Back in February 2001, I went down the local pub with some friends to watch my football team, Saints, play in the fifth round of the FA Cup. We were away to Tranmere Rovers, a team struggling in the division below us, in what should have been a relatively comfortable game, although as a Saints fan you never took away games for granted back then. Nowadays, you don’t take the home games for granted either, but that’s a different story.
At half-time, we were three nil up and cruising thanks to goals from Hassan Kachloul, Jo Tessam, and the late great Dean Richards. With James Beattie and Marian Pahars up front the only thing likely to happen in the second half was more Saints goals.
We lost 4-3.
I’m reliving this painful memory that you almost certainly don’t care about because, like football, The Messenger is a game of two halves, one high, one low. How’s that for a segue? Look, I couldn’t think of a better introduction. I’m sorry.
Okay, so The Messenger’s two halves aren’t as extreme as the events of that fateful night. The Messenger’s first half is excellent, but its second half is merely mediocre, not the stuff of nightmares.
You play as the titular messenger, a ninja who is still early in his training when the devil attacks his village and threatens to destroy the world. He’s given a scroll and assigned the task of delivering it to three sages, hence the label of the messenger. The story is decent enough, but the writing ended up being a little insufferable. There are more fourth wall breaks than an extended cut of Deadpool and it gets a bit much. Mind you, I often skip the story in games like this and I was never tempted to do that here. It becomes a little exposition heavy near the end though.
The Messenger invites unavoidable comparisons to Ninja Gaiden. It’s hard to think of anything else when you first play it. For starters, there’s the protagonist, a ninja who attacks with horizontal slashes of his sword, throws projectiles, and breaks lanterns for loot. Environments also look similar although, to be clear, everything looks a hell of a lot brighter and sharper in The Messenger. It’s an 8-bit style, not actually 8-bit. The soundtrack is pure eighties nostalgia, although once again, I feel it’s beyond what was actually possible on those old systems. It’s like a remastered version of an old soundtrack. There’re some lovely touches like a muffled effect when you swim underwater.
If you’ll excuse the cliche, The Messenger looks and sounds how my nostalgia addled brain remembers games like Ninja Gaiden, not how those games actually were. Ninja Gaiden still holds up relatively well, however similar games were littered with cheap deaths, blind jumps, and excessive knockback such that you risked falling to your death every time you hit an enemy. The Messenger doesn’t mess about with gotcha deaths and even though there is knockback, you can buy an upgrade early on that lets you cancel out of it. It’s like the developer, Sabotage, wanted to acknowledge knockback as a design concept from those old games but didn’t like playing with it on all that much either.
To give The Messenger credit, it quickly distinguishes itself from Ninja Gaiden thanks to the cloudstepping mechanic. Cloudstepping lets you jump a second time after hitting something with your sword, be it a lantern, an enemy, or even a projectile. It’s easy to pick up and lets you fly through sections quickly if you want to, which is especially useful if you’ve died and just want to get back to where you left off. The main story rarely requires you to do anything especially tricky with the cloudstepping, however if you want to grab all 45 collectibles or pick up extra shards, you’ll need to master cloudstepping off of enemy projectiles and learn to maximize the height gained from each one.
You’re quickly given new moves such as the ability to climb walls, glide to slow your descent, and hookshot your way across gaps or onto walls. You can upgrade some of these abilities by spending shards at shops dotted around the levels. Both the new abilities and the purchasable upgrades are all acquired early on in your playthrough. By the time you hit that mid-point twist—that I’m still avoiding discussing—you’ll likely be fully kitted out with nothing to work towards for the rest of the game.
When you combine all your abilities, you can enter a glorious flow state where you bomb through screens without touching the floor, jumping off enemy projectiles, hooking onto walls, and gliding across gaps. Mastery of the mechanics is not necessary for success, but it’s rewarding, letting you traverse areas in a quicker and more enjoyable manner.
You also have a projectile attack, however I rarely used it. Early on, it’s essentially useless for a couple of reasons. First, the only enemy you’ll want to take out from afar is the orange demon that spits two fireballs. You only have three projectiles to start and because the demon is constantly shooting at you, you’ll typically need two projectiles to destroy his fireballs and then the final one to kill him, assuming he doesn’t fire another projectile in the meantime.
Second, enemies respawn the instant the screen moves away from their designated respawn point. This makes complete sense if you move onto another screen and then come back however it looks a bit silly if you just happen to jump and then come back down to see enemies respawning. This means that taking enemies out from afar is often pointless because depending on how you move through that section there’s a good chance the enemies will respawn. The original Ninja Gaiden games were like this, by the way, so it’s obvious what the developers were going for, I just don’t think the respawning needed to be this extreme. Projectiles become more useful later on when you have more at your disposal, however I’d already gotten used to not using them and had to constantly remind myself they were available.
Overall, The Messenger is not especially challenging. It rarely requires the precision of, say, Celeste, but it also doesn’t have as many checkpoints. Whereas Celeste saved your progress after every screen, The Messenger makes you go through roughly four or five screens between save points. In other words, the skill ceiling is lower, but you need to keep that skill up for longer to make any progression. There are one or two places where the checkpoints were a little too far apart for my liking however overall I rarely got frustrated.
When those moments of frustration did arrive, they were usually the result of my own lack of skill and seeming inability to master the mechanics in the same way I did with Celeste. When I passed a screen in Celeste, I felt like I’d improved as a player. I knew that if I were to go back and do that screen again, I would probably get through it. The more I completed certain tricky jumps the more confident I became. That never quite happened with The Messenger.
While not frequent, when The Messenger does expect perfection, or close to it, I never felt comfortable with my movements. For example, if I had to slash a lantern as high up as possible to get maximum height on the second jump, I would do it perfectly one time and disastrously the second. I never developed an intuition for when my slash would connect with the top of the lantern’s hitbox and when it would miss. Likewise, even on a second playthrough, I was never confident executing the downward slash while gliding and would often try to slash before I could get my character into the glide position and would mess it up entirely.
Fortunately, The Messenger’s death penalty is not too severe. In fact, you never technically die. It may look a lot like you’ve died but a little guy called Quarble always saves you just in time. For his services, he demands payment in shards which he gobbles up as you progress until you’ve repaid your debt. He’s pretty adorable. Quarble keeps a ledger of what you owe and can be seen marking it off when complete. He also runs away whenever you encounter a boss.
I don’t entirely blame him either, because the bosses can look intimidating. Most of them end up being fairly easy once you’ve learned the patterns, but that doesn’t stop the fights from being interesting. I didn’t even care if I did die to a boss because I constantly discovered new strategies to get through the earlier phases quicker. These aren’t high-level strategies by any stretch, but it means those skillful enough can speed through boss fights with little delay.
While bosses are varied and interesting, the same can’t be said for the limited collection of enemies scattered throughout the levels. You largely fight the same enemies at the end as you do at the start and they never change form or attack patterns. I soon got sick of the sight of the stationary orange enemies who shoot two fireballs before taking a short pause during which you can kill them with one swipe. Once you get the ability to destroy their fireballs, they pose little threat at all. Likewise, there are the roaming green enemies that take three hits to go down but don’t bother to attack. You have to walk into them to be hit. This is one of the few enemy types that takes more than one hit to kill. Others shoot the odd projectile or bounce around the screen, but because they only require one hit, there’s a limit to how challenging they can be.
Alright, I can’t avoid talking about the twist any longer. It’s a twist that affects both the story and gameplay. At around the halfway point, you time travel into the future. The Messenger changes from an 8-bit action platformer in the mold of Ninja Gaiden to a 16-bit exploration platformer that has more in common with the latter stages of a Metroidvania. You have to revisit all the completed levels to find areas you weren’t previously able to access, with the new gameplay twist being the ability to move between the future and the past by activating certain portals. The landscape changes slightly depending on the time period so areas that weren’t accessible in the past might be open in the future and vice versa.
It’s a cool concept and I don’t take issue with a bit of backtracking. The problem is an issue of execution. First of all, it’s never entirely clear where you need to go or what you need to do. You’re given a clue each time but I found them fairly vague. Mostly it just involves going to parts of the map that you haven’t been to before. Occasionally you need to manipulate events across timezones although this feels like an afterthought that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. If all the puzzles involved playing with time like this, The Messenger’s second half would have been a lot more memorable. Instead, you just wander around levels you’ve already been to until you stumble upon new paths.
Navigating between levels isn’t as easy as it should be either. You’re given six warp zones but there are more than six levels, creating more backtracking than should be necessary. Why not just let us travel to all the levels? I don’t want to be in a situation where I know where I need to go, but I’m unsure of the quickest way to get there.
There’s some initial novelty in going back to old levels in the future, with revamped visuals and even a new soundtrack, however the change in time zones is the only major change to the level structure. A good Metroidvania has you backtracking with a whole new skill set. You can finally blow up that wall with a new bomb type or jump up to that ledge with a double jump ability. All you do in The Messenger is flick between past and future. The levels change but you don’t play a very active role in changing them.
Once you have found a new area or a new boss, then The Messenger is back to being the excellent platformer it was in the first half. The good parts are spaced out in the second half, but they are still there.
The Messenger has a unique spin that sets it apart from other games and yet, ironically, it lacks an identity of its own. As a modern Ninja Gaiden game it’s excellent, but it only maintains that for half the game. The other half is a faint-hearted attempted at a Metroidvania that never quite works. I thoroughly enjoyed eight to nine hours of my twelve-hour playthrough. The other three or four were a little more tedious than I would have liked but that shouldn’t entirely negate a brilliant platformer with plenty to offer even in a year that’s been chock full of throwback retro platformers.