At first glance, The Messenger could be mistaken for one of the many indie side-scrolling platformers that have been released over the last few years.
Featuring an unmistakable retro style, it’s a title that I almost passed over initially, but I’m so glad I ultimately took the plunge into a game that has well-crafted gameplay, witty writing, a fantastically memorable soundtrack and even some new ideas to boot. It’s also on the Nintendo Switch (along with PC), because that’s where all the best indies go nowadays.
You start off by being given a scroll to take to the top of a mountain, slashing away baddies on the way there in an old-school Ninja Gaiden fashion. The first wrinkle to the formula that makes the game stand out is “Cloud Stepping”, which works like a double-jump except you need to actually connect with a slash on one of the hanging chandeliers or, cleverly, enemy projectiles. This constantly brings up the idea that in each room, enemy attacks aren’t necessarily something to avoid, but also potential stepping stones to the next stage or to hidden secrets.
It also makes for some frustrating but very much “just one more go” styles of platforming areas where missing a jump can cause your instant demise. While foes are simple enough to begin with, The Messenger is paced in such a way that it absolutely ramps up at times, testing your coordination and the additional skills you’ve learned along the way, including a grappling hook and a wing-suit.
Death isn’t the end of course, and instead of a simple respawn, a little demon (who loves to poke fun at the fact that you’ve died… again and again) comes with you on your journey, collecting shards that you would normally use for upgrades until he is satisfied. It’s a nice touch, and the game is full of them; the stories of the shop-keeper, the banter that occurs with boss fights and a toe-tapping soundtrack that is just so fitting it fills me with pure joy.
The visuals and audio are a tribute to old-school in the best way, starting as an 8-bit NES-era look and feel and then changing to a 16-bit SNES-era feel at about the halfway point. Revisiting older areas with the “new look” (and newly updated audio for the same catchy tunes, which is appreciated) is fun at first, but at this point The Messenger does resort to some backtracking and repeating of some stages, losing some of its luster. That’s not to say it isn’t still enjoyable; I guess I would have preferred new levels to explore entirely instead of seeing the old ones with a new coat of paint.
Even with a bit of unnecessary backtracking, The Messenger delivers on a balance of clever platforming and Metroidvania gameplay that will absolutely challenge you but never frustrate you to the point where you don’t want to try again. It’s very satisfying when you chain together a variety of your skills to complete tricky stages, and the playful bouncing between 8-bit and 16-bit production values is both nostalgia-inducing and completely refreshing. Sabotage Studio have created something special here for fans of old-school and new-school alike.
The Messenger is available now on Nintendo Switch and PC.