If you read nothing more than this introductory sentence, I have to say this, Sabotage Studio’s inaugural release, The Messenger, is an absolutely fabulous game in my opinion and I cannot recommend it enough for those who enjoy retro modern games, especially platformers.
Back on June 26, 2014, Shovel Knight was released to the world and released upon the general populace an era of retro inspired independent development releases which following in a similar visual and audio direction. While I would personally attribute my personal affinity for modern retro visuals to a game released a decade earlier in Cave Story, you cannot deny the impact that Shovel Knight had and continues to have on the modern indie scene. Shovel Knight took the aspects of retro games we liked from those classic games like the pogo from Ducktales, structure and feel of Mega Man, and even nods to Super Mario Bros 3 in its map, but then went above and beyond the capabilities of the original hardware on which these games were released. It basically took our collective nostalgia and manifested it, not as it was, but as we remember it.
While Shovel Knight was a chimera of different aspects from retro gaming, Sabotage Studio’s developer debut, The Messenger, is clearly inspired and largely influenced by Ninja Gaiden. While this is clearly their attempt at taking the concept and making it with modern capabilities and sensibilities, it is also very clearly NOT just a Ninja Gaiden remake or remaster. As someone who was not a fan of the Ninja Gaiden games as I just did not grow up with them, I came into this game on its own merits rather than any sort of legacy it was attempting to live up to. While I do not feel that coming into this game with that mentality would be a detriment to the experience, I feel that it is something that concerns a number of potential buyers as the comparison invokes feelings of extreme difficulty and unforgiving checkpoints. Let me be clear up front, it is not like Ninja Gaiden in that respect. The Messenger has more a more modern mentality in regards to checkpoints (which all double as save points automatically) and they are generally well distributed and are quite often before a significant challenge that the developers expect might give players problems. So, there’s a clear inspiration, but the developers were not so beholden to the original premise that they were not willing and able to make some modern day quality of life improvements to the formula.
The nature of The Messenger really does make reviewing it spoiler free while still truly doing it justice very difficult. While I wish to keep the bulk of the review largely spoiler free, I will be addressing certain aspects of each of the following points in a spoiler laden post-review musing section. However, if you want to stay away from those spoilers, it will be heavily warned beforehand, so just be sure to stop when you get there.
The story of The Messenger starts in an appropriately verbose and yet basic for the inspirations of the game. It gives an overall historical context for the game in retro cutscenes, much the same as Shovel Knight before dropping you into the game which then has some dialogue more specific to the main character.
The story goes that a solitary island is all that remains of the world after a great catastrophe resulted in the flooding of all but this one piece of land. Upon this island, a small contingent of humanity remains, isolated in a single village at the far western edge. It is here that they train and prepare to defend their home from the world outside, specifically from the Demon King who is prophesied to return and destroy what is left of humanity. We are then introduced to our unnamed protagonist. Despite being nameless, the protagonist quickly displays a remarkable amount of personality given the retro-inspired nature of the game. He is bored, lazy, frequently late, and wants to leave this village...the only place him or any of his people have ever known.
After a short tutorial by fire, we are introduced to the village elder and the protagonist’s master. After receiving a short comment about being glad that the protagonist could join them, the master explains to the impatient young protagonist that they must train for one day, the Demon King will return and they must defend the last bastion of humanity until such a time as the “Western Hero” arrives to defeat the Demon King and save humanity. Such is foretold by the prophecy left behind by their ancestors.
Just then, fire and brimstone begin raining down upon the village. The Demon King has come as foretold and now lays waste to the village. Impatient and reckless as ever, the protagonist leaps headlong into the fray with the Demon King who feeling that the whelp is not worth the effort, so he summons forth one of his lesser demons to deal with the nuisance. Then a sound comes from the west and over the great ocean soars a great phoenix. Riding that phoenix is a hero, who swoops in and fires a salvo of arrows into the demons and pushes them back. The protagonist quickly assumes that this person is the “Western Hero” foretold of in the prophecies. The hero goes along with this assumption though does not reference themselves as such. Instead, they take a scroll which they had in their possession and hand it to the protagonist and urge them to take the scroll and journey east until they reach the highest mountain. They must do this in order to ensure the survival of humanity and the ultimate defeat of the Demon King.
The protagonist takes the scroll, and in doing so, becomes “The Messenger”.
