Played on Windows
Also available on Playstation 4, and Switch.
The Messenger has continued to be heralded as an important Metroidvania and Platformer of last year, as a fan of both genres it has remained on my radar, and finally, I had an opening and picked up The Messenger and have now played through it. So is it actually a great Metroidvania and Platformer? Let’s see.
To be honest, I do want to give a warning. While there’s a lot of content in The Messenger, I’ll have to spoil a piece of the game, in fact, I may have already spoiled it. I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum but to discuss my opinions on The Messenger, I will have to talk about one major feature of the game.
The Messenger opening looks like an NES game, the opening has graphics far beyond what NES games were capable of the time, but the early game is reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden as The Messenger learns his first ability, Cloudstep at the Ninja Dojo. While we’ll talk about Cloudstep with the gameplay, the graphics of The Messenger are great.
As the game starts, the graphics of The Messenger feels more authentic to the NES style than anything trying to get that retro game feel, but still looks amazing. There’s everything from a beautiful sunset, an interesting forest, or deep catacombs. As the game goes on, it’s clear that while the graphic style is based on the NES, the animations are far more detailed, and some environments are just amazing looking for the style.
The bosses also look incredible, everything from a giant rock monster to a pair of trolls that tag each other in as if it’s a wrestling match, is just stunning to look at and focus on. There are several interesting characters, and every boss was entertaining and looked amazing. The intricate animations for most of them just show how much detail and work went into each of these amazing encounters.
There’s something timeless about sprite graphics.
The enemy choices are great as well and thematic. There are a lot of enemies that are exclusive to certain areas and it’s usually clear where you are in the world if you only consider which enemies are attacking you, but there’s a lot of variety in the areas. While I mentioned the dojo area, catacombs, and forest, there’s a huge wealth of levels still to find, sky levels, mountain climbing, and even levels with lava will appear and they all look great.
And then the player reaches what amounts to the end of the levels, including a final ascent through a temple of time, and suddenly, phase two of The Messenger appears. Now, this was given away by the trailer, but essentially, The Messenger hides another world. While the original game is heavily built on the NES Ninja Gaiden aesthetic, there’s also a second version of every level. In these, our hero dons a straw hat and the game gets a little more futuristic in its designs.
However what’s really on display here is the world feels remade into a 16-bit SNES game, oftentimes, I feel this is Ninja Gaiden meeting Mega Man in the original levels but I think the game moves completely into the Mega Man X graphic style with this alternate look. This isn’t the only change, but everything does look significantly better, the background gets more enhanced and it shows off the developers understanding of what was possible on the NES vs Super NES. Also, the game says the SNES era style levels are set 500 years after the main game’s timeline so many levels evolve and change. It can be anything from simply adding snowing in the second version to having a flourishing garden in the past being destroyed and torn down in the future.
I love how the game introduces each level with a NES style intro scene.
The Messenger becomes a feast for the eyes. The Messenger doesn’t just look good but almost every scene is amazing, and the incredible bosses only add to the experience.
I will admit I’m one of the hardest people to satisfy when it comes to stories. I expect a story to entertain the player without detracting from the game’s experience and get out of the way of the gameplay when possible.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the story of The Messenger. If The Messenger was going for an NES or SNES motif, which it appears to be, the fact is most games of the period didn’t tell deep stories. While some games are the exception to this rule, brevity was almost always expected.
The Messenger starts with a simple story, the ninja village where the player trains with his clan is attacked by a “Demon Lord.” and the Western Hero comes to save the day, as he does this, he passes a scroll to the player and asks him to carry a scroll as a message to the top of the mountain. And suddenly the player attains the job of “Messenger”.
This seems like a story that one may have expected from old games except there’s one major difference. The writing in The Messenger is exceptional. Almost every line of dialogue is great, and the game constantly is written in a humorous manner that managed to make me laugh multiple times.
Long exposition which is then made fun of in the next panel.
But while there’s a lot to say, The Messenger does avoid very long-winded dialogue sessions with the player when possible, though the story is written well, and every character has interesting motivations and feelings, the game doesn’t have to linger to tell these stories. It can set up a character in only a couple of sentences, and the game continues.
