For full disclosure, the PR representative of this title is a personal friend of the reviewer.
The Messenger is something that is beyond unique, even in video games. I’d go so far to say especially in video games. It takes on the appearance of a very Ninja Gaiden-esque action platformer, but even early on you get the grasp that there is much more to the picture here. To say too much about just how far that goes would be to ruin the experience for you. So I say with confidence here, at the top of the review, that if anything I just said has grabbed your interest—if 2D action platformers are your thing; if jumping, slashing, slaying demons, and unraveling an amazing and surprisingly deep narrative are at all your thing—stop reading, close your browser, go play The Messenger. To continue reading is to enter in a contract with me that you are okay with me feeding you just a bit more about what The Messenger is all about so you can understand the true effect it had on me. If you’re okay with that, let’s talk about this incredibly special game.
On surface level you are in the role of utmost importance to this world: a hero from the west has come and handed you scroll, a message, and entrusted you in its safe voyage to the peak of the tallest mountain, as the Demon Horde has returned from legend to destroy the world. Somehow your journey to deliver this scroll will abate this attack, and off you go, on your adventure.
I’d say just looking at The Messenger gives you a sense of familiarity, classic-platformer style. It harkens back to the NES platformers of yore in some of the best and most loving ways, much like 2014’s Shovel Knight did.I think the commitment to having wider control options, committing to being more than just a two button game and all, elevates it into more modern design. That coupled with a much broader visual palette puts The Messenger above something like Shovel Knight as the only comparison. It’s a 2D action platformer, and with that as its core, it delivers a wholly new feeling that I haven’t gotten from “traditional indie pixel art games”. While it relies on a short list of easy to understand mechanics, it meshes them together in a way that puts it above its contemporaries.
The game focuses on a unique mechanic called the Cloud Step, which allows you to jump again after successfully hitting something with your sword in mid-air. While you get more and more equipment to add to your ninja repertoire, the Cloud Step is at the heart of all these mechanics. It synthesizes with those later upgrades to make traversal and platforming feel incredible. Truly no other platformer of recent years has led me to feel so empowered when running and jumping through these intricately designed areas. Some optional challenge rooms built around extra collectibles put the cloud step mechanic to work, and while many of them have you failing to complete them for several attempts, when you finally execute on these intricate rooms, you’re gliding through moments of air-time that feel simply astounding. All of The Messenger’s successes are built on this simple but brilliant base mechanic.
And the level design is varied in a way that by the end of it, I simply couldn’t believe all I’d seen. Just on surface level, the twists and turns and usages of the different tools you’re given are all brilliant. When levels are designed around you implementing all of your ninja tools, you’re moving through them at a breakneck pace that has you barely hitting the ground, and simply grinning from ear to ear because of how amazing the traversal feels.
I’d say the weirdest takeaway I have from my time with The Messenger is just how deeply I adored almost every character in it. In particular, in a long line of excellent video game shopkeepers, the one introduced here is absolutely no slouch, and easily one of my favorites. Much of my extra time not spent jumping and slashing was spent listening to The Shopkeeper, checking in with him every level to hear a different story he had to tell, which ranges from satirical, complicated jokes, to deep and introspective trips down the writing team’s more personal beliefs. Either way, I was always pleased any time I got to initiate dialogue with him. That stretches to the more ancillary characters of The Messenger as well, all of which felt well written and imaginative. It’s hard to pinpoint any weak spot in the ensemble here, and it helps go along with the mechanics to make every moment here memorable.
The big elephant in the room is of course the change in art style, which if you’ve seen anything on The Messenger, you know at some point it transitions from an 8-bit game to a 16-bit one. There is a very elaborate narrative reason for it which leads into the late-game portion of The Messenger, where the entire genre of the game changes and you end up exploring the world openly instead of level by level. I don’t want to say too much as to how everything happens, but it’s done incredibly well. Even though you’re revisiting older areas through much of the late game, this backtracking is livened up by new shifts across the world that have you jumping through the two art styles. Between each style you see different versions of each level, and all this comes with changes in level design, new secret areas, and more challenge rooms to find. Gameplay stays the same between all the art changes, allowing for continuous leaps between graphical eras that have you literally jumping from NES to SNES visuals an continuing traversal back and forth at that same, breakneck pace.
While on the topic, I’d be remiss not to mention how excellent the music in The Messenger is across the board. What’s even cooler is that each song in each area is made in an 8-bit chipset style and a 16-bit chipset style, and when you switch between the two art styles it will dynamically switch between music tracks mid-track, meaning the beat continues on but everything changes stylistically. It’s a small touch that goes a long way, complemented by the already amazing soundtrack.
I have few bad things to say here if at all. One thing that slows things down is the simply the amount of backtracking at the end. While it feels well guided and you’re taken to your next destination or story beat well, there is simply a great deal of moving back and forth between revisited locales, and it moves at a slower clip than the rest of the game. Another unfortunate side effect is the load times can be a bit lengthy for switching between levels like you constantly are; this, coupled with the drastic decrease in dialogue from characters in this same back third takes a bit away from those peaks I hit frequently through my initial journey, talking to the Shopkeeper or meeting new NPCs. All of these things come into effect around the back third or so of the game, and while in the grand scheme of things they’re minor issues, they do hurt the pacing of The Messenger’s final act.
The Messenger is something truly magical. It’s a game that legitimately evolves as you play it, changing and expanding before you, constantly introducing new bits of writing, mechanics, and music that both blew my mind and put a massive grin of my face from front to back. It’s simply special. There aren’t a lot of games out there quite like this, quite as jolly or as uplifting as this. Certainly there aren’t many games that just feel as good as this. Jumping, slashing, and switching between eras in The Messenger feels incredible, front to back, tip to toe, and on top of that it makes you laugh with its writing, jump for joy in its most badass moments, and find some introspection in its characters. It’s a tour de force for what a 2D platformer can be, and absolutely everyone should play it.
This game was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch system with a review code provided by a PR representative of the title.