The Messenger (Review)

Updated: Feb 19

Platform: Nintendo Switch

Available On: PC, PS4

Developer: Sabotage, Devolver Deigital

Genre: Action Platformer

Release: August 30th, 2018

Ever not hear the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger”? Well the team over at Sabotage clearly haven't or perhaps take issue with it and wanted to prove a point! Either way, The Messenger is all about getting its namesake shot at by 8-bit demons while you, the ninja warrior messenger in question, avoid traps, pitfalls and take on the demonic hordes in an attempt to deliver a scroll. A prophecy that will ensure the world and your clans’ survival.

Did I say 8-bit? Well that is not strictly a lie but there is a conceit here that is too juicy not to talk about so without burying the lead any further, let’s get right into it!

So, What’s it All About?

Absolute retro action platforming that is what! The Messenger is an indie love letter to the bygone days of side scrolling. Proudly wearing its OG Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man inspirations on its sleeve, this title is dripping with nostalgia and reverence for the genre and like those titles, this game doesn’t f**k around in terms of its difficulty. For every moment of kinetic joy, in the ninja hopping and bopping through a level this game can bring, there are moments of pure white-knuckle tension and difficulty that also bring back childhood memories of controllers spiking gracefully through the floor.

As you make your way through each level you acquire crystals from downed enemies and breakable lanterns scattered throughout the area. These are used to purchase upgrades from the resident druid shop to make your journey a bit more manageable. A simple and straightforward way of progressing that is very much appreciated. There is a consistent incentive to move forward that also promotes exploration, there are various hidden areas in the game that will reward curiosity but don’t expect a grand old time getting to them, everything in this game is earned through the game-play.

For those of you that remember the pain and suffering of Heat Man’s level in Mega Man 2, that is the kind of difficulty I’m talking about here. Unless you are a die-hard of the genre, expect to lose a couple of lives throughout the campaign. Luckily, this is offset by your friendly neighborhood Quarble, a demon that saves you from total game over by taxing the hell (heh) out of each death. I found this to be a welcome addition that adds to the tough but fair feeling of the game. There’s no game over unless you quit out and when you do die, the only real penalty is being brought back with half health (which is offset by upgrades later). There are plenty of checkpoints throughout the level too so you’re never really far from your last death.

The Quarbles in the Details

Speaking of Quarbles, I don’t think I’ve laughed so much at a game in a long time. The humor here is firmly tongue in cheek. It knows exactly what kind of game it is and has no qualms breaking the fourth wall, consistently providing a nod and a wink to the player. Even the messenger himself is somewhat in on the joke, the dialog between characters is snappy and beautifully written. From the Quarble that constantly takes you down a peg after each death to the druid you visit frequently for upgrades that you can just chat to, each character has personality and charm and always got some kind of chuckle out of this casual critic.

Bosses in particular are hilariously dour when you meet them. I won’t spoil how these unfold here but an early stand out is Ruxxtin The Great and later on the pontificating dude bro duo that is Colos & Suses. It is a breath of fresh air in terms of world building that a game that is intent on taking the piss out of itself can make such endearing characters that you want to see more of. The druid is by far the best of the lot, going from sardonic dry wit to moments of thought provoking meta text in the same dialog box. I’d be remiss not to shout out Thierry Boulanger in this regard, responsible for overall game design, direction and writing.

You may recall earlier my hint of more than just 8-bits to this game and since the above gif already gave up the ghost you have definitely noticed a few more bits floating around in there. About halfway through the campaign the visuals…shift slightly hitting the other nostalgia bone and introducing 16-bit variations on older levels and upping the stakes. While the game-play itself doesn’t change too much, the visual upgrade is eye popping and really makes the level design stand out. It’s a testament to the team at Sabotage for wanting to have their cake and eat it too and giving players a NES and SNES inspired throwback that not only plays well but sounds well too.

Here, we get to talk about my favorite part of any game, the music. With tracks from the likes of Rainbowdragoneyes and the composer of Ninja Gaiden himself Keiji Yamagashi these catchy chip tunes offer up more than just memories. Each track is level defining, tied into the game-play loop to help keep the player moving along and not just catchy background noise. If chip tunes are your thing do yourself a favor and check out the links above. Boss music in particular is awesome and offsets the frustration that comes with learning their attack patterns after repeated failed attempts until you finally come out on top.

A Message Worth Delivering?

Absolutely, the brisk pace of the game is never daunting, sure there were times my patience was tested but if anything that comes from my own stubborn “ah but THIS time I’ll get it” mentality and not knowing when to quit. The game never demands more than a good time to be had by all, with memorable bosses and some of the best dialog I’ve read, especially for a nostalgia trip side scroller, it continually impressed me. There is a lot to love here and as someone who slept on this on it’s initial release I’m delighted I finally got around to picking this one up.

For my own journey, I’m not quite done yet, stuck on one of the later bosses, teasing out fail by fail the best run so I can finish what I started. My appreciation for the genre has grown in recent years, maybe I'm getting older but with titles like The Messenger and Katana Zero coming out there's something to be said about going back to what made games so endearing in the first place, humble beginnings. There's a clear adoration for what came before on display here, it's not shy about it but it's not content with just being a nod in a sea of throwbacks, it carves out it's own name with a unique approach to the game-play. The Messenger has it's own identity and the irony of it's name is not lost on me.

Also there’s no way I wasn’t going to include this after finding it, they totally went for it and made a live action trailer for the game you just gotta see….

Play This Game If….

· You’re looking for that 8-bit hit

· You don’t think 8-bits is enough and want 16…

· You’re selfish and want both in the same game

· You enjoy an old school challenge

All images taken from the press kit here

All gifs taken from the official site here

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