You could wrongfully pass The Messenger off as a simple Ninja Gaiden clone, but such an oversight could prevent you from experiencing one of the year's finest indies. The Japanese series may have left a firm imprint on its DNA, but the inclusion of an RPG-like skill system, some witty and self-aware writing, and a novel pixel-altering time travel mechanic cement this release as its own. Arriving during the typical summer gaming drought, The Messenger debuts as a console exclusive for the Nintendo Switch and has also released on Steam.
Threatened by the uprising of a demon army, it's up to you, The Messenger, to deliver a sacred scroll to a hero of legend who resides at the summit of a distant mountain. Embarking northward on your valiant quest you'll risk your life upon every turn, building up an array of ninja abilities to ensure that the scroll makes it into safe hands. Who is the titular messenger? And what does the scroll contain? These questions and more remain unclear, but you shouldn't be deterred by its bare bones plot, as the script is packed full of unexpected humour and charm (we will get to that later though).
The Messenger, for the most part, is your typical 2D side-scrolling platformer. You'll use your ninja skills to jump, slash, and glide your way through a series of varied levels that put your control and agility to the test. As you continue along your ascent, you'll be granted new abilities like being able to climb up walls, grapple across hanging hooks, and soar like a flying squirrel - and these are steadily layered on to make platforming more challenging. Motions like gliding down from a ledge then grappling to a wall and tossing a shuriken into an enemy's eye felt fluid and there was plenty of satisfaction gained from successful execution.
An RPG-like skill tree can be accessed from the merchant's store and it allows you to enhance your abilities as well as purchase completely new ones. These include general health and shuriken capacity upgrades as well as enhancements like being able to swim faster and attack whilst strapped into your wingsuit. Time shards are the currency required for these upgrades and they can be found dotted across each stage, often illuminating the path before you. Collecting all of the time shards is an extra challenge for those who seek it, as they're often placed close to deadly obstacles and are dropped by defeated enemies.
Unlike many titles that it lovingly pays homage to - The Messenger never feels too punishing. There's no game over screens and you don't even lose your existing time shards as a punishment for death. Instead a tiny red devil named Quarable will swallow up a couple of time shards along your path upon your revival as payment for his services. The little bright red creature may make a profit on the back of your continual demise but we felt fortunate that he sticks around. He also has a sense of humour too. During loading screens he will mock you for your failings: telling you how many times you've died and how many shards he's snatched off you so far.
We found ourselves creasing more than a few times at The Messenger's tightly-worded script which proceeded to mock us and shatter the fourth wall. There was a moment when the store's merchant made reference to the game's trailer and punished us with unskippable dialogue as we ignored his instructions and took a peek at the mysterious cabinet in his store. Boss encounters are also injected with plenty of humour and as a result, these encounters felt much more profound and memorable. In the first half of the game, we fought an imposing neon green rock golem who burst into tears upon defeat as the whole situation was caused by a supposed misunderstanding.
Appealing to our taste for adventure, The Messenger features hidden collectables that can be found by venturing off the beaten path. These green disc-shaped objects are known as powerseals and if all 45 are gathered, they can be used to open a glowing chest in the merchant's store. We couldn't tell you about its contents (we've yet to see them) but we can tell you that we were tricked into falling off the stage many times as we desperately searched for an undiscovered area - led in a trance-like state by the chest's mysterious aura. We do wish that the title gave us some indication of what we were missing in a stage but we are aware that this could have worked to tarnish there challenge and appeal.
One focal point is the game's time travelling mechanic. As you cross between time periods, the world around you transitions from 8- to 16-bit - a feature which is novel and every bit as self-aware as the humorous dialogue exchanges. We loved being able to explore the world of The Messenger through a different lens and through its implementation it felt like a true celebration of two iconic eras in gaming. Don't expect to see this ability soon though, as it crops up somewhere within the final stretch of the 15-hour game.
The title rivals Shovel Knight for delivering some of the sleekest pixelart we've seen in recent years and its chiptune soundtrack is so tightly composed that it stands solidly on its own. In fact, after playing the game we took straight to YouTube to bless our ears with Rainbowdragoneyes' masterpiece (free from the sounds of the game over screen). The visuals, as mentioned, are no slouch either and every location we visited - from frosty peaks to underground caverns and mushroom-covered swamps - felt vibrant and dynamic due to its striking colours and many layers of environmental detail.
Wearing its NES-era influences proudly on its sleeve, The Messenger arrives as an instant classic for the Nintendo Switch. The action is fast and fluid, the script is witty and self-aware, and we loved the ability to time travel between 8- and 16-bit worlds. It's a stunning feat considering it's the debut release from Quebec-based Sabotage Studio and we're already eager to see what retro-inspired worlds they will take us to next. We find it hard to fault this charming throwback and we hope that it doesn't get overlooked as merely just another nostalgia romp.
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