Review – The Messenger

Meta-twisting no jutsu

Overview

Developer Sabotage
Publisher Devolver Digital
Genre Platformer
Platforms PC (reviewed), PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Release Date Aug 30, 2018

Normally, a game inspired by Ninja Gaiden would make me apprehensive. But with the game being created with love letter intentions, I have an open mind. As I came to find out, developers like Sabotage are crafting stories, characters, and sloping difficulty into a solid game– my kind of people! The Messenger hits these criteria. Players take control of a young ninja who starts a simple journey, which soon evolves into a grand tale. And that’s not the only thing that evolves…

Content Guide

Violence: Enemies will throw fireballs, spiked balls, magic waves, or themselves at the messenger. As a ninja, you have access to a trusty katana which takes care of anything in mostly one swipe. There are also shurikens, but no hits are ever shown taking impact. Like the days of old, sprites flash white and then disappear. 

Sexual Themes: Not here

Substance Abuse: N/A

Language: I didn’t see any, but ESRB rating says mild language. So be wary.

Spiritual Takeaway: There are a couple of themes we can take away from the events and decisions of the characters in The Messenger. The shopkeep tells numerous stories, and the messenger digs for meaning through each of them. At one point, the shopkeeper just tells him to stop, they’re just stories (some for kids like ye olden Brothers Grimm), but the Messenger cannot help himself. This plays into the story, but I will not spill the spoiler milk today.

Where do we stand on bringing meaning to all things? Why do we do it? Must we have a reason for everything? Can we even find one? 

At least two times (James 1:17, I Chronicles 16:11-12), Scripture mentions that every good thing comes from God. So we have a good idea from the good things, but what about the bad? Do they come from us? The enemy? A systematic hateful ideology? A generational construct? Henry the nightly grocery stocker? 

The search becomes complex, and no one can agree on one answer. 

The other theme is change. The gameplay changes, the characters change, and the graphics change as the journey continues. Our journeys change us and our understanding of all things. We must never be afraid of change, but also approach new things with an open mind.




Review

In the world of The Messenger, the Demon King wages war against humanity every one hundred years, slaughtering them nearly to the point of extinction every time. A clan of ninjas fights this threat and awaits the fulfillment of a prophecy: the Western hero is fated to come in the nick of time, giving a fortunate ninja the honor to deliver a message and put an end to this cyclical curse.

Players take the role of said messenger. During the opening cutscenes and the following dialogue throughout the game, players see he’s not a noble, Captain America-esque hero. He’s cocky, rebellious, and isn’t interested in goals or dreams.

Nevertheless, he takes the scroll and embarks on a journey. Through levels with tried-and-true water, lava, and sprawling green meadow aesthetics, the main ninja protagonist uses his arsenal to fight bosses, conquer platform challenges, and collect items and upgrades. Items such as time shards, green power seals, and health containers wait in numerous laid-out lanterns, much like Castlevania’s heart gathering from candles.

The story carries itself with intrigue and purpose, but also heavily employs light-hearted charm and humor. A wizard tells the messenger of the relaxing, serene forest he is about to travel into, how there’s no “boss” to fight, and that he should take it easy. Sure enough, the area in between two other difficult ones is chill, and the puzzles are quaint. One boss fight is a test, first thought to be a ritual dance. Perhaps in the enemies’ eyes, it is in fact a dance of sorts. The first real boss players encounter gives off an intimidating figure, but soon reveals how short he is.

Diverting expectations using humor is just one way The Messenger twists, by switching up conventions of the stereotypical action game. And speaking of twists…

The real kicker most players learn about the game, inspired by Ninja Gaiden, is that it’s really not a clone. It’s all a twist. Halfway through, the game weaves in story, art style, and gameplay changes. That isn’t to say it goes from Madden to Undertale, so to speak; it stays a side-scrolling Metroidvania, but with new mechanical additions. As gamers can see in the trailer, time travel plays a huge role in the game.

Gameplay

Running, jumping, and sword swiping are basic, but there’s plenty more to do. The Messenger can wall climb, use a rope dart (players will call it a grappling hook), and equip a wingsuit. There’s also the cloud step, where striking something in the air gives a double jump. This can be used infinitely, so with some skill, the Messenger could stay hovering forever.

The game proves quite challenging, which makes death all but inevitable. Upon death, a one-eyed little chibi demon named Quarble will say something witty, like how many times you’ve died, or give basic play info as deep knowledge. Quarble will bring you back to life to the last checkpoint you hit and stick around until you collect enough time shards to pay off your resurrection debt. 

One of the greatest parts of playing The Messenger is how it teaches players to play by showing instead of telling. Despite one text box at the beginning in which an old man explains how to cloud step, the game’s first few levels are designed to allow the player to progress one function at a time. One screen will show how monsters behave, and the next screen asks, “Okay, but what if there were two?” 

The boss fights at the end of the areas act as the end-of-the-week test to see what you’ve learned. They combine fighting and platforming and always offer unique challenges that are never the same.

Platforming from beginning to end will never feel unfair. Each puzzle is clearly explained and telegraphed, and slowly increases in difficulty at a perfect pace. The developers thought it fun to hide secret areas containing harder challenges, but sweet rewards. They will test your ability and your mastery of the game’s tight controls. Never once did I get the feeling the game was terribly constructed, only that my skill was keeping me from going further.

Many checkpoints exist, and some contain a portal to the game’s shop, home of the infamous shopkeeper. The shopkeeper is responsible for providing health, and skill upgrades, but also much more. He also provides well-written humor and some meta-commentary. It seems like he’s out of place until you get to know him and progress through the campaign. In each area he can tell a story, which is akin to children’s folk tales. 

These out-of-place store moments are actually foreboding to the first evolution, time travel. Without divulging too much to stay spoiler-free, jumping through time becomes paramount for further exploration, yet another evolution. Levels beforehand were straightforward and filled with teaching moments. After the switch, the levels now throw teaching out and throw test after test instead. Players get teleporters and a map, giving them control of where to go. Opening up is the new state of the game. You go back to the same levels, now stronger and fully equipped, but no longer with your hand held along the way.

Obviously, the most impressive evolution is the graphics. A complete game designed in both 8-bit and 16-bit is an ambitious move by the developers, but it pays off. The game can switch at any moment with rips in time littered all over the world, and everything from the messenger to the backdrop changes drastically. 

Twists abound in The Messenger. Rarely do games have a story that comes full circle, but also breaks from said circle to do something else. Nothing from sound, music, or controls is left unchanged. Even jokes that seem like throwaways come back and hit differently. The execution of such a scheme turned out remarkably well. Sabotage created a solid game, and elevated the bar for excellent design. Players walking away from The Messenger will evolve for the better. 

The Bottom Line

 

The Messenger executes the perfect experience of play, narrative, and style.

 

9.5

Johnathan Floyd

Writer, Editor, President, and overall complete goofball.

Leave a Reply