The Messenger is an indie platformer game that is developed by Sabotage and published by Devolver Digital. Originally debuting in August, 2018 on the PC and Switch, it soon made its way to the Playstation 4 in March, 2019. I grabbed it on my Nintendo Switch during the Devolver sale and here we are.
Your journey in The Messenger begins on an island with a village on its western edge. There, the last survivors of the human race train to survive and fight off the return of a demon army, meant to exterminate the human race. There are also legends of a hero that will fly in from the west to give one of those survivors a scroll, and a quest to defeat the demon army.
Gameplay – 1st Half
The game kicks off from there, where the obvious happens and you’re the lucky hero that’s given a scroll, and a journey to undertake. Those of you familiar with the NES and Ninja Gaiden will feel very at home. You control the messenger, a ninja like warrior that starts off by wielding a sword. The levels are largely left to right, each stage ending with a boss battle.
The first mechanic that is introduced are your cloud steps. Whenever you attack an enemy or breakable lantern type fixture, you have the ability to jump again right after that attack. It’s fidgety at first, but once you get used to it, it begins to feel more fluid. There are times I wished we just gained the ability to double jump instead of cloud stepping but it does provide The Messenger with a more unique traversing ability. There will be many times that there are pitfalls or spikes below a large string of lanterns that require you to execute multiple cloud steps in a row to move across the terrain.
This type of gameplay continues for quite a while. You begin a level, get a technique, use said technique to complete that level, then fight a boss at the end of the stage. Things get more interesting the further you get, because now you have more techniques compounding on top of each other, which makes level design a bit more hectic, unique and interesting.
Each area features certain save points that also act as a warp to a shopkeeper, who holds much of the humor in The Messenger, but also allows you to spend currency on upgrades. Early on, you can purchases upgrades like gaining one extra health, or the ability to swim faster once in water. Later, you get damage reducing abilities and more. It’s a nice added layer to this sort of game.
You’ll also notice very quickly how easily enemies respawn. Even after killing an enemy on a screen, as soon as the screen moves even remotely out of distance of where that enemy spawns, it’s coming back. This doesn’t create issues too often, but man, the times it does can be very frustrating.
Dying also provides a unique mechanic. Every time you die, a little guy named Quarble comes out, saves you and returns you to the last save point. The catch is, he sticks around for a few screens and takes around half your loot that you pickup. This doesn’t seem like much a punishment, but I at least had stretches of certain levels that I had him hanging around more often than not. At the very least, he disappears for boss fights so you don’t have to worry about an extra distraction on screen.
Gameplay – 2nd Half
It’s hard to talk about The Messenger without spoiling a shift in gameplay that happens about halfway through. It’s something that is shown in trailers, but if you want to go in cold, turn back.
After a flurry of upgrades, new techniques, levels and boss fights, The Messenger opens up into a metroidvania style game where you have the ability to revisit old levels and discover new ones along the way. With this change, comes a new mechanic; time warps. While playing, you’ll see these sort of screen tears or circular warps on screen. When you pass through a tear, your surroundings get manipulated, creating new environments around you. This creates a cool dynamic feel to areas you’ve already passed through. In game, you’re effectively time traveling 500 years into the future. Past, your the NES (8-bit graphics) version of yourself, future, you become the SNES (16-bit graphics).
Soon after this gameplay shift from side scroller to metroidvania, another game kept popping into my head, Metroid Prime. In Metroid Prime, you traverse through each ‘level’ of the world map, defeat bosses, get an upgrade and move on. Before you’re able to head towards the final boss, the game asks you to go back into the world and find a number of artifacts. Only then can you progress. The Messenger does the same thing. Your first chunk of the game largely is; Enter Level -> Get Upgrade/New Mechanic -> Fight Boss. The second large chunk of the game is just exploring and finding items needed to progress to the end of the game. It’s not bad, but the shift is very noticeable and I can imagine people not liking it after enjoying the first part of the game.
This is basically what’s in front of you until the games conclusion. There are ‘artifacts’ that you must go into the world to find. Once you find them all, you progress to the final area. Along the way, there are power coins for you to find and collect as well, creating a bit more variety, but largely, I felt my interest dip at this point. It’s unfortunate because later areas have some cool and unique setups due to the screen tears/time warping, but it all felt sub-par compared to my previous experience playing through the first half of the game.
Hint System: Once the game opens up halfway in, there is a built in hint system for a cost if you’re stuck when searching areas for your next item, clue, or progress forward. I feel that this fits in a game like The Messenger where the story has been very tongue in cheek and you have these characters that act as guides. In a game like Metroid, or even to a lesser degree Axiom Verge, this doesn’t make sense for the feeling of isolation that’s required to enhance the experience.
Enemy Variety: Very lacking. The same enemies pop up everywhere and it becomes very mundane and boring past a certain point in the game. Without spoiling the last area, there are story/lore implications to that area, and I just chuckled to myself when the same enemies that you encounter on your adventure still appear in this area.
Save Point Locations: There are rooms in the game that are obviously a lot tougher than others. Before reaching the last few areas of the game, The Messenger was very good about giving you a save point right before one of these tougher rooms. The end of the game forgets about this on more than one occasion. Instead, there will be a save point, then two or three time consuming rooms to get through, then you hit the tough room. One mistake in this tougher room means you have to spend 1-2 minutes going through the first few rooms before you can make an attempt at that last room again. It’s punishing in the wrong way.
Pitfalls: One thing I felt this game didn’t do very well, was telegraph where the player needed to go at times, where the wrong move resulted in death. There were many times I jumped downward through a screen tear, where there was physical ground below, just for it to disappear after going through, resulting in you falling to your death if you didn’t hit the right button to react within a few frames. This didn’t matter as much if a save point was nearby, but my above point showed that wasn’t always the case.
Boss Fights: Some boss fights are just downright tough in a good way. There’s one boss towards the middle of the game that just didn’t click for me after around 15 attempts. There were five different attack patterns he would rotate between. I could figure out two of them no problem, two others I successfully executed about half the time, and the fifth was just me getting decimated for 3-4 health every single time I saw it. Two of those patterns clicked almost by accident and I realized how to avoid being damaged through them. I beat the boss the next attempt with full health.
I was really into The Messenger for the first half of the game. For some reason, when the game switched over to a metroidvania, a style of game I typically love, I felt some of the momentum that was building was released, and the game lost a lot of steam.
Towards the end of the game, the last few levels started to feel tedious. I was finding myself feeling obligated to complete the game instead of purely wanting to continue. That’s never a good situation or feeling, and I had it here.
Even so, I don’t think The Messenger is a bad game, and I would even recommend it to those I know that like either metroidvania or sidescrolling 8-bit/16-bit games. I love both art styles, the humor was on point, movement was fluid when you could get everything working correctly and there is a large variety of things that you do that you may not typically find in other games of these styles. It just wasn’t all there for me this time.