Retro-style platformers have been a prominent genre in gaming to the point of oversaturation. However, a few of these games — like Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, and Celeste, just to name a few — have genuinely risen to prominence bringing fresh ideas to the genre. After going hands-on with The Messenger at PAX East, I am sure it will be added to that list.
Developed by Canadian indie developer Sabotage Studio, The Messenger lets you play as a ninja tasked to take a scroll up a mountain after evil mystical creatures destroy his village. It is pretty bare bones at the start, but the story goes places that I would have never expected. In fact, while speaking to Creative Director Thierry Boulanger, part of his vision for the game is to mess with the player’s expectations. I won’t spoil anything, but the twists and turns it takes — both in game design and story — are debatably the most unique I have seen in a modern platformer.
Speaking of game design, it is also mechanically sound. Taking inspiration from the Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania series, The Messenger’s gameplay is as tight as any classic title. Initially, the protagonist has a basic attack, a ranged shuriken attack, the basic movement controls you would find in any platformer, and an ability called “cloudstepping” which allows you to jump midair after you’ve hit a target.
It’s not until you receive upgrades from a mysterious hooded figure — which you’ll purchase using golden crystals found throughout the game — when traversal gets interesting. From grappling hook to the in-air spinning attack, the moves you’ll attain promotes a sort of experimentation that is incredibly satisfying.
A puzzle element is added with the various portals found throughout each level. When you step through, your surroundings change from 8-bit to 16-bit graphics transforming the level around you. To progress, you’ll need to solve the environmental puzzles using your arsenal of moves. At first, attempting to combine all these moves to traverse through a level is pretty tricky. About 15 minutes later, I felt reasonably confident in my movements, only making slight miscalculations. Since these moves will unlock over time, I feel like that difficulty barrier won’t be as hard to climb when the full game releases.
When you do inevitably die, the game doesn’t send you straight to a game over screen. Modern game design has, for the most part, done away with that in favor of something that feels player-friendly but can be just as punishing. In The Messenger, those words of failure are replaced with a little red demon named Quarble that will ask you to pay a toll after each death; the amount you have to pay will depend on how you die. While playing on the show floor, it didn’t seem too much of a detriment, but I could see being frustrating since your progression is reliant on your abilities which you have to purchase.
Going through these portals will also change the audio in the game. On a technical level, it’s pretty impressive to hear the chiptunes of the 8-bit world morph into a remixed version on a dime; this extends to your brief moments underwater which will muffle the music. It seems like a small touch, but it adds a special kind of flair that isn’t as prominent in modern platformers.
The music itself is excellent and catchy; as of writing this, the first stage’s song is still stuck in my head. Hearing both 8-bit and 16-bit versions of the same song is not only a neat feature that is done exceptionally but will have you reminiscing about some of your favorite games in those eras.
When I saw The Messenger on the Nindies showcase last month, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It looked like a neat homage to the platformers of yesteryear but didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Then the ninja protagonist stepped through a portal, exiting his 8-bit surroundings and entering a 16-bit world, I was interested. When I played the game at PAX East for a little over 30 minutes, I was at a loss for words. I am almost sure The Messenger will be a fantastic game when it releases later this year.
The Messenger is coming to both Nintendo Switch and PC sometime in 2018.