Last week I was on vacation in New York City and before I left I took advantage of the Black Friday eShop Sale. I wanted to make sure I had plenty of games on my Switch for entertainment while we were taking it easy. I added The Messenger and Valkyria Chronicles 4 to my library, in addition to having Pokemon Let’s Go, and I figured between the three that’d be enough to keep my attention.
It turned out I only needed to buy one game because The Messenger was all I touched the entire trip. I started it on the Monday train ride up and beat the last boss on the Saturday train ride back home. And let me tell you something: this little game kept my attention the whole time. I was never bored, frustrated, or wanting to switch it up with another game. Once this fun ninja platformer got its hooks in me it never let go.
This fun, amazing game released on PC and Switch at the very end of August – basically when I was avoiding starting or grabbing anything new in prep for the upcoming Spider-Man – so that’s why I didn’t play it when it released. But I’d heard good things about it so I thought I’d give it a try as a fun distraction during vacation down time. I was not expecting it to charm me and become one of my favorite games of the year.
So let’s dig a little deeper into why I loved the game in a full review – general spoilers for the game will follow:
The Messenger starts out simple enough. You’re a ninja that trains with other ninjas in a village, waiting for the day that demons will return and attack. The story goes that a Hero from the West will save everyone when the demons come, but the ninjas are preparing to fight as well. Demons attack and the Hero arrives too late, but the Hero gives you a scroll and you become The Messenger. Your job is to travel across the island to the top of a frozen peak and deliver the scroll to save humanity.
And just like that, your journey begins.
Well that looks intimidating, doesn’t it?
For the first half of the game, The Messenger plays like a love letter to the old 8-bit action platformers like Ninja Gaiden. You enter a level, fight your way through enemies until you get to a boss, and then after you vanquish them you’re on to the next level. You have a small skill tree that you can upgrade via gems that you collect from fighting enemies, and you learn a few different moves as you progress to make traversal easier.
The main technique you have to learn is whenever you strike something with your sword in the air, you get an extra jump – they call this the cloudstep. This twist on the typical double jump adds a new layer to how you move about the world. You can hit objects, enemies, or projectiles (after you get the necessary upgrade on the skill tree) to restock your jump. If you’re skilled enough, the cloudstep can keep you in the air ad infinitum – and some of the games later challenges require you to be very precise in your strikes and jumps or you’ll fall to your death. Like all good games, though, by the time the serious challenges start popping up you’re so practiced in cloudstep that it feels like second nature.
You also get other mobility options like the ability to climb walls, a wingsuit that lets you glide, and a grappling hook that will hurl you across the screen. Between these three different abilities and the cloudstep you start to really feel like a ninja with how fluid you can move from point A to point B. Very few enemies in the game take more than one hit to kill, which means once you get a handle on movement most enemies stop becoming threatening. Instead they become just another part of the environmental puzzle on how to traverse the particular area you’re in. All the traversal is crisp and clean and it almost felt like the 2-D version of Spider-Man with how much fun I had moving around the world.
Along the way you’re guided by a mysterious shopkeeper who has many stories to tell and a lot of snark to tell them with. The shopkeeper will either be hilarious or cringe depending on what type of humor you like – I personally found him and his semi-regular fourth wall breaking antics highly entertaining. The interactions between him and The Messenger give the game a lot of personality in what otherwise could have been a straightforward platformer with an empty protagonist.
Shopkeeper for Best NPC 2018.
The game also subverts your expectations multiple times over the course of the game. The bosses aren’t always evil pricks who deserve to die, and sometimes areas take a twist you don’t expect. The aforementioned shopkeeper likes to drop cryptic messages and routinely gives you a hard time (especially if you try to look into his cabinet), but he also hints at something bigger than the Ninja Gaiden homage the first part of the game is.
If this was all the game was, I would have considered it good but not great. But the game throws two twists at you back-to-back which elevates the game to a phenomenal level. First, right when you think you’ve hit the end of the game, you get thrown into a time jump and are propelled into the future. The game illustrates this in a clever way – the game’s graphics upgrade slightly and move from 8-bit to something more akin to a 16-bit SNES. The backgrounds get nicer, The Messenger gets a cool new hat, the enemies’ sprites become more advanced, etc. It’s a really cool effect and you get to play a few more levels in this 16-bit version of the world.
Then the game springs a second twist on you.
The second half of the game eliminates the Ninja Gaiden-esque level-by-level structure and becomes an explorable world akin to Super Metroid. All the levels you previously went through you are now open for exploration as you are given the ability to switch back and forth between the two times. Areas you went through in the past will look different in the future and vice versa. More locations open up beyond the initial ones and there are several more bosses as well. It’s a welcome surprise and shock because the game ends up being twice as long and much meatier in content.
It’s a genre bait-and-switch that I could see bothering some people if they wanted a straightforward homage. But because I love both styles of game I was absolutely overjoyed to be dropped into a surprise Metroidvania. It’s also something a lot of games don’t do very often – have a twist in the story that also twists up the gameplay.
Ahhhh, what a beautiful 16-bit sunset. Welp, time to get back to ninja-ing.
By the time you’re running around exploring the interconnected world, you should have a very good grasp on your movement skills. And you need them because this is when the difficulty jumps. The new areas (and frequently jumping back and forth between time) test your platforming skills and familiarity with The Messenger’s movement abilities. It never gets beyond manageable though, especially since the hardest platforming parts are reserved for “Power Seals.” These are special collectibles located in side rooms (some are hidden better than others) that present a bonus challenge for the inquisitive gamer. They’re not required and getting all of them unlocks a bonus item that is not needed to beat the game. I only got 30ish before finishing, completing the challenges that I felt like I could beat and skipping others that were beyond my skill. It’s a nice option for those who want to have their skills tested, though – much like Celeste’s strawberries.
Speaking of Celeste, as I played The Messenger I wondered to myself why it kept my attention more than Celeste did. And I think it was two-fold: for one, there was never any area in The Messenger that flat-out annoyed or frustrated me like there was in Celeste (screw the windy area). There was never a difficulty spike that made me want to stop playing; there was no boss that seemed cheap, even though there were several I had to fight multiple times until I got the patterns down.
The other was that Celeste was a pure platformer where if you messed up, you died and had to start over. Pure platformers like Celeste and Super Meat Boy require a lot more attention and persistence to navigate through the really hard parts. For me personally that’s more frustrating and forces me to take frequent breaks between sessions. Meanwhile The Messenger plays out as more of an action platformer and is more forgiving. Even if you screw up a tough platforming section and land on spikes, you can still recover and make your way through as long as you keep an eye on your health. While still maintaining difficulty, it’s a lot more forgiving psychologically because you don’t end up repeating the same jump 20 or 30 times over and over again.
The last thing I’ll mention is the music – oh, the music. A good soundtrack always raises my opinion of a game and The Messenger’s is pretty darn great. I loved a lot of the level and boss themes (the Bamboo Creek and Searing Crags 8-bit themes are two of my highlights) and the overall soundtrack for this game is up there as one of the best of the year. Plus, since you switch between 8-bit and 16-bit there are two different versions for every area theme which I found pretty cool.
So that’s my review of The Messenger. If you’re a fan of action platforming and old-school games, I highly recommend it. Don’t pass up on it just because it released in the middle of a busy time – I almost did and I would have definitely regretted missing this gem.
In case it wasn’t obvious, The Messenger is a definite PLAY.