It’s not too often that you get to experience a revolutionary game for the first time. It’s a combination of fun, wonderment, and pure joy. It’s the reason why I love video games. When I picked up The Messenger I could tell it was going to be something special, but I had no idea what was in store. This game has set a new standard for indies.
Sabatoge Studio’s The Messenger starts out as a 2D action platformer. Then about halfway through the game it becomes a time-traveling metroidvania. The game follows around The Messenger who is tasked with delivering a scroll to three sages on the top of a mountain after his village was attacked by the Demon King and his army.
Cloudstepping to the top
My favorite aspect of The Messenger is the insanely free feeling you get moving around the world. Even if you suck at the game you can feel like a master.
Some of the most complex-looking moves are a breeze to pull off. Most movements are single button presses. Only the gliding attack requires you to press more than one button at a time. Besides that, you have one of the most stylish movement arsenals at your disposal. The movement is incredible even when you can only cloudstep to begin.
Cloudstepping is the glue that connects all movement together. Without it some of the more complex stage navigation wouldn’t be possible. The basic idea is that you get an extra jump by landing a midair attack on a target. This jump is stored but can’t stack with multiple midair attacks. This balances the extra jump so people can’t store an absurd number of jumps. There’s something that feels so right about cloudstepping. It instantly feels natural to press the jump button after landing a hit.
From there your wingsuit, ninja spike, and ninja claws help to piece together the rest of your movement options. A basic chain of events would be like this: First you land an attack while gliding, cloudstep to get higher, then throw out your ninja spike into a wall and grab it with the ninja claws. From there you can scale the wall with one of the easiest wall jumping moves I’ve ever done in a metroidvania. It looks so cool and stylish while being incredibly simple. It truly gives you the feeling of being a badass ninja.
Besides having a ridiculous movement arsenal at your disposal, the controls are buttery smooth. A testament to how well the controls work is that I was able to play a game with no issues on my 4K TV. The input lag is laughable thanks to the upscaling on the tv, but even then it managed to work and feel good. The Messenger controls well on a television, and even better in handheld. The only limitations I ever felt were because of my own shortcomings — and the half a second lag on my TV.
Lets Take a Trip through Time
If having awesome ninja tools isn’t cool enough they added in time traveling. This mechanic doesn’t come in until part way through The Messenger’s story. The entire game starts out with an 8-bit aesthetic. At that point the game plays like your typical 2D action platformer. Once you reach a certain point time travel becomes possible and the game aesthetic completely changes to 16-bit. You can still experience the previous style by traveling back in time.
I don’t know if Sabatoge Studio is trying to say 16-bit is the future and 8-bit is the past, but that’s how it is in The Messenger. Besides the obvious aesthetic changes, the gameplay also makes a sharp left turn. Suddenly you can use time portals and gates to open previously blocked areas. That’s right, this little action platformer just became a metroidvania. The amount of backtracking is enough to make it fit within the infamous genre, but not so much to the point of exhaustion. The other aspect is that the time travel mechanic gives you a reason to explore every corner again to find secrets and appreciate the hard work put in by the dev team essentially creating two games.
You Want to Hear a Story?
One of the biggest comparisons you’ll see to The Messenger is Shovel Knight. Besides the 8-bit style used in both games, The Messenger’s humor is also a bit goofy.
The biggest source of comic relief in this game is the Shopkeeper. When you enter his shop, a few things catch your eye, but there’s nothing quite like the cabinet. The Shopkeeper will keep insisting that there’s nothing for you in there. If you keep pushing he’ll tell you a long story and disable your ability to skip. He also has multiple jokes that break the fourth wall. I don’t usually care much for that, but something about the delivery is incredibly endearing.
Many bosses in The Messenger also serve as comic relief. There are a few sight gags and bits of physical humor that are delivered fantastically, but the writing is also wonderful. The interplay between the boss Ruxxtin and his sentient magic staff are some of the more entertaining exchanges in the game. The troll meathead duo of Colos and Suses gives us one of the most entertaining gags in The Messenger. After defeating the two it’s revealed that they’re waiting to eat until the power thistle the planted is fully grown. Later in the game when you return after traveling forward in time let’s just say that Colos and Suses aren’t all there — not that they ever were.
The story in The Messenger is well written and the accompanying lore is surprisingly deep. Much of the lore is revealed in the later portions of the game. This leaves the front end of the game focusing more on the story and building up who the messenger, shopkeeper, and bosses are. Once you reach the point in the game where you can start time traveling the lore truly begins to deepen. You eventually become the shopkeeper at one point and help the next Messenger on his quest.
A for Aesthetics
Everything about this game is beautiful. The pixel art is masterfully crafted and Rainbowdragoneyes’ soundtrack is killer.
I’m going to have random tracks from The Messenger stuck in my head for months. I can’t complain though because they all sound fantastic. The just wish they had a sound test mode so I could listen to the tracks and fully appreciate them.
The art in this game is the first thing that you see and it’s what left a lasting impression on me. When I saw this game on the Nindie Direct I knew I had to play it. It’s one thing to be ambitious enough to create two versions of all your game assets to make a more enjoyable gameplay experience. It’s another to make it look good. The Messenger is one of the best-looking looking games to come out this year. I was a bit worried that the devs would take short cuts and skimp on some models because it’s a ton of work. I was pleased to see each sprite looked just as wonderful as the next.
System reviewed on: Nintendo Switch.
Disclaimer: A review code for The Messenger was provided by Tinsley-PR.