The Messenger is an action-platformer (With a heavy emphasis on ‘platformer’) by Sabotage Studio. The game is an affectionate parody of action-platformers from the late 80s, early 90s, somewhere in that time frame.
Later sometime this year, it will be getting a prequel in the form of Sea of Stars, which is presumably to Chrono Trigger and the early Final Fantasies what The Messenger is to Ninja Gaiden.
Before knowing anything else about The Messenger, you should know that it is hard. Deliberately so. If you enjoyed Celeste or other hard as nails platformers with tight controls and level design, this is for you. If you don’t have the skill, patience, or physical ability, you should probably skip this one.
Legally Distinct Ninja Gaiden
So what do I mean when I call this game an action-platformer with a heavy emphasis on the platforming parts? Well, The Messenger has combat. You play as a ninja with a sword and magical shuriken. And there are a wide variety of enemies who would very much like to kill you.
Those magical shuriken are limited use, with you getting more uses from candles/torches lying around the world Castlevania-style. (I did tell you this game was an affectionate parody of a lot of games, didn’t I?) So because you’ve only ever got a handful of them on you at a time, your primary means of attacking is using your sword. I’m actually quite surprised by the range on that sword. I’m not used to having better melee range than most enemies. It’s a refreshing change of pace. Especially because if you turn around mid-swing you can attack both directions at once.
But the combat isn’t what you’re going to be doing most of the time. Heck, it’s not even the thing that’s most likely to kill you. Except in boss fights. No, the biggest threat to your continued survival is spikes and pits. Spikes seem to crop up everywhere in this game, so keep an eye out for that. But the death pits are worse. See, if you hit a spike, you’ll probably die. But if you fall down a pit that isn’t connected to another room below you? Then that’s that. You’re dead. Doesn’t matter how much health you’ve got. Dead. No saving throw.
And here’s where we get to my main issues with this game. Not the difficulty, to each their own. But there are a lot of really cheap shots this game pulls. Having enemies with projectiles forcing you to avoid those projectiles while making tricky jumps. That’s a favorite of the developers honestly. And then they start remixing it with things like falling platforms or more than one projectile enemy.
Worse, until you buy an upgrade that gives you a free midair jump upon taking damage, when you get hit in midair you are knocked back and stunned until you land on the floor again. Nine times out of ten, if you got hit mid-jump, then there isn’t a floor below you. Dead. Maybe if you’re lucky it’s only spikes, which still deal considerable damage. And while The Messenger does have mercy invincibility, it has by far the least merciful mercy invincibility I’ve ever seen. I think it lasts exactly one second, if that.
Admittedly, I rarely had any trouble with the actual knockback The Ninja suffers from being hit. It’s not about to knock you into a new postal code or anything like that. Though there were occasions where it felt like The Ninja is knocked backwards, independently of which direction the damage came from. This could have just been an oddly specific collision, though, and most likely won’t interfere with gameplay regardless.
Since The Messenger is all about platforming, you’ve got quite a few neat tools to help you platform better. The biggest one is Cloudstepping, which is, pardon the expression, a double jump with extra steps. If you manage to melee something while in midair, you get another jump. This can be chained endlessly provided you keep landing your hits. You can even get an upgrade that lets you break projectiles with your melee attacks, letting you Cloudstep off of enemy attacks. This is the mechanic that most of the platforming is built around and they did a really good job designing their levels around it as a mechanic.
And all of your other movement abilities are also designed to work well with Cloudstepping. Your wall climbing move helps you ready yourself to hit torches or to catch yourself at the end of the course. The wing glider gives you more control over your mid-air movements. And the Zip Wire pulling you to an enemy or torch counts as a melee hit on them, which, of course, gives you a free Cloudstep. Once you have the rhythm down and have a good feel for how the game controls, your freedom of movement is truly impressive. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen better, but comparing a 2D action-platformer to, say, A Hat In Time is already an unfair comparison on both sides anyway.
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Alas, the biggest flaw with The Messenger’s gameplay is the respawning system. On a mechanical level, it’s fine. Dying sends you back to your most recent checkpoint and a little demon follows you around stealing any money you pick up for a short period of time. The problem is that every single time you die the demon makes fun of you for it. I will go into more detail about why this is a problem in the next section.
