Every so often, I play a game expecting it to be great. There is a certain amount of buzz surrounding certain games, I can’t deny the hype. Then I play it for a few hours and it just doesn’t hit those expectations. However, there are times when not only does it exceed my expectations for the game but also for its respective genre. After playing through Sabotage‘s The Messenger, I can say with confidence that it fits that category.
The gameplay hook The Messenger is known for is its transitions between 8-bit and 16-bit graphics. You may remember seeing it during the Nintendo Direct Nindies Showcase from earlier this year. It is the feature that, on the surface, set itself apart from other platformers. Not only did it change graphically but it also alters the music and environment with fluidity; one nice subtle touch is when you go underwater and the music dampens. It also provides a light puzzle solving element to each level as you try to access new areas but going through the bit-altering portals.
This mechanic is more than just a gimmick. It is intrinsic to telling the story which begins with the ninja protagonists village getting burned down by the Demon King. Shortly after, a mysterious hero appears handing you a scroll that you must take across the island where you will meet three sages; this is also the moment where you claim your title as the Messenger.
You’ll inevitably meet the three sages and from there on out, the story gets a bit nutty. Without giving away too much, the game opens up intertwining its mechanics with its storytelling in such a fascinating way. It is one of the reasons why this game is so special. The scroll in your possession will change how you play the game. There is a reason why you are going between 8-bit and 16-bit environments. Everything from the mechanics to the bosses has a reason for being in this world and a purpose for your adventure. It is this that really sets it apart from any platformer I have ever played.
While it does venture into some new territory, the does tread heavily on familiar ground. The Messenger plays like any action platformer before it. You’ll run and jump through the various levels avoiding incoming demon attacks. You’ll also swing a blade, which can be used while running, as your primary attack and throw shuriken as a ranged secondary attack. It’s all pretty standard controls for the type of game it is.
Where it starts to deviate from the norm is the multiple traversal options available to you. One of the first techniques you learn is cloudstepping; instead of a double jump, when you hit something in mid-air, you get an extra jump. This can also be chained with the abilities you’ll grab throughout the game, allowing you to stay in the air for long periods of time.
The game does a good job of easing you into combining all of your abilities together. By the time you hit the 5-hour mark, you’ll have garnered most of your abilities and, at the very least, understand how everything works. To perform some of the later platforming sections does get tough. As long as you’re patient and take some time to comprehend what is happening on the screen, it isn’t. It tests your understanding of the game’s mechanics in some really awesome and clever ways.
Once you have mastered the mechanics to some extent, the simple act of traversing feels so good. There is a rhythm to using all of your abilities together that is very satisfying. When you learn how to actually utilize the rope dart (or grapple hook) – which I thought was the most difficult ability to learn to use effectively – you begin to understand why certain rooms were designed the way they were, giving you access to portions of a level you may not have had before.
In addition to the abilities, you’ll also purchase skills from a skill tree at one of the sage’s shop using the time shards you collect throughout your adventure. While they are not entirely imperative to completing the game, the skills do help in small but effective ways like giving you more HP or increasing the amount of damage you deal. I imagine you could beat the game without acquiring all of the skills but you’ll have no problem securing the funds to do so unless you die a whole lot.
When you do inevitably die – most likely while trying to rush through a level like the many times I did — a little demon named Quarble will appear and record it on a piece of parchment. Instead of using a lives system, the demon will begin taking any time shards (the currency you’ll use to purchase upgrades) until you repay your death toll or he gets bored. It’s a good substitution for the traditional life system that takes the edge off of dying but still punishes the player by slightly halting some of your progress.
The bosses you face will also test your comprehension of the game’s mechanics in fun ways. Some bosses may require you to grasp the concept of cloudstepping while others may require you to be wary of both the 8-bit and 16-bit versions of the room. I was always excited to see what the boss would throw at me rather than the feeling of dread I usually have during a boss fight.
The dialogue before and after a boss fight, as well as the NPC’s found throughout The Messenger, is some of the funniest I’ve read in recent memory. Typically, I would try to get through any dialogue as quickly as possible. I actually sought after NPC’s that I could talk to, especially the shopkeeper who is the best-written character despite never really knowing who he is until later in the game. The deadpan banter between The Messenger and the shopkeeper had me going to the shop any time I came across it.
All of this is accompanied by some incredible sound design and a soundtrack you’ll be humming even after you turn your computer off. Every sound effect and song, from the crunchy explosions to the bumping beats, feels like it belongs in the NES and SNES era Sabotage is trying to portray.
The Messenger is not just a brilliant love letter to the 8-bit and 16-bit games that inspired it. It’s proof that even in a market saturated with retro-style platformers, there are still clever ways to approach the genre. It is one of the most well-designed games I have ever played on both a gameplay and storytelling level. Sabotage really created something special here and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.