A gamer and writer at heart who wants to combine his hobbies into one. I am 25 years old and I'm from the Netherlands. Having played many games over the years, I wanted to express my love for them, however obscure they may be!
This review will cover a twist that happens halfway through the game, though only the gameplay aspect of the twist. I simply could not do this game justice without covering it, since I would only be reviewing half a game at that point. If you want to go in completely blind then this review probably won’t be for you… given that you have been able to avoid the twist since they kind of advertise it together with the game.
While this game is partially inspired by Ninja Gaiden, I won’t make any references in the review to that series to describe this game as best as possible for people not familiar with the partial inspiration. I also made sure to complete the game 100% before writing this review, including the DLC and a fair attempt at New Game+. The game was played on Steam, but is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
While I was thinking of what to write for this beautiful introduction that you are reading right now, a sudden thought struck into my head. I love stories about ninjas… yet I’ve barely played any games with a ninja as the main controllable character. I mean, I’ve played a bit of Ninja Gaiden here and there but that’s pretty much about it. Surprising really, considering that they are especially prevalent in one of my favourite genres, the 2D Platformer. This has absolutely nothing to do with me learning about The Messenger, the game of today, but it was a sudden revelation for me. But, how did I learn about the game?
Frankly, I have no idea. I genuinely cannot remember how I stumbled upon this game. If I had to guess, it had to do with the high praises the game got around the time of release? Many YouTubers had covered it at the time, and while I didn’t watch too many due to me wanting to go in as blind as possible, it was certainly something that interested me. The game also showed a beautiful 8-bit, but also 16-bit art style, and I’m not easily convinced but… I am biased. So when the time was right, I decided to purchase the game and let my Twitch subscribers decided what the next game was going to be, with a slight nudge towards ”hey guys, I kinda want to play this game”. And it happened! So today, let’s take a look at The Messenger!
The Messenger was the first-ever game created by Sabotage Studio, based in Quebec and founded by Thierry Boulanger and Martin Brouard. The project was born from the mind of an 8-year-old boy obsessed with Ninjas, and Ninja Gaiden in particular. The prototype was in development for a year until the studio was founded in April 2016 with three people at work, eventually expanding to eight working on their first game with a current member list of sixteen. Their desire is to create definitive editions of the genres they loved as kids, starting with the action platformer. The game would release in 2018 with the assistance of publishing company Devolver Digital on PC and Nintendo Switch. This release turned out very successful given the overwhelmingly positive reception the game has gotten, being nominated for multiple rewards and receiving multiple as well, including the ”Best Debut Indie Game” at The Game Awards 2018. The game would end up receiving free DLC a year later, and the studio is currently working on a turn-based RPG set in the same universe as The Messenger called Sea of Stars.
So what do you think of when you hear the word ”messenger”? Someone who delivers a message of course, and that’s also what the new occupation will be of our main protagonist after his village is attacked by a big evil demon lord. The hero of prophecy saves him, hands him a scroll, refuses to elaborate further and leaves. And while this might sound like an attempt at a haha funny joke, it’s actually not that far from the truth. So now it is up to our named main protagonist– whose name never gets used in the game at all and instead is being called ”the messenger” or one of many alternatives–to deliver the scroll.
While the main plot certainly involves a big bad evil to defeat with you being the chosen one, what makes it different from your usual story is the top-tier humour that’s to be found here. The first instance of it is actually found right after leaving the village, where we meet the arguably most beloved character in the game: the shopkeeper. This hooded figure is one we visit throughout the journey constantly, and he is genuinely really funny with his sense of dry humour (basically being forced into his job) and fourth-wall-breaking. There is a slight meta-narrative to this story, and most of it is thanks to him–fortunately for me, the meta aspect does not overstay its welcome.
While the main plot certainly involves a big bad evil to defeat with you being the chosen one, what makes it different from your usual story is the top-tier humours that’s to be found here.
But it’s definitely not just him who is funny, but also some of the bosses and other characters we encounter. One of the first bosses is a necromancer who tries to act way cooler than he is for example, but it makes him adorable as a result. Or the dragon who named himself Manfred and strives to be a butler. Moments such as these are definitely what makes the story of The Messenger far more interesting than a simple ”beat evil, get love” plot. Though to be fair, I’m calling it such a plot solely to avoid spoilers. There is more to the story, but I can’t share much on that for spoiler reasons.
But of course, having a good story is always a positive but not an absolute necessity for a platformer–unless it is a story-driven game of course. What comes first for this genre will almost always be the gameplay itself. And The Messenger surely delivers on that front.
The Messenger is a 2D Platformer, set in a beautiful 8-bit art style. Our moveset at first is limited to only slashing and jumping, but one of the most important mechanics in the entire game is taught right from the beginning: the cloud step. What this does is that it grants the ability to jump again while in the sky when you slash anything that’s interactable with, be it alive or soon-to-be anti-alive. The good thing about it is that this jump resets every time you hit something, meaning that you can basically stay in the air… forever. As long as there’s some fresh meat or a lantern to hit, he will forget what the ground tastes like. This was a really satisfying mechanic to master, and it gets even more interesting with the basic upgrades the Deliverer obtains from who else but our favourite shopkeeper.
I am talking about two upgrades in particular: the glide, and the grappling hook. The former doesn’t really require an explanation since it’s literally in the name, but what’s interesting is that the Runner can attack vertically while gliding. As hinted at before, this also works with the cloud step. It can often even save you during some tougher platforming challenges where you aren’t confident in just jumping and slashing through. The grappling hook is also very usable during platforming challenges, grabbing you towards walls, enemies, or objects, and yet again allowing the Carrier to slash the latter two to regain the cloud step. All of these upgrades complement each other really well, making the platforming a blast.
Though I must say that I’m mixed on the first upgrade gained in the game, being the climbing claws. There isn’t really anything wrong with the concept, as you can stick to walls and then climb- or jump off of them. That’s how it should be, easy maths. But I honestly wasn’t a fan of the fact that the Bearer is automatically stuck to a wall whenever he approaches one. It’s like they put honey on every single wall in the game or something. I would have appreciated it if this was an option, so I could choose whether I wanted it to be automatic or not. They even made a joke about this later on in the DLC, though no option to be found still.
It’s more of a nitpick in the end though, since it caused me deaths but not that many; I probably would have gotten these deaths in other places if it wasn’t automatic, so it balances out. And even if I got a death, it didn’t really matter that much since deaths are only punished by a quirky little demon with insultingly trollish comments, laughing at your pathetic failure. He also demands you to pay him back in the game’s currency, the Time Shards, but even that felt like a minimal punishment as he doesn’t steal the ones you already have, and neither does the debt increase. Given that gamers less familiar with the platforming genre may have more difficulties with this game, and that experimentation with the mechanics are encouraged, this works out very well.
Even if I got a death, it didn’t really matter that much since deaths are only punished by a quirky little demon with insultingly trollish comments.
Actually, it didn’t even take long for me to end up with more Time Shards than I could ever use. They are used mostly for an optional ability tree that has options like more health, improvements to some of the upgrades you get from the shopkeeper, and more. You don’t ever have to use this tree, but unless you want to specifically challenge yourself, there’s no reason not to get some abilities. But I would make the argument that some abilities are priced way too cheap. One of the abilities you can learn right from the start is being able to slash through enemy projectiles and potentially use them for cloud stepping too. It’s an awesome ability–perhaps even a bit too awesome as it made enemy encounters a joke–but it only costs 40 Time Shards which is… practically nothing. If they were priced a bit higher, I wouldn’t have been stuck with so many Time Shards at the end of the game that I could technically buy the tree all over again. Furthermore, I would also have to be a bit more careful with enemy encounters for longer.
Thanks to the abilities being so generous, I really only had more difficulties with the platforming challenges that were primarily found later on in the game and for optional collectables, or some of the bosses. These were some genuinely nice battles, having original designs, many different interchangeable patterns, and no health bar, making you cautious at all times even if you think you’re close to beating them. And best of all: they kept getting better and better throughout the game, with more epic scenarios and attacks.
And with that, I’ve basically covered the entire game! …Except I didn’t. Plot twist!
So yeah, halfway through the game after accomplishing the delivery task, the game shifts into a 16-bit art style. A beautiful change for sure, though this isn’t just a simple graphical upgrade. This is an in-game indication that the Bringer is now in the future. Not only that, but the game quickly takes a different approach to how progress is handled, as it’s no longer just a platformer but also… a platformer where you have to backtrack. Some call it a ”Metroidvania”. Umm…
There are some parts about this half of the game that annoy me way more than they should, but let me cover the positives first. I really enjoyed going through these stages the first time; just some nice, linear stage design with a few hidden collectables for the observant player. It follows a room-to-room structure, not too dissimilar from the inspirations this game is based on. But every room feels unique and has nice platforming challenges or puzzles to them. Going through them in the 16-bit art style in your own desired order was something I really enjoyed, as it features the level design I like but with added caveats or even completely new paths that have opened up in the future. It feels like a natural difficulty progression, as your mastery over the cloud step is tested even further.
Exploring these levels again in a 16-bit art style was fun, but the problem is that this Metroidvania game has a linear world instead of an interconnected one. Now, I’m not saying that Metroidvania games have to consist of an interconnected world, but it makes backtracking easier to do if you can select a nearby teleporter and then choose the fastest route to your destination, often unlocked as a shortcut. The Messenger doesn’t have that benefit, and instead randomly places some teleporters around the world, making the Postmaner (is that actually a word) travel through entire stages again just to reach his destination. And even though you end up familiar with these stages, it can still take multiple minutes to actually go through them.
Exploring these levels again in a 16-bit art style was fun, but the problem is that this Metroidvania game has a linear world instead of an interconnected one.
It also lacks another important aspect of Metroidvanias: giving meaning to optional exploration. There are some mandatory items- and upgrades found to progress through the story, but these are basically only used to unlock a new part of the map. One of the items is a lantern to light a dark cave, of which there is exactly one in the game. The only other items the Transporter finds are power seals, which have no purpose until you find every single one of them. The reward ends up being a fun one for me, but if you are not here for completion, there is very little reason to hunt for them.
Now, I’m having a massive, probably unnecessary rant about why I think The Messenger is not a good Metroidvania, but the tag a game is given shouldn’t matter that much in the end. The issues I have are on a structural level, but do not really harm the amount of fun I had going through the second half. I should emphasize yet again that I liked these levels the first time around, and going through them again with a new coat of paint and different paths to take was fun enough for me. And since I’m a completionist, I would have gone for the power seals anyway. I just wanted to point them out because it can still be considered a flaw.
And to further emphasize that I really enjoyed going through the levels, there is the DLC. Now, I was originally planning to cover the DLC in full detail, but I figured I wouldn’t. It’s something that unlocks at the very end of the game, and at that point, it’s quite obvious whether you are going to play it or not; if you loved The Messenger and want more, the DLC will absolutely not disappoint. Regardless, I wanted to bring it up because there is also a completion reward from this DLC. While I obviously won’t spoil what it entails, what I can say is that it has an effect on consecutive regular playthroughs. An effect that I enjoyed quite a lot, resulting in me playing through pretty much three-quarters of the game while I was only there to get my reviewing thoughts on paper. So yeah, I’m very adamant about something being called a Metroidvania, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression: having fun is far more important to me.
While The Messenger may look like your regular ”indie game inspired by the classics at first”, the complete package easily surpasses that expectation. This is mostly because the argument can be made that the game changes how it progresses halfway through. At first, it already satisfied me with a platformer that had fun level design, boss fights that kept getting better, and especially the smooth controls that feel satisfying to master. Upgrades to the kit of our ninja were relevant at all times, all working together to make cloud stepping work very well. And the game also gives you enough opportunity to master the mechanics, with minimal punishment on death and unlockable abilities that… may be a bit too helpful, and also very cheap to unlock with the in-game currency. Halfway through the game however, progression switches from a level-to-level basis to a 16-bit Metroidvania with time travel. This gave us the ability to revisit all of the levels but in our own desired order, which was generally fun to do as they hadn’t seen just a graphical upgrade, but entire layout changes. However, the Metroidvania aspect of the game isn’t very good, mostly due to the world being linear instead of interconnected, forcing us to go through entire stages just to reach a destination. It also didn’t really give much of an incentive to explore beyond the required story-locked upgrades that are only used in a specific part of the world. Granted, I did still have a lot of fun exploring these levels again, especially with the reward gained from the free DLC that, in its own right, was a fun experience for those looking for more content from this game.
- Smooth controls that were satisfying to master.
- Boss battles were really good.
- The twist halfway through and everything after was handled really well.
- Good sense of humour, particularly with the Shopkeeper.
- The Metroidvania aspect itself isn't the best (backtracking, self-enhancement etc.).
- Overpowered abilities available right from the start for a very cheap cost.
Thank you for reading! I hope I wasn’t too focused on addressing the Metroidvania aspect of the game. I sometimes just get really heated up when it’s used for pretty much everything that doesn’t feature linear progression through levels. But that rant aside, The Messenger is absolutely a game worth your time. There is also arguably some deeper in-game details to be found that make a lot of sense in the lore when it comes to the past- and the future, but I skipped those because I didn’t think they were fit for a review. Besides, I’m not really that smart anyway; what I see is what I get. I don’t think a lot, I just play games.
Next time, I’m going to dedicate a small week to the anniversary of a game I love a lot. Won’t really be a review, but more just talking about how the past year has been and maybe a list as well. After that, if everything goes well, I’ll have a short marathon again! That’s been a while, hasn’t it?
Do you think a Metroidvania needs to have an interconnected world, or could a stage-based world also work?
While I don’t think a stage-based world can’t work, I haven’t seen it work well often. Xeodrifter for example had a really tough time with it and frankly… it didn’t really work out. While not strictly linear, the world of Touhou: Luna Nights also felt stage-based, but there were multiple teleporters that solved most of the issues. And I think that multiple nicely-placed teleporters should fix the issue of a stage-based world.