The story continues to unfold slowly over the course of the game, though I will not go any farther as I feel that if you have managed to avoid trailers or any further talk about the game, The Messenger will be a good game to go into with as little regarding the story as possible. The plot is more interesting and diverse than the aesthetic or initial plot would lead you to believe and some of the turns the narrative takes would have been so much more interesting had I not known certain aspects of it due to trailers and pre-release coverage. That said, even with my fairly extensive pre-release knowledge, this game still managed to throw me some narrative curveballs that, while I picked up on the hints relatively early on, the exact details were always just out of reach and really did not come together until the climax, but boy was it worth it.
To borrow a song title from Kingdom Hearts, the visuals of The Messenger are “simple & clean”. They properly evoke the feelings of retro NES-style graphics, but the speed and fidelity at which these graphics are presented is far and above what was possible on the old NES hardware. Nary a flicker or framerate drop (a note about this in the gameplay section) in sight. The visuals are presented well and minimalistically and it works extremely well.
Where many older games were working with an extremely limiting resolution, this resulted in many times games where the sprites had to be necessarily large in the field of view in order to convey properly what was on screen. This resulted in a significant issue in regards to visibility and knowing what’s ahead of you resulting in cheap deaths either due to surprise enemy attacks or blind jumps. The Messenger’s solution to this is twofold: increased resolution of modern gaming naturally allows for greater fidelity at smaller sizes, but they also stick with the Mega Man and Shovel Knight method of breaking the stages into individualized chunks for a given challenge, some of these down to a single, unscrolling screen.
The stages themselves are surprisingly distinct given the lack of palette options or use of more advanced graphical techniques like foregrounds or layered parallax scrolling. Each area has a relatively unique feel and palette. Though most of the demon enemies are reused throughout much of the game, most areas have one or more unique enemies that are themed to the area. Areas range from the scarlet sunset Ninja Village to the glittering greens of Howling Grotto to the chilling blues of Glacial Peak to name a few. Each provides unique visual flourishes, but one particular item that is a constant across all stages is the lamps found throughout a level. The lamps or torches are core to the experience of the game, but it’s nice that each area has their own unique take on them that is both unique and themed to the area while remaining quickly recognizable for what they are.
The sprites are smoothly animated given the 8-bit aesthetic and surprisingly detailed given the limited palette used. The Messenger is appropriately swift and nimble, the monsters suitably lumbering and horrendous, and a number of NPCs are just the right mix of mysterious and/or humorous for a given scenario. Sprite styles range from the simple and elegant styles of the ninja and shopkeeper to the large and more complex bosses later in the game, all without feeling as if one or the other is completely out of place.
The Messenger excels in visual presentation and, without spoiling anything, I can say that those visuals only improve as the game continues.
In some pre-release reviews and reviews since release, a common thought I have seen is that the soundtrack for The Messenger is kind of weak. While I am certainly far from a music major or professional composer, I do have a bit of an ear for music, especially chiptunes. While music is inherently a rather subjective thing to consider and much of it falls to tastes, what I hear in The Messenger is nothing that is what I would consider technically wrong. That is to say that I do not hear anything that is poorly produced or faulty in its nature, though it may not necessarily appear to every ear.
I would say a large part of that falls to the fact that while the 8-bit music is relatively NES inspired, there are constraints on the early music due to some things that happen later in the game. While all the music is wonderful exactly as it is and I loved a number of the tracks from the first time I heard them, the tracks only improve as the game continues.
As a testament to the music, even as I was playing it in handheld mode in the bed, my wife was next to me and I noticed her moving to the music. My wife has no history with gaming and any appeal the music has is completely nostalgia free. She was really enjoying listening to the soundtrack as I was playing it there beside her though.
As far as sound effects go, they are all appropriately swift, light, and, in the case of monsters, anguished. The effects fit while not necessarily taking the forefront as can be the case with things like Mario or Sonic’s iconic jump sounds. It all comes together with the soundtrack to form a harmonious whole.
The gameplay of The Messenger starts deceptively simple. You can run left or right, jump, and slash with your sword. Pretty much immediately though you are introduced to the main gameplay hook of the game: the cloud jump.
