Twenty-five years ago, a bright-eyed elementary school student whiled away time in class doodling crude pictures of ninjas in his notebook, completely unaware that such pictures would grow into a lifelong passion project. Indeed, The Messenger is the culmination of decades of daydreaming and prototyping, slowly being refined down into the highly polished and enjoyable experience available today. Though it may look like just another sidescroller, you certainly won’t want to miss out on this one.
The story of The Messenger follows a nameless ninja who’s training with a secret order that is preparing for the day that a hero will come from the west bearing a scroll, which will then be handed off to a chosen hero who must deliver the scroll to save the world. As you could probably guess, your hero ends up being the one chosen to take the scroll, becoming the titular Messenger. However, not is all as it seems; as the adventure continues, more and more elements are introduced relating to time travel, which complicates the plot much more in many satisfying and unexpected ways.
A key aspect through all of this is the heavy focus on humour, which largely does a great job of keeping the experience lighthearted and engaging. Fourth wall-breaking jokes and references to pop culture are thrown around all the time, along with a general self-deprecating attitude towards the contrived and occasionally cliché plot. The characters are a huge plus, too, such as a shopkeep who rebukes you for asking too many questions early in the game, or a pair of boss characters who can’t remember what your hero is named, calling him things like The Courier or The Postman. This is a game that seldom takes itself very seriously, but it’s much stronger for it, focusing more on charming and funny dialogue that you’ll want to spend time reading.
Gameplay takes influence from a wide variety of retro games (more on that in a bit), but the clearest inspiration is the original Ninja Gaiden. You’re tasked with guiding your ninja through a series of obstacle courses dotted with easily defeated yet still mildly threatening monsters. The platforming is primarily centred around a concept called ‘Cloudstepping’, which mixes up the gameplay and keeps things moving at a brisk and energetic pace. Every time a sword strike successfully connects in midair, whether it be with an enemy or a breakable environmental object, a small cloud appears under your ninja’s feet which allows him to perform a double jump. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the game does a good job of slowly ramping up its use, eventually resulting in kinetic sequences where your ninja swiftly jumps from enemy to enemy in a flurry of sword slashes that gradually take him from one end of a bottomless pit to another.
Should you die – and you will certainly die plenty – you’ll be greeted by a little flying imp named Quarble with enough sass to make the Wendy’s Twitter proud. After berating you for being such an idiot or condescendingly asking if your controller works properly, he’ll revive you at the last checkpoint and then follow you around for a bit. Every ‘Time Gem’ (more on those in a bit) that you collect while he’s over your shoulder will be immediately eaten by him, and he’ll only disappear after either enough time has passed, or he’s stolen enough gems from you to be satisfied. It’s a nuisance to be sure, but a charming way of punishing players for their mistakes, and he never steals enough gems to the point that it feels like your progress is being dramatically hindered.
At the outset of the campaign, progression is limited to a relatively linear setup of levels with gradually ascending difficulty, allowing you the time to become comfortable with the mechanics while introducing new ones every now and then, like a rope dart that can be used to pull yourself towards enemies and walls. After passing a certain point in the story, however, the true scope of the game is revealed, and it suddenly becomes a Metroidvania. The original levels that you played through are shown as being part of a much larger map, and a new objective is handed to your ninja that gives you the freedom to go wherever you please. It’s remarkable how smoothly the game transitions into this back half; it could’ve very well ended at the point where things pivot, but the ‘Part II’ feels like a natural extension which builds on what came before in a notable way.
Part of this expanded gameplay includes a new time-jumping mechanic which helps to freshen up old levels while introducing cool concepts for new ones. The past and the future versions of levels are largely the same, but feature different designs in key places, and portals placed at strategic locations on the map allow you to move between these two versions at will. Maybe a room hiding an optional collectable can only be reached in the future, or perhaps special platforms needed to scale a cliff face only exist in the past and temporarily phase into the future. Whether being used for puzzle solving or ratcheting up the platforming difficulty another notch, this time hopping mechanic acts as a welcome inclusion, and keeps things interesting as you delve further into the gradually unfolding open world.
Aside from the standard new traversal abilities and weapons obtained through exploration, character progression is handled via buying nodes in a skill tree using the hundreds of Time Gems you pick up on your travels. It’s admittedly a bit disappointing that things like health and damage aren’t buffed by finding pickups in the overworld like a standard Metroidvania, but this is made up for by an ongoing sidequest involving you collecting a series of optional extra coins which open a special chest once you collect them all. Each coin is stashed away in challenge rooms which are themselves difficult enough to find, and the platforming challenges contained within are sure to test even the most hardened of genre veterans. Though it doesn’t appear to be so from the outset, this is quite a meaty game in terms of content; we’ve invested a little over twenty hours and still haven’t found everything.
Smoothly matching the stellar gameplay is the presentation, which manages to wow in both visual and sound design. To emphasize the difference between the past and future, the art style switches between 8-bit and 16-bit visuals, an innovative decision which goes a long way towards establishing some memorable imagery. There’s detail and care put into all the sprites and animation whether you’re playing in the past or the future, but it’s the late game areas where you can see that the developers really cut loose, with masterfully-crafted environments that are full to bursting with colour and spirit. Though the art style may not implement anything particularly original, it’s still a fantastic and loving recreation of the look of games in days gone by.
Similarly, the soundtrack does a wonderful job of setting the tone for the adventure. Featuring elements of rock & roll, funk, and even a little bit of EDM, the music is an absolute joy to listen to, evoking memories of the best works from industry luminaries like David Wise and Takashi Tateishi. To put it bluntly, The Messenger features one of the best-produced chiptune soundtracks that we’ve heard in a video game in quite some time, and given the volume of retro-inspired titles produced by the indie scene in recent years, that’s no small feat. The music is catchy, memorable, and has a certain rhythm to it that almost seems to be actively pushing you deeper into the challenging and beautiful levels; this is how you do a video game soundtrack right.
2D side-scrolling action games like The Messenger may be a dime a dozen these days, but you’d be missing out on something special by passing this one up. Featuring a surprisingly long campaign, an incredible soundtrack and tight, challenging level designs, The Messenger stands as a shining example of great game design. We’d highly recommend you pick this one up; it’s the very definition of a modern classic.