Games like MegaMan & Ninja Gaiden were always some of my favorites growing up. They truly are benchmark titles. Almost anyone who has picked up a controller in their lifetime, has either played an entry in the series, or heard of them in one way or another. The ‘action-platformer’ genre has kept its place proudly in the ranks of the gaming world over the years. Many developers have utilized the gameplay formula to create their own projects, and there have been some great outcomes.
Sabotage Studio, a small independent game outfit located in Quebec City, proved that you don’t have to introduce some new, ‘never before seen’ crazy gameplay mechanics in order for a game to be fun. The Messenger; a fast paced, retro style Platformer/Metroidvania hybrid, did its job of pulling me down the nostalgia rabbit hole. Initially released on Steam in 2018, it was a more recent entry on Xbox GamePass PC, so I took full advantage of playing it for my first time. It delivered much more than I had anticipated. Within the first few minutes, the heavy influences of what were the driving force behind this side-scrolling adventure, showed their true colors. The visuals are a solid mix of 8 & 16-bit. The sound and music score are a nice little throwback to the early Sega and Nintendo era, clean and catchy. We meet our protagonist almost immediately; an unnamed ninja, whose village and home are swarmed by evil forces, led by the Demon King. The Western Hero, a character of legend that is briefly mentioned during the introduction, arrives and chooses the player as the individual to deliver a mysterious scroll to a group of sages far across the continent, which ends up only being the start of this adventure.
The stage designs were very well thought out. Each zone is filled with enough color and animation to really make it distinct from the next. Early areas such as the Autumn Hills are rich with trees and a night time sky in the distance with mountain ranges being illuminated from the moonlight, almost setting a more peaceful mood to the game. Other places weren’t as calming. Quillshroom Marsh for example; a dark, gloomy swamp, congested with overgrown vines and large mushrooms, just screams danger the moment you load into it. The Temple of Time meanwhile, presents itself as a gothic inspired labyrinth, filled with crystal and unique artwork throughout its corridors. Unlike some games from earlier eras , you really feel like you are exploring somewhere entirely new when transitioning to the next part. There are plenty of moving platforms, swinging razorblades and rectracting spike pits to keep you focused and constantly planning your route as you go. It’s just the right amount of action happening on the screen. Any more would make it feel congested and claustrophobic. The controls are very accessible, leaving precision and timing to be where the true challenge lies. The first hour of the game presents itself as fairly easy, with little to no difficulty navigating to the following zones. Your ‘Cloud Stepping’ ability, a necessary double jump technique that you learn at the start of the game, allows you reach higher platforms, which is a must in order to progress. You also learn numerous other techniques to aid you during your adventure. Climbing Claws will allow you to grip on to walls and scale them, where the Rope Dart is very much like the Hookshot in Zelda, and gives you the ability you to cross over to spots you could otherwise not reach. Some of these items are obtained simply through progress, where others will be needed to be purchased from a mysterious cloaked store owner.
The in-game currency, ‘Time Shards’ are small diamonds that can be gathered in each level. The mentioned store also serves as a save spot, which is a huge asset. You never lose much progress when you die, however, there’s a penalty that comes with it. A witty little red demon by the name of Quarble, appears early on and follows your character after death. He will resurrect you at the last save point, but nothing is free in this world. Any collected Time Shards will go to him until your ‘debt’ has been paid off. Some of the corny one liners he drops made me laugh, as well as the majority of the games dialogue with other NPC’s.
One of my only pet peeves with earlier games such as Ninja Gaiden, were that I found response time to be clunky or a bit slow, which is crucial to a game that heavily relies on timing. Fast forward 20+ years, and this is certainly not the case with The Messenger. Everything feels extremely fluent and smooth. The combat is fairly basic with most enemies that you run into, only taking a hit or two to eliminate them. The real ‘catch’ however, is that the majority of the enemies are tossing projectiles towards you almost every encounter. From fireballs to thorns and magic orbs, you have to be on your toes and paying attention at all times. Though this may seem tricky at times, the majority of the enemy patterns are easy to learn with a little trial & error.
The boss encounters are where The Messenger really shines. Like any game, I absolutely love being put up against an oversized, challenging, and intimidating showdown at the end of a level. Each battle forces you to utilize whatever abilities or tools you have up to that point. While the first few encounters were fairly easy and quick to figure out, the difficulty did begin to ramp up later on. The mechanics felt fresh each time, and took me several attempts before I could properly execute what needed to be done. There is a surprising amount of content packed into this game, and it caught me off guard to be honest. What started out as a fairly linear and cliché story, quickly branched out into an impressive ‘Metroidvania’ style world, with numerous areas to explore. Like most games within the genre, there was a fair bit of backtracking through the stages later on, but not enough to make me put the controller down. Retro fans and newcomers alike will have an absolute blast with this one.
With a fresh take on a familiar formula, The Messenger deserves to be sitting along side genre titans like Axiom Verge and Bloodstained. While never taking itself too seriously, the story delivered a perfect mix of heroism and humor along the way. It will challenge you, but it’s rewarding. I don’t think its something I could go back to play through again, as I felt I achieved everything I needed to the first time around. It’s fun. That’s what video games are supposed to be, right?