In simplest terms, the cloud jump is a double jump...with a catch. While the execution of the jump itself is exactly like your standard double jump, you have to earn that cloud jump first. That is done by striking an object with your sword while in the air. This is where the lamps and torches I mentioned earlier come in as they are used as both a source of currency and occasionally health or ammo, but also as a main means of locomotion through the levels. While at first it’s simply a stand-in for double jumping without allowing for the game breaking freedom a true double jump can afford, it quickly turns into a means of breaking open the game anyhow, but in a means entirely intended by the game developers.
As you continue, you gain other abilities as well which expand your capabilities and the potential movement tech you can perform. Some of these are a product of the skill tree system which the game uses where you can spend your in-game currency on to expand your abilities as you see fit. Maybe you focus on health, defense, or maybe offense...it is your choice. This tree is limited slightly at the start, but a few more options open up later in the game, so if you somehow happen to grind out the currency for all the upgrades before then, don’t worry as you’ll still have things to spend on later on.
Another way in which you gain new abilities is via scripted instances of receiving new ninja gear. These upgrades are generally more extensive than the skill tree abilities as they are required for game progression, but there are a skill or two that augment these scripted abilities and I considered them essential to my playthrough. The first such upgrade you receive shortly into the first real stage and it allows you to climb walls Ninja Gaiden style. It should be no surprise that this is given to the player early on and many players will probably wonder why you do not simply start with the ability. The answer lies in the cloud jump ability. By holding off on receiving the expected ability, it allows the developer to train the player to use the cloud step in lieu of simply climbing walls and gives the player a chance to get comfortable with a new concept rather than allowing them to fall into a safe, comfortable method. I find this very clever and smart of the developers.
Another clever twist on the genre is the removal of the traditional lives and continues system. Yes, this has already been done by most games these days, including Super Mario Odyssey, but each has their own twist on how they handle it and I frankly think The Messenger has done it pretty well. Where Dark Souls, Hollow Knight, and Shovel Knight use a similar system of retracing your steps to get back your goods or die trying and Super Mario Odyssey charged you a minimal fee for dying, The Messenger takes a slightly different approach. When you die, instead of losing some or all of what you have on you, you lose nothing when you die. However, the first time you die, you are introduced to the mechanic that rather than losing your stuff, you are going to have your “wages” going forward garnished until your debt has been paid. This debt is also wiped out every time you die, so you cannot lose everything you have, nor can you be stuck without making further gains. In most cases, the system essentially functions such that you cannot farm the same portion of a level on repeated deaths until you can buy an upgrade from the shopkeeper...effectively pausing your collection of wealth until you complete the task before you.
Speaking of the shopkeeper though, this is one of the reasons checkpoints are fairly prevalent throughout the stages as well. While there are many smaller checkpoints, every two to three checkpoints will also double as the shop for the game, allowing you to upgrade as you go along or ask the shopkeeper about the area you are in or any bosses that might be coming up ahead of you. In addition to the practical help provided by the shopkeeper, he is also a holder of many stories, some lore building, others moral stories, and other still are just stories for stories sake. There are even situations which can arise which case the shopkeeper to go on philosophical rants which you cannot skip. While intended as a sort of tongue-in-cheek punishment, in reality, these rants can be quite profound and impactful and I feel I am in a better place for reading them.
There are of course spoiler aspects of gameplay and I will address them in the spoiler summary below, but suffice it to say, the combination of abilities, player learned skills, and excellent level design allows for some wonderfully smooth movement and I cannot wait for a proper speedrun of this to show up at a GDQ in the near future.
The performance of The Messenger is by and large faultless. The game runs at a steady framerate and is incredibly responsive most of the time. I was playing on Nintendo Switch and primarily in handheld mode as it is almost the only way I can play games unless the wife and kids are out of the house. That said, performance in handheld and docked were excellent with a few exceptions and two in particular for me.
In two late game challenges, areas which were not explicitly required to beat the game, the framerate of these areas and these areas specifically would absolutely tank. Not only would the framerate suddenly start to chug, it was actually so bad that the game was eating inputs and making said challenges all but impossible. This occurred in a few other locations, also late game, but they were not so critical such that they could not and were not easily overcome.
This may very well be a Switch-only issue rather than an issue with the PC release, but there is a small silver lining. Whatever the issue of the game, it turns out it was easily remedied by performing a full reboot of the Nintendo Switch...one of only a handful of times I have ever completely shut down the Switch since I purchased it on launch day. Once I had done this, the game ran silky smooth in all areas once again and I was able to complete both challenges in a single attempt. Hopefully, this will be addressed in a subsequent patch, but at the very least it is not a permanent issue with an annoying but simple temporary fix.
