The Messenger is a game I see being frequently compared to old Ninja Gaiden games, which is weird, because it’s really doesn’t have much in common with those at all other than having a ninja in it. While The Messenger IS a retro-themed game that invokes the power of nostalgia for 8-bit and 16-bit systems of the olden days, it really is more of a modern-ish experience at its core.
I suppose the earlier, completely linear levels may bear some vague resemblance to Ninja Gaiden, but even then it’s a much, much easier and lighter-toned game than any of those ever were. While there are some tricky platforming bits in the late stages, for the most part the game is very forgiving. Enemies are pretty simple and easy, and checkpoints and health drops are pretty frequent. The bosses aren’t so bad either, letting you try again right at the start of the boss fight and usually only taking 1-5 attempts at the most.
Honestly, this is a good thing though. Have you played Ninja Gaiden lately? Without using modern save states it’s so sadistically difficult that you have to wonder why we ever thought it was fun back in the day. I know I don’t have the patience (or the youthful speed and persistence) for that shit these days. No, I’m quite alright with a retro platformer that’s a bit challenging, but not painfully so, as long as it’s still fun to play, and The Messenger is.
It has nice pixel art graphics, great music, tight gameplay, and a surprising amount of content for what it is. As you’ve probably heard by now (I guess maybe minor spoiler alert here? Though I wouldn’t really consider it a spoiler myself), but after you spend a good chunk of time playing through a set of linear 8-bit-themed levels, the game surprises you by opening up into a free-roaming Metroidvania and gives you the power to shift forward in time to 16-bit versions of levels, which are meant to be the future. This mechanic is used to deal with some pretty creative cross-time platforming puzzles and lets you access more new areas that you couldn’t reach in the 8-bit past. You’ll then have to run around the world looking for various key items that’ll let you unlock the final levels, which in a typical Metroidvania fashion involves a nigh-uncomfortable of backtracking.
I think this brings me to the medium-sized flaw in the game though. The pacing is…not great. The majority of the second half of the game, in the post-linear part, has you scouring every inch of all the levels you’ve already just visited and things start to drag a bit. There are a few completely new zones to be unlocked along the way, and those are great, but getting to them involves hours and hours of replaying the same levels you just finished beating, sometimes more than once. Then when you finally think you’re done jumping through hoops and finally at the end of it all (minor vague spoiler alert again, I guess), turns out there’s a little bit more and that’s when the game suddenly drops a massive info dump on you in the form of a cutscene that felt about 10 minutes long and reveals that the story (which is barely mentioned throughout the game) is really all about some character you’ve never heard of before, who you now have to go save to for-really-real beat the game.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but these things and the way they unfolded just felt a bit stilted and unfocused, and they had me looking at my watch wondering when I was going to be allowed to get back to the good stuff again more than once. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it is something I hope this dev team gives a bit of attention to in future games (which I will still totally buy).
That aside, it’s still a mostly very enjoyable retro platformer that gives you a lot of content for its relatively low price. It isn’t going to dethrone Shovel Knight as king of the retro-themed games, but it does it’s damned best to try and I’d still highly recommend it to fans of such games.