I feel like the Messenger is one of those games that is best played knowing as little about it as possible. If you haven’t watched the trailer, I encourage you to even avoid that. I’m giving this game a 5 out of 5, and if you enjoy games like Shovel Knight or Ninja Gaiden (NES), I think there are good odds you’ll enjoy this too. So just go play it. If you need to know more still, read on. I won’t be spoiling anything that isn’t in the trailer and something else that I have to spoil just because of the nature of the things I review.
How Metroidvania is it? Low Fit. The game starts out as a strictly linear action platformer similar to Ninja Gaiden (but with some interesting twists that makes it feel more like Shovel Knight), and then it opens up after 4-6 hours of gameplay. Once it opens up, it definitely captures the feel of a Metroidvania, but things are sectioned off more like Guacamelee to provide for a similarly high quality linear experience.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~11 hours
Review Info: This game was played on Steam
Buy The Messenger if you like…
- Well-Written NPC Dialog
- Hard but Fair Platforming Challenges
- Well Choreographed boss fights
- Catchy Retro style music that YOU JUST CAN'T GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!
▼ Review continues below ▼
Most games try to add variety to the gameplay by including level gimmicks, or changing it up completely, such as including a puzzle section in an action game. The Messenger does all this, but in addition it also adds variety by providing optional walls of text for you to stop everything and READ! The crazy thing is, after the initial few dialogs, it started to be the primary thing I was pushing forward for. Forget the fact that the gameplay is nearly flawless and the bosses are just as good as the best of any action platformer. Who cares that the music is catchy, and the graphics are pleasing to look at (if you like its retro style.) The main thing I wanted was more stories! And that’s indicative of the confident style that sets The Messenger apart from anything else I’ve played.
Plot wise, The Messenger is both a celebration and a satire of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. You’re a ninja living in a tumultuous time when Demons have cornered the human race. Just as your village is destroyed by demons, the legendary western hero ruscues you, and then charges you with delivering a mysterious scroll to the east. From the moment you begin your Journey, strange things start happening. You have access to a Shop that exists outside of your world, and if you die you’re greeted by a sassy red demon who trades saving your life for a small debt of currency. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously. It breaks the fourth wall often by straight up acknowledging that it’s a game. But yet, at the same time, the story and especially its characters are one of the most entertaining aspects of the game.
When starting out, the controls felt a little “floaty” to me, compared to other similar action platformers. This is because the first movement gimmick of the game – the cloud step – has a decent leeway for you to use it. Any time you strike an object, cloud step is activated allowing you to jump again for a good half second or so, while still giving you plenty of time to fall a short distance before you do. It was awkward to me at first –not as intuitive as pogo jumping on things like in Shovel Knight or Hollow Knight – but after mastering it I more than appreciated the mechanic. And thematically speaking, nothing feels more “Ninja” than flying around like you’re in a Martial Arts movie. Every single upgrade feeds into this primary mechanic, and every upgrade together combines to provide deeply satisfying platforming challenges for you to face. The level design is a great strength for The Messenger, and all the way up until the end it finds just enough gimmicks to keep it interesting and surprising.
The bosses too are excellent. They’re well telegraphed and extremely varied, but they also provide some extremely cool situations thematically too. Plus, they somehow manage to give every boss a personality, so they’re more memorable than just being some random monster that happens to hate scroll-carrying ninjas. They’re also difficult, making them that much more satisfying to beat.
Death is handled very well. It’s sort of a twist on the “Dark Souls” respawn system that’s been often used recently. Instead of losing the money you’re carrying and having to retrieve it, the Demon who resurrects you has you pay it forward by taking your loot for a short period of time instead. You can never lose what you have. I also quickly learned that the debt wasn’t even a huge deal, because often the Demon disappears by just about the point where I died anyway, meaning he really just took the money I got from replaying the section from the checkpoint. Plus, even after dying over 200 times in my play through, I had a decent surplus of cash after buying all of the upgrades. The system manages to give death a little more sting than just bringing you back to the checkpoint, but it also avoids adding to the frustration of dying.
I could make a complaint that money becomes useless after a certain point, but that’s already being addressed in an upcoming patch. They’re adding a New Game Plus mode – allowing you to start over with all of your loot and abilities – and the Demon makes you pay up front when you die. If you want to challenge yourself in that mode you’ll want to stock up as much cash as you can. This New Game plus also addresses the one other complaint I had, which is that the reward for finding all of the optional collectables has very little game left to play with. Soon, The Messenger will be infinitely replayable for those who can’t get enough of it.
It’s fun to get those optional collectables anyway though, regardless of the reward. Like any good Metroidvania, there’s a good sense of discovery. When the game makes the sudden switch from linear platformer to a Metroidvania, it’s a little jarring at first. You’re almost overwhelmed with options for places to go. But, the game provides you with some good hints to get you started. You can even straight up buy the location of some things if you want, but I had fun just running out into the world and breaking it down just like any other Metroidvania.
I thought that backtracking through previously linear sections would be boring. It does feel like the Ninja runs a little slow at times. That is, until you really start getting good at slinging yourself from enemy to enemy, then it’s fun to see how fast you can speed run through everything. Plus, the gimmick you saw in the trailer where you switch between 16 bit and 8 bit graphics also changes up the level geography in subtle ways, keeping areas you’ve been to before fresh.
That graphics changing gimmick serves a similar purpose to the dimension changing gimmick in Guacamelee – except you never gain full control of the swap. Instead you have to pay attention to how the level changes and use portals to swap, providing something of a puzzle platforming twist to the action. It’s used in clever ways, though it often amounts to just a more interesting way to progress you along. It’s also used for just making things more awesome when the opportunity presents itself – which I can’t talk about without spoilers.
There’s so much more I can say about The Messenger to sing its praises, but it’s really something that just has to be experienced. You have to be a fan of both linear platformers and Metroidvania games to really appreciate it, but as far as that combo goes I think only its sequel will be able to surpass it.
Fast and fluid, and well tooled to work with the game's platforming gimmicks. Bosses are a major highlight
Level design is the strongest feature, and it provides a wide array of challenges that put the player's abliities to the test.
Over 45 Power Medals to find, and the main story exploration provides a great sense of discovery - once you get to that point anyway
Shifting mechanic provides some interesting - but not too difficult - puzzle platforming opportunities
Doesn't take itself too seriously, and the dilaog is tremendously entertaining. Some surprising twists and well put together
Uses a couple of graphical styles that both look excellent
Seriously good music. Has a different flavor to set it apart from similar games
New Game+ mode gives The Messenger near infinite replayability
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