On the other hand, the player can opt in to further information. Each area of the game has save points that also act as portals to a magical shop, and in those shops, the shopkeeper offers to chat with the player. The player can discuss the current area, as well as request “stories”. These small discussions help fill in the backstory of an area, but each piece is done in such an interesting way, that the player looks forward to the next area to hear more. Besides, the additional stories are just humorous, and quite often I found myself laughing at the dialogue, usually a discussion of the tale.
While I would probably rate The Messenger as one of the best stories I’ve heard just from its delivery and less than serious style works well with the game. However, near the end of the game, there is a rather long explanation of the final boss. This scene comes out of nowhere and is unlike everything in the game. This part feels more like the attract mode cutscene that plays before the player hits start.
What’s strange to me is that it just doesn’t feel like it matches the tone and feel of the rest of the game, the story is delivered with a serious tone, and yet it develops the final boss, this cutscene comes out of nowhere, and the exposition takes some of the wind out of the player’s sails.
It is only a 5-minute montage done towards the end of a rather meaty game that lasts over ten hours, but it’s strange enough I feel like I must comment on it. While it doesn’t ruin all the amazing work the development team had done with the narrative up to this point, it’s just a strangely weak moment.
And with everything said, we are left with the gameplay, with great graphics, and an amazing story, if there was a place The Messenger can fail the player, it would be the gameplay.
To be honest, the beginning of the game does feel like Ninja Gaiden. Players are introduced to a simple technique called “cloudstep”. It’s a simple technique where after the player hits “something” with an attack, the player is allowed to jump a second time. The “something” can be an enemy, a lantern, or just an enemy’s projectile when the player acquires the right skill.
The “cloudstep” allows the player an ability to remain aloft as long as he continues to hit objects, even the same objects, and it adds a little something special to The Messenger, from there the player is brought into the story, and is sent on his quest.
The controls on the platforming and combat are extremely good.
The game starts as a level-based platformer, but while many people will think of something akin to Mario, this is more like an expansive exploration game. While there are some branching paths, most of the alternate paths lead to hidden collectibles, The Messenger focuses on linear level design and excellent platforming.
It does something important by making it clear which direction leads to the rest of the area and which area is a bonus area and it makes exploring fun, rather than a continual question of which direction is “correct”. Whether it’s a simple icon to show you which way is a collectible, or having the player “Discover” a poorly hidden secret passage, players are always able to know which way results in exploration, and which one is the correct path for the adventure.
The platforming in The Messenger is fantastic, it finds a perfect mixture between interesting and challenging without being brutally hard. It’ll make players sweat just a little or feel amazing when they pull off a technique the first time, but also teaches them so future attempts to do the same technique becomes easier through almost a muscle memory.
The level design in The Messenger is also incredible, and while the cloudstep helps with this, there’s a decent number of other upgrades that come over time. While I don’t wish to give away too many, there are climbing claws to climb walls and a wingsuit to glide and ride updrafts available to the player over time.
Many levels also end with a challenging but interesting level boss that can challenge the player on the techniques he’s collected, or just a fun boss fight, accompanied with the excellent story and then on to the next level.
I’d call this my favorite boss fight, but they are all my favorites.
While a number of NES tropes appear as the player plays through the game, it becomes a run of the mill but entertaining platformer, that will challenge and delight most players.
But like I mentioned, when the player reaches the end of the Temple of Time, the game suddenly changes and becomes a Metroidvania after a very entertaining scene. At this time the player is given a map and is now tasked with several goals to finish off the adventure.
Up to this point, The Messenger screams perfection, and while the Metroidvania sections are enjoyable and add new elements to the game, it just pales in comparison to the game up to that point.
The biggest issue I have with the Metroidvania sections is that many of them are aimless. Players can explore to their heart’s content but the game gives a vague reference for what they’re expecting the player to find. It is not impossible to find the right location, as the game also offers to give the player an exact location on the map for a small price, but at this point, the player has seen almost every location in the game before, with only a couple of new areas of the map left to discover.
