I bloody love a game with ninjas. Whether it’s Ryu Hayabusa in Nina Gaiden, Joe Musashi in Shinobi, the purple-suited ninja of Ninja: Shadow of Darkness (underrated PSOne classic), or even Grey Fox in Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions (and yes, cyborg ninjas do count), I just always appreciate playing as them.
Naturally then, The Messenger appealed to me from the get-go. An old-school adventure where you get to play as an acrobatic ninja who faces off against demons? Count me in. However, whilst I’d fancied the game from the moment I saw it, I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did. The Messenger doesn’t just stand out as one of the best games I’ve played on the Nintendo Switch this year, but it has also become one of my favourite games of 2018.
The Messenger puts you in the role of a ninja who doesn’t necessarily take the lifestyle too seriously, but finds himself having to take on more responsibility when demons attack his home. Fortunately, the ‘Hero from the West’ arrives and saves everyone from the brutal attack, though he also tasks the protagonist with the job of delivering an important scroll to the highest peak of the world. Thus you become the titular ‘Messenger’ and begin your adventure of battling countless monsters, scaling deadly heights, and using every trick up your sleeve to manoeuvre your way through endless hazards.
So The Messenger doesn’t take itself too seriously with humour at the forefront throughout, which actually felt a little unusual given the retro style and almost serious vibe that the gameplay lets off. However, once you start to learn more about each character’s personality and how they interact with one another, it’s hard not to find yourself completely absorbed into the comical little tale. It’s full of well-written jokes, plenty of fourth-wall breaking sequences, and endless comical scenes – there’s one scene in particular involving the Shopkeeper and his new hat that had me genuinely laughing out loud. There’s no doubting that the silly tone of The Messenger won’t be for everyone, but for me it made the whole thing feel all the more unique.
Gameplay-wise, The Messenger plays just like one of the classic 2D adventures of yesteryear. However, whilst there are plenty of enemies around you to kill, there’s more of a focus on actually making your way through levels as opposed to just defeating everyone around you. You’ve got plenty of abilities at your disposal including double-jumping, climbing, gliding, and the use of a grappling hook, though the hero is also able to double-jump multiple times as long as he hits an item, enemy or projectile first. This essentially allows you to jump your way through levels infinitely without hitting the ground… well… provided there’s something for you to hit to gain a constant momentum, that is.
Levels are built around the platforming, with plenty of hazards to avoid and tucked-in pathways that you have to reach. Some areas of the game will demand pinpoint accuracy with your manoeuvres to conquer (particularly when searching for one of the optional collectibles), so you’ll definitely find your skills pushed to the limit. Fortunately, the controls are easy enough to grasp and you’ll always feel in control – admittedly, I did struggle to get used to the constant double-jumping at times when trying to slice objects whilst gliding, but it’s something I got used to the more I played the game. In all though, the platforming is designed in such a way that it never stops being a hell of a lot of fun. You never stop moving and the momentum is always going in the way of the player, and it makes for an experience that’s just so satisfying and action-packed.
Of course, there are plenty of different enemies to take down that pose different threats upon the player, so it’s not just platforming. Some will just simply walk into you to hurt you, some will fire projectiles, whilst some will lunge towards you in the air – there’s a decent variety on offer and they’ll always go out of their way to try and take you down. Whilst their attacks can be deadly though, they won’t cause you too many problems when playing through the game – it usually only takes one hit to take them out, whilst the fact you can destroy their projectiles means that you rarely find yourself having to weave around their attacks to survive either. If anything, they act more as a means to get yourself through each level, which each foe making for the perfect platform to hit in order to pull off yet another double-jump.
Between beating up enemies and getting through levels through all of the hero’s athletic means, The Messenger is a heck of a lot of fun. However, there’s no denying that it’s a tricky game and that you’re going to die A LOT. Fortunately, you have a flying little creature called Quarble who’s willing to help you out when this happens, with him returning you to the last-visited checkpoint to put you right back into the action. Kind, right? Well, Quarble doesn’t work for free, and every time he revives you he’ll join you on your adventure briefly and take away any of the shards you find (more on that in a bit). Fortunately, he doesn’t stay around for too long and checkpoints are frequent enough that dying doesn’t become frustrating.
Those shards I just mentioned? They are what you’ll need in order to level up in the game, with The Messenger featuring a node-based system that allows you to improve the hero’s abilities and stats. Some of these are simple things such as having a bit more health or taking a little less damage, but there’re also things like improved attacks, faster swimming, or decreasing Quarble’s fee for recovering you. You’ll find shards by destroying objects in the environment or defeating enemies and it’s definitely worth collecting as many as you can as you work through the game.
I’d be remiss not to mention The Messenger’s boss battles, which both provide a fair challenge and also prove to be a lot of fun to tackle. They follow the old-school routine of having to figure out an enemy’s attack pattern and then striking whilst they’re vulnerable, but they’re all so enjoyable and creatively designed that you’ll never tire of them. Whether you’re facing against a pair of mumbling ogres, an over-compensating skeleton mage, or a huge dragon, you’re always guaranteed to have a good time taking on The Messenger’s beastly boss encounters.
The Messenger is fairly linear in its design, with each level typically having a fixed route to follow (as well as a few secret rooms) as you make your way to the peak of the mountain. However, there’s a twist that occurs halfway through that completely changes up the formula and makes you approach the game in a whole new way. Spoilers ahead…
Basically, at the half-way point you travel to a different time in the game: one where you’re no longer in an 8-bit world, but rather a 16-bit one. It’s here that you’ll re-visit previous areas of the game but in a Metroidvania fashion, with the player having to backtrack through whilst finding all-new pathways. How do you find these pathways, you ask? By travelling through time, with new portals found in the world that allow you to switch between the 16-bit and 8-bit iteration of each level. It’s an incredibly neat feature and one that extends The Messenger’s length by a fair bit – add to that the fact that the time-bending makes certain platforming sections a hell of a lot more fun, whilst the transition between periods looks fantastic and is seamless on a visual basis too.
The Messenger was a lot of fun when I was playing through the linear-styled levels, but re-visiting each environment and tackling them in a whole new way was just so cool. You’re equipped with a new map too which makes it easier to notice new pathways, whilst there’s a bigger emphasis placed on finding all of the world’s hidden collectibles too. Admittedly, some gamers might be slightly put off all of the backtracking and there’s no denying that the game is a little guilty of recycling some of its locations, but I personally found it satisfying and really enjoyed the new challenge that it added to the game.
Oh, and the change also improves The Messenger’s visuals too, with the 16-bit world bringing with it more detailed and attractive environments that show off some great pixel-art. Don’t get me wrong, the game’s original 8-bit style looks great too, but I’m a sucker for games from the SNES and Mega Drive era and it’s in the game’s latter stages that it really begins to look like one. The soundtrack is absolutely banging too, with the chiptune music fitting the vibe of the game perfectly.
The Messenger is a blast to play from start-to-end, with the platforming feeling slick and satisfying, the boss encounters challenging and fun, and the story genuinely funny and charming. Add to that the fact that it manages to completely change itself up at the halfway mark and you’ll find it hard not to appreciate what a fine job the team at Sabotage have done with the game.
It’s just a brilliant example of old-school 2D adventuring fun, plus you get to play as a ninja – what more could you want?! Buy The Messenger immediately, you won’t regret it.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Format(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC