Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Messenger Review

Game: The Messenger
Developer: Sabotage Studios
Genre: Action Platformer/Metroidvania
Platform: Nintendo Switch, Steam
Run Time: About 14 hours
Original Release: August 30th, 2018

Written by Jack Manzi

Let’s talk about nostalgia, tributes, and how to break a mold. Because today I’m going to talk about a game called The Messenger. As you may expect from someone who reviews them, I play a lot of video games, so take it from me when I tell you that it’s not exactly uncommon to find a game heavily modeled after or taking inspiration from a famous title from the early days of gaming. Assuming you haven’t been living under a video-game-isolation metaphor, all it takes is once glance at this game’s art to know it’s inspired by Ninja Gaiden. The image of a blue-clad ninja fighting demons is honestly all it takes.
But what makes The Messenger special is what it does with itself. What looks like another 8-bit tribute game riding on the nostalgia of its source material hides a shocking amount of content under the surface, and uses it shockingly well. So let’s talk about that.
Oh, uh, very mild spoilers ahead. I usually try to keep these things spoiler-free, but in order to properly talk about this game, I’m going to need to mention something that happens about halfway into the game, that, while it is shown in the trailer (meaning the developers didn’t see it as that big of a spoiler), I can see how someone playing blind might want to experience it on their own.

Remember when I said that I wanted to talk about mold-breaking? Here’s where that starts. The Messenger begins very simply, with a very simple premise. You are a ninja from a small ninja village, that one day gets attacked by demons. The village is saved by a prophesized hero who bequeaths you with the task of delivering a scroll to the top of the mountain on the other side of the world map. Now it’s time to fight through a variety of areas, facing demons, pitfalls, and all manner of platforming challenges along the way. 
But shortly after you enter the game’s first level, the Autumn Hills, and find the Shop, it’s clear things are different. The mysterious Shopkeeper immediately breaks the fourth wall and becomes a major character that you can interact with to not just buy upgrades, but talk about each area for lore, each boss fight for advice, and even just ask to tell stories. The Shopkeeper is the first clue that the story is more than it seems, and once you finally do reach the summit of the Glacial Peak, that’s where the story does shift. The narrative becomes much more complex. There are more characters. And more importantly, you have a new role in the story. 
The new story that’s unveiled after the big shift may seem convoluted, and to be honest, the game doesn’t handle exposition in the best way, giving you most of the background right before the final boss, but by the time you reach that point, it’s not the biggest mood-killer. I just admittedly would have liked to know the history of everything the second half of the game is working towards before it happened. On the bright side, the story actually is pretty good. It’s not terribly complicated or deep, but it’s fun, and that seems to be what matters. This game is fun. The writing is fun and the story matches.

You may be shocked to hear this, but The Messenger plays a lot like Ninja Gaiden. You run through levels with an emphasis on momentum, attacking as you move. You have a short-range sword, a longer-range shuriken, and as the game goes on you unlock a rope dart (functionally a grappling hook) to launch to walls and enemies, a wingsuit to glide, even special boots to let you run on liquids. The main movement mechanic is called “Cloud Stepping,” and lets you perform an extra jump in the air after hitting an enemy or object.
But if you were paying attention to that description, and to the beginning of this review you may have noticed that I called The Messenger a metroidvania. That’s because halfway through this game, after you reach the Glacial Peak, the game undergoes a major shift. The story gets more complicated, your character is flung into the future, the graphic style switches from 8-bit to 16-bit, and the game goes from a linear action-platformer to a full-scale metroidvania. You get a map and everything, and suddenly you have to backtrack through the world to collect upgrades and new objectives. 
As a metroidvania, The Messenger plays very nicely. Many of the new items and goals require new items and crossing of multiple areas, so you’ll be travelling back and forth a lot. Even more so, after the first couple areas in the future, you gain the ability to travel back and forth through time with special portals, now placed all over the world map. Depending on the time, levels will be different. Different enemies, different platforms, different paths. A lot of puzzles are actually based off manipulating time to make sure you enter the right area at the right time. And this is more than just a gimmick, the time travel is really shown when you interact with items and characters centuries in the future. For example, to gain access to a new area, you’re told to make a special tea to give you “true sight.” Only problem is that the tea plant takes centuries to grow. So just find a garden plot in the past, and make your way to the future to collect it. 
Finally, the game sprinkles new mechanics around as it needs to, such as the inclusion of rockets or a shooter section. They may seem weird, but never out of place, and never overstay their welcome.

Graphics and Design
The Messenger looks like Ninja Gaiden. That’s obvious. It’s an 8-bit game about ninjas. But for 8-bit, the art doesn’t look bad at all. It’s very nicely done. The enemies are distinct, the characters are easily identifiable, and the areas have nice variation and tone to them. And then when the game shifts to 16-bit, that’s all multiplied exponentially. Sabotage Studios really makes the best of the graphic styles given. The 16-bit sprites all look mostly the same, but in better definition and in more color, with the exception of, weirdly enough, your character, who goes from being a generic ninja to having a cool hat and cape. The areas look better in 16-bit, obviously, and some even play off the dichotomy, such as the Rivière Turquoise, which in the past is a desolate swamp, but in the future is a beautiful forest. 

Sound and Music
As a game that swaps between 8-bit and 16-bit, The Messenger has two separate soundtracks. Each song has an 8-bit and 16-bit version, and I am happy to say that both are fantastic. The soundtracks switch seamlessly back and forth as you time travel and each area’s soundtrack really adds to the feel of it.  And that’s all I can say on the matter.

Additional Content
The Messenger doesn’t have any DLC or New Game Plus mode. It’s a very self-contained story, with not too much extra. The entire world is used fully. There’s no optional areas or bosses. The only extra content comes in the form of Power Seals, 45 green tokens spread about the world that you can find and shatter to unlock a special power-up. To get to these Power Seals you have to find special rooms where to get to the seal, you’ll have to put your platforming and movement abilities to the test. These challenges are really great tests of your skills, and getting a seal after a hard room is always really satisfying. Unfortunately, I personally didn’t get too much use out of the reward, but I do see how it can be good to have.

The Messenger is a game that came out of nowhere and honestly blew me away with the work put into it to merge past and present in a style ironically mirroring the contents of the game itself. The pacing is a little weird sometimes and the reward for collecting all of the power seals may seem a little underwhelming but overall there’s not much about The Messenger that I didn’t like. The boss fights are varied and fun, the mechanics are great to learn and soooooo satisfying to master, and everything really fits together to truly elevate this from a pretty good Ninja Gaiden tribute to a pretty spectacular game in its own right.