Along with having seen the entire map, the player is mostly engaged in fetch quests and while the platforming can get a little harder, there is a notable lack of bosses, especially if the players decide to explore everything they can. There’s only about a third of the bosses past this point and none feel as important as a normal Metroidvania where bosses tend to hide unlockable abilities.
Not that the Metroidvania sections are short or straight forward. There’s still some abilities left to collect, and many of the hardest collectibles are still available, it’s just that at that point it feels like the game is on a downward trend to fill out the map, which is never the strongest part of a true Metroidvania adventure. There’s everything that makes a Metroidvania game stand up, but nothing that makes it more enjoyable than the excellently executed platformer that The Messenger has been up to that point.
To me, I’m unsure why The Messenger “needed” to be a Metroidvania at that point, as it only added a limited amount of enjoyment, but also felt a step backward from what was a near-perfect game before it.
I still heavily compliment The Messenger, it’s a fantastic game that I enjoyed playing. I made a conscious effort to not record footage of The Messenger, just because it would give me a chance to replay the opening for my youtube video, because I was having that much fun just exploring the game, and expect to start to be able to replay it with as much fun so soon after my first full playthrough.
The DLC – Picnic Panic
Normally I don’t talk about DLC, I find DLC to be a weaker concept that can only skew the review of a game, usually downwards. There have been some success stories, many times it feels like players are paying a premium to play a couple more hours of content.
Yet The Messenger isn’t like that. Devolver Digital and Sabotage Studios released an all-new DLC chapter for free to fans, so much like Celeste’s upcoming DLC, it’s free DLC which I think can be considered when talking about the base game. The Messenger’s DLC is called “Picnic Panic” and from beginning to end it’s more of what I loved about the original game. After playing the DLC I can say I absolutely enjoyed it.
The graphics take on an island and beach motif as the player goes to visit a nearby island to have a picnic but gets roped into another battle with the forces of evil. The player has to rescue some of his friends, the Phoebekins from an old enemy.
Now I won’t say much about the story, because there’s not much, but it works for this outing and similar to the original game, the writing is fantastic. There’s a lot of small stupid things that made me laugh yet again and as always the shop keeper is back. But there’s probably a reason for that as Picnic Panic continues the story.
There’s also a completely new theme to the art in the DLC
As for the gameplay, this is intended for fans of the base game, and as such it’s only unlocked after completing the entire original game, but there are some changes. The first level is based on a boating/surfing experience and while quite challenging, is a unique experience even giving players a reason to practice that section for a while to try to master it. While most of the DLC can be a little easy, the collectibles have some of the hardest levels this game has, and the ending of the DLC is…. To put it simply, it’s a challenging section, perhaps the hardest in the game yet.
But all of this is worth it, not just because of the amazing game of The Messenger, but the final battle had me having such a great time that the sometimes extreme challenge was worth it. Just to put it simply, the ending of Picnic Panic is one that fans should not miss.
Ultimately, what Picnic Panic is, is more of The Messenger for free, and that’s the only reason I’m talking about it. It probably could have been five dollars and I might have accepted it, but additional content in an already packed game is welcomed and it’s exactly the type of addition that makes sense as it builds on the original game’s story and challenges.
The Messenger has earned a great reputation, it’s easily one of the finest games I’ve played this year, and what makes it stand out isn’t just one facet of it. It’s not just a beautiful game, or a great story, or even amazing gameplay but the entire package that results in The Messenger standing out from the crowd of games trying to duplicate its success.
While I pause before I say it’s the best Metroidvania game, it’s still one of the strongest titles and a perfect example of why NES games could be so addictive back in the day of weaker graphics and fewer buttons on a controller. The Messenger is such a strong game that I eagerly look forward to the next game from the studio because I expect nothing less than amazing games from this team from this point on.
I give the Messenger a
While it’s short of perfection I still recommend everyone who hasn’t played it yet to give The Messenger a shot, and even those who have beat it should return to play the new Picnic Panic DLC which is phenomenal.
Final Thoughts: One of the best platformers of all time and a great throwback to the NES era to appear in a single game. This is a top-notch game no matter how I look at it and is worthy of your attention.
Stats: 15.5 hours played 41/48 achievements earned