Make sure to check out our interview with Sabotage Studio’s development team!
From the moment I heard the digitized chords of The Messenger’s opening sequence, I knew that I was in for a good time. With its full release just a couple days away, the front-flipping, demon-slicing, retro-styled platformer has already captured the hearts (and aching thumbs) of media outlets that have had the chance to play the game.
In my time with the game so far, it’s no surprise as to why that is: while some games may have been described as a “love letter” to the bygone era of 8 & 16-bit gaming, The Messenger is a full-on relationship, and I’m pretty sure it went out and bought a ring.
Developer Sabotage Studio, and more specifically, designer and lead programmer Thierry Boulanger, set out to create this game as a result of a life-long appreciation for the Ninja Gaiden franchise; a relationship that had a fascinating origin, as laid out in an interview with Polygon earlier this year:
“I had an NES back when I was seven, and my grandfather showed up one day with a paper bag of games. All good stuff, best-of-all-time games like Metroid. But my mother would only let me keep five of them, so I had this magical afternoon of going through these games and sorting them into the yes pile, the maybe pile, the no pile. In the end, I had to pick between Ninja Gaiden 2 and Castlevania 3, which were on the maybe pile because they felt scary to me as a kid. I came so close to keeping Castlevania instead of Ninja Gaiden … but I got hooked on Ninja Gaiden.”
Indeed, from the opening sequence you can tell that there are some serious Ninja Gaiden parallels going on. However, while the classic ninja franchise helps to lay the foundation for The Messenger, its utilization of snappy dialogue, sharpened controls, and a fascinating blend of 8 & 16-bit graphics helps to set it apart as a unique and thoroughly entertaining retro-gaming experience.
From a narrative standpoint, The Messenger begins with a tale as old as time: whispers of a mythical hero who will rise in the village’s time of need, that time of need spontaneously arriving, and the mythical hero turns out to be you all along! However, it doesn’t take long before you realize that it has no plans on conducting “business as usual” when it comes to the hero saves the day archetype. From your introduction to the smart-talking shopkeeper to your mind-bending journey through the tower of time, you realize a few hours in that this game has far more depth than you originally thought.
Some of the best moments in the game come down to some fantastic writing and dialogue choices – The Messenger is a game that has an impressive level of self-awareness, and this reflects in its style of humor. Ranging from retro-gaming throwbacks to deconstructing stereotypical storytelling, The Messenger shamelessly elicits grins whenever you’re not busy demolishing demons.
In a game as well rounded as Sabotage Studio’s ninja adventure, it’s hard to point to one aspect and pin the blue ribbon as “best in show”. However, if I had a ribbon to give, it would go to the gameplay. From wall hanging, to gliding, to rope-darting your way between airborne enemies, the movements and actions of The Messenger are razor sharp. At no point did I fall into a pit or land on spikes as a result of anything other than me just being bad.
On the topic of death, I must say that the Quarble/revival mechanic is pretty well done. It doesn’t go full Dark Souls (I know, you thought you’d get through a video game review in 2018 without reading that name) when it comes to losing your precious upgrade currency, but Quarble taking his “cut” from time shards that you retrieve in the brief aftermath of your death was a great way to handle balancing penalty with keeping the game moving.
The boss fights are extremely well done, falling back on a reliance of learning patterns and increasing speed and intensity as you pile on the damage. The result is a well-balanced encounter that toes the line between “lol ez gg” and “Great, I threw my controller and now I need to buy a new 4k TV”.
There’s a fairly small skill tree that you work through as the game progresses, and while it’s not the expansive list of skills and upgrades you might be familiar with in more action/RPG style games, it takes a surprising amount of time to unlock, and each upgrade definitely has an impact on how the game plays and feels. Personally, I rushed the Quarble “getting off my back” upgrade because I was tired of him eating all of my crystals after one of my many deaths.
On a final note when it comes to gameplay: I’m personally looking forward to seeing the insane speedruns that will emerge from this game, as there’s so much to unpack in terms of optimizing movement, cloudstep efficiency, etc. Even if this isn’t your kind of game, if you enjoy watching speedruns, chances are you’ll be seeing a lot of this game in the coming months.
With today’s technology, it’s not hard to create an 8-bit game. Re-creating the pixelated sprites and backgrounds that occupied much of our Saturday mornings (after cartoons were over, of course) isn’t a particularly daunting task. Indeed – there are a great number of indie titles that try to appeal