Walking away from The Messenger, I am left genuinely and thoroughly shaken. Not in an uncomfortable way, in a way that leaves me chomping at the bit to spend more time with this game. No demo before has left me with my head in my hands completely blown away in every way by its execution, but The Messenger fired on quite literally all cylinders.
Much of these components are things I’m really hesitant to tell you, because they are parts of the game that slowly unravel as you play more and more of it, but my expectation was of a game that switches between 8-bit and 16-bit visuals and mechanics, but what it does beyond that is something that harkens back to games that tore apart expectations on Xbox Live Arcade like Fez. It’s something that evolves in genre as you peel back the layers in front of you. It’s not just a thing that goes from an 8-bit game to 16-bit, it goes from a platformer to an entirely different kind of 2D game. I don’t want to skew your expectations into thinking it has a hidden language or anything like that, but the way in which it surprises you and defies your expectations is what really shook me.
The demo that I got to play, before Thierry Boulanger, the game’s creative director, took over and showed me what more the game had in store, was the first level of what you’d expect when just seeing the title for the first time. It was an action platformer that was very reminiscent of a Ninja Gaiden. I’d say it even more closely resembles a Strider in it’s look and feel. It’s jumping and slashing, and I’ll say this: it feels really good. While there is no double-jump, if you successfully slash something when jumping, it gives you a window to jump again from there, and this simple mechanic is one of those things like the shovel in Shovel Knight that goes a long way to making the game uniquely charming in its play.
And Shovel Knight is the game I’d most heavily compare this too. While I don’t want to be reductive and say The Messenger is just another Shovel Knight-like game, which is itself a high compliment, I think the comparison comes with how well The Messenger plays. It plays as well as you remember older games playing, and while it’s not a true NES, two-button game, it’s still harkening to that kind of experience, and doing it well, with nigh-invisible modern philosophies on top to make the experience far more enjoyable for any modern player.
One of those innovations is the death mechanic. Upon death you are resurrected by a small demon who will jokingly inform you that, as he is the reason you’re not dead, he’ll be taking all the coins you earn from that point on until he is satisfied, or until he gets bored. The amount he takes is, I believe, dependent on how many times you die with him around, but it’s a solid punishment, as those coins are used to upgrade your character at the shop you can jump to from certain spots in every level. The shop itself is also built around a small skill tree you wouldn’t expect from an action-platformer like this, and it gifted me one of the major upgrades I got to see in the game, climbing gloves, which let me grip onto walls and re-jump up from any spot along them.
This all encompassed the first level I saw, which is the first of ten “standard, 8-bit levels” in the game, and from there Thierry took the reins to show me where the game goes. I’m hesitant to even say here, but much of that, outside of the genre-bending surprises in the far, far later game, circulated around really excellent upgrades you get like a gliding wing-suit and a hookshot, all of which continued to change traversal drastically and make every platforming challenge that more interesting.
While I think the genre-bending that The Messenger gets into is very specific to me and my tastes and is absolutely why it shook me up so much, I think this game is really something special. When asking Thierry how he felt about revealing so much of the game’s surprises to press at events like this, he said he wanted to release it into the wild with less fanfare, but knows that it likely wouldn’t be as successful if he did. That’s why in that announcement trailer you see the bending from 8-bit to 16-bit, even though that’s something that comes hours into the game, after you’re already familiar with the mechanics and can handle its traversal.
I was told this game would likely release in late summer, and I implore everyone: please give this game a look when it releases. It genuinely spoke to me and I think it’s something special and something worth seeing. Try to learn as little about the game as you can from here out, and strap in for a ride, because The Messenger surprised and delighted me in ways that I can barely convey with words.