Another bug I have seen reported about the game is that it is possible to kill a boss and be killed which can render a save file softlocked as the boss is deemed defeated but the player is not allowed to move forward. While I was lucky enough to not encounter this bug during my playthrough, it is a serious issue should you have invested a significant time playing the game thus far.
Other than these two issues, the game plays without any noticeable hiccups or glitches.
So, it’s pretty clear I consider The Messenger in and of itself a great game, but as a father, I also have to consider how it fits into my overall life and schedule of my wife and kids. That said, I find indie games, on Switch particularly, to be especially good for my generally busy schedule. While I was able to finish The Messenger relatively quickly in terms of time since the game’s release due to a combination of a long, Labor Day weekend and a Saturday to myself while the wife and kids were out, it would have still been a good, quick game to fit my usual schedule. The game can be broken into small chunks due to the generous placement of checkpoints, not to mention the sleep function of the Nintendo Switch. Grand total, The Messenger took me just shy of 13 hours to complete with, as far as I am aware, 100% though it does not display any sort of completion percentage.
As far as the kiddos watching, I feel it is also a good fit. There is nothing inappropriate for younger viewers and yet it is generally interesting enough to follow that my energetic and easily distracted six year old son would come by and watch for several minutes at a time...until he wanted me to play something with him instead at least.
However, while they might want to watch or give you the brief opportunities to play the game, it’s probably not super friendly to young players. It’s not what I would consider an extremely difficult game for myself, but later in the game it does definitely stray into some complete action chaining and precision that would likely frustrate younger players.
For me, The Messenger is a wonderful experience from beginning to end. Without going into spoilers, I have to express that it is possible that some players will not enjoy all aspects of the game. I completed the game 100% as far as I am aware and can say that I enjoyed it in its entirety. This come as a fan of platformers of all types including straight, skill-based platformers like Mario and Sonic, combat based platformers like Hollow Knight or Mega Man, and exploration based platformers like Metroid or Cave Story. If all of these sub-genres appeal to you, I feel confident that you will enjoy the whole package that is The Messenger. If however one or more of these sub-genres does not appeal to you, you might not like significant portions of the game. It may be that you need to check out the following spoiler portion of the review to see what you are getting into.
As for my opinion though, I cannot recommend it enough personally.
Be warned, turn back now should you wish to avoid spoilers below. You have been warned.
- Story - The story of The Messenger was the one thing from the game that really surprised me given the heavy spoilers about the gameplay in the trailers. While it was heavily implied if not outright stated that there would be some time travel shenanigans tied to the presentation differences in the late game, I did not realize how integral it would be to the plot and how early those little nuggets of story were actually being handed out to the player. The revelation that there have been MANY Messengers and that you had now become the “Western Hero” for a new Messenger came out of nowhere which led to the wonderful gag of you then becoming the shopkeeper for a short time.
- Visual - I absolutely love the 16-bit aesthetic that represents the future you travel to. The colors, the animations, the depth of foreground and background all just look wonderful and the colors pop so much more than the original 8-bit visuals while staying true to the 8-bit versions.
- Audio - Again, the audio seems a bit divisive, but I feel that largely lies with the fact that the music was likely composed with the 16-bit renditions in mind. While that wouldn’t really be an issue in most cases, the future soundtrack feels VERY Genesis/Mega Drive themed and that requires a very specific type of music in order to best utilize the relatively tinny soundfont. While the music of the Genesis/Mega Drive is not necessarily appreciated by all, I first owned a Genesis and then a SNES, so I have some serious nostalgia for that style of music because of that.
- Gameplay - The later abilities you get and combine make for wonderful movement. You can use the wingsuit to glide, downward strike to bounce off a lamp, cloud jump to the other side of the wall, and then dart rope over to the other side of the screen. Add in the ability to travel between the present and future seamlessly in the late game and the exploratory aspect when all the stages you have completed thus far become a pseudo-Metroidvania...not to mention a number of completely new areas that become available when you find them, and this game is bursting with options and different ways to play the game.
RadzPrower is a Georgia native with an interest in video games, science fiction, and comic books. He is a software engineer, but enjoys writing in his spare time. He has three kids ages six, three, and two, the eldest of which has started playing game alongside him. For a more in-depth bio, read here.