More than your average throwback
As we’ve covered in the past, throwback “retro-style” platformers are all over the place nowadays. They’re not all great—heck, they’re not even all serviceable—so it’s always worth taking note when one really stands out among the competition. The Messenger is unique in that it doesn’t stand out that much … until you play to a certain point. This is the rare case of an NES-style platformer that’s much more than it seems, and it’s absolutely worth digging deeper to find out why that is.
The first few hours of The Messenger play it pretty safe. As the rather nondescript ninja in the lead, players must dash and slash their way through hordes of enemies, most of which take one hit in true Ninja Gaiden fashion. A few formidable bosses block your path from time to time, and some of the battles are really clever. This is all thanks to a constantly upgradable set of abilities that start off with your usual health upgrades and build to more substantial game-changers like the Rope Dart, which lets you deftly leap across hazardous pits and rope past (and through) foes.
The real gameplay hook to pay attention to is the ninja’s ability to net an extra leap whenever he slashes an enemy, projectile, or lantern. Every time you hit something, you can jump once more in mid-air, leading to some really fun and inventive platforming challenges along the way. That’s really the heart of it, though, for a while. If The Messenger had capped off its runtime at around three hours and ended with what was supposed to be the last boss, I would have been somewhat satisfied and ready to deem it a slightly above average platformer. But then, it all changes.
If you’ve seen any trailers for The Messenger, the big switcheroo will come as no surprise. Right when it seems as if you’ve vanquished the big bad, your nimble ninja takes a leap of faith that lands him smack dab in the middle of a 16-bit adventure. Just like that, the graphics and music leap ahead to the next generation, falling somewhere between Super NES and Sega Genesis styles for both. At first it seems like little more than an aesthetic change, as the ninja runs through familiar areas with a new coat of paint and the ability to zip back to the 8-bit past to solve puzzles. That quickly expands to something more, though, as The Messenger goes from linear platformer to a straight-up Metroidvania.
It’s not often that I ostensibly finish a game only to feel as if I’ve just started on a completely separate journey. The Messenger handles this unique transition spectacularly, making up for any shortcomings in the first half with the willingness to experiment and go all out with its concept. By the time you get to the end, you really feel as if you’ve been on your own epic quest that went way beyond the initial charge to deliver a scroll to the top of a mountain. The success of the whole more than makes up for any frustrations along the way, putting The Messenger on a level above most of the titles in the ever-crowded throwback market of today.
publisher: Devolver Digital
developer: Sabotage Studio
system(s): Switch, PC