in, but doesn’t truely deliver until the half way mark. You’re a young ninja whose one of the last remaining human survivors living in an exiled village, training day in and day out readying themselves for a potential attack by the demon army whose goal is to wipe out the remaining human population. After constantly being told by a village elder that a mystery hero will someday come save them, the Demon King and his army strike. And just as the elder predicted, a hero appears and saves your life. Afterwards he gives you the important role of The Messenger and entrusts you with a mysterious scroll that’s meant to aid in the survival of all humankind, sending you on a quest to deliver said scroll to a group of three mages atop of a nearby mountain. Until then, not much is really known about your mission or what exactly happens when the scroll is delivered. You slice’n’dice your way through a linear 8 level adventure filled with enemies, dangerous traps and hidden collectables in a nostalgic 8-bit setting. There were a few overwhelming combat moments but after some upgrades, traversing through levels became a lot of fun as I’d bounce off of enemies and their projectiles without stepping foot on the ground. You’re able to upgrade skills, HP, etc. and gain new abilities via shops scattered throughout the levels, which also act as save points. The shop-keep is also a lot of fun to interact with, providing comic relief with his witty banter and story telling whilst occasionally pushing the fourth wall. There are other save points without the shop feature and are all spaced out fairly, in saying this I did spend some time constantly dieing in certain places with a save spot just waiting for me on the next screen. Even more challenging yet satisfying were the boss fights at the end of each level, whilst traditionally being very scripted they still provided enough of a challenge even after learning how to handle each of their mechanics.
The real highlight though is the time travel mechanic introduced after you reach the group of mages. This flipped the entire script of the game taking you from a linear path to a more open world direction, as if you’re getting two games in one. And this isn’t the only change as the graphics and sounds switch from 8-bit to 16-bit when travelling into the future, and vice versa. This reminded me of when Super Nintendo versions of Super Mario Bros. and Metroid were released, the sound and visuals were so much cleaner than their 8-bit counterparts. Tears in time are scattered through out and define how truely amazing the level design is in regards to how they’re used. For example certain areas of levels that were once blocked off earlier in the game or require platforms to reach that are “no longer there” can be accessed via time travel. The story does still continue but I had more fun going back and finding all the collectables now viewable on the level map thanks to a new upgrade. The only downfall of the open world gameplay is the lack of fast travel spots, leading to a lot of backtracking to reach story mission locations and collectables.
The Messenger was the most fun I’ve had playing an indie title in 2018 so far, and most of the time I forgot this was even a new release as it gave me all those early 90’s feels. Reviewing the game on PC did give me the option to either plug in a controller or use the keyboard but since there wasn’t any customization for keybinds, it felt a lot easier to use the former.
The Messenger is out on Nintendo Switch and PC August 30, 2018
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