The game also has some really nasty platforming challenges that come out of nowhere. The ice level has ice physics, something that everyone loves and no one has ever declared an eternal hatred of, especially in a game based around precision platforming. Wait, hold on, just double checked my notes. It actually says here that literally everyone hates ice physics in games. My bad. There’s also a boss fight against an enemy who destroys the platforms you’re fighting on, which, as stated previously, means that falling off is instant death no matter how much health you have and forcing you to start the fight from the very beginning. You know. Fun.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand how this game won an award for the best debut indie game of 2018, but it can be downright brutal when it wants to be.
Despite my complaints about the gameplay, I cannot say anything negative about this game’s presentation. Well, I’m still mad about that respawn mechanic I mentioned earlier but we’ll get to that. Everything else though, and I do mean ‘everything,’ is simply phenomenal.
I can’t talk about the art without spoiling something. It can’t be done. But it was in the trailer anyway, so it’s fine. The Messenger actually has two art styles. The first art style is an 8-bit pixel art style, but once you’ve made it far enough in the game (Only a couple hours) you uncover areas where the art style shifts up to 16-bit. The 8-bit style is clearly meant to emulate older games, complete with the black bar at the top of the screen for your HUD. It’s made much better than the art assets its emulating, but it is clearly inspired by those older game.
If the 16-bit style is an emulation, I’m not familiar with the style it’s replicating. What I can tell you is that the game is absolutely stunning no matter how many bits are currently being used. Honestly, more games should do the Evoland thing where the game has multiple graphical styles based on different eras. That’s a cool concept that I’ve seen so infrequently that I’ve literally named the only other example I can think of.
There’s not much I can say about the game’s sound design and sound effects. They’re perfectly functional, with a unique sound for each action, and even new sounds to accompany the graphical improvement. The problem is that, as a retro-inspired 2D platformer, there’s just not very many actions. So there aren’t many places to put sound effects.
The music on the other hand, is hands-down some of the best I have heard in a video game. It is an absolute bop of a soundtrack, and somehow reassuring in even the most frustratingly difficult sections of the game. It’s a phenomenal soundtrack and I have high hopes for Sea of Stars sounding fantastic as well.
The writing of The Messenger is… interesting. The plot is incredibly straightforward, even considering the time travel involved. But this isn’t a game that’s built around its narrative. No, where the writing shines is the character interactions and humor. The Shopkeeper having a great deal of meta-awareness, while The Ninja is at least aware of the game’s text boxes and gameplay conventions. And the game insists on calling attention to all number of cliches, tropes, and genre conventions of the games it was inspired by. Anything from references—like your wall climbing claws having been invented by John Gaiden—to natural player behaviors get acknowledged by the game and characters in amusing ways. And the developers have accounted for a great deal of possible behaviors to make fun of. The Shopkeeper’s Cabinet comes to mind.
But this is a double-edged sword, and one that I feel overall hurts this game in one key place. That’s right! It’s finally time to talk about that respawn demon! So here’s the deal. Every time you die, the demon that respawns you makes fun of you. And it has a metric ton of unique dialogue to cycle through. Everything from suggesting that you blame your controller to explicitly telling you how many times you’ve died or how much money it’s taken from you.
There is a rule in satire, I don’t remember who said it first. It goes something like, “Don’t punch down.” The idea is that you shouldn’t make fun of people who are in worse circumstances than yourself. And I find there aren’t many people in worse circumstances than the recently deceased. Especially considering that humans psychologically hate losing. Now, I am a petty, spiteful, and vindictive creature as my friends could tell you. But this demon mocking me does not motivate me to keep playing, not even just to spite him. I’d rather just not deal with it at all. I have never once while playing this game though, “Oh no! I lost my progress by dying!” or even just “Oh no, I died!” It is always, “Oh great, now I have to put up with him again.” I started just skipping his dialogue without reading it, and it was still too smug for me to want to deal with.
The idea was that this was supposed to be funny. But I’m not laughing. I’m playing another game that doesn’t make fun of me instead. Sorry, The Messenger, but I have better things to do with my time than be berated by you. And your genuinely good comedy isn’t enough for me to put up with it. Never before have I rage quit a game because of loading screen text.
The Messenger is a game for people with more skill and patience than I possess. It is a well-made game and I am excited for its prequel, but I am not skilled enough to beat it and I don’t have the patience to put up with it mocking me until I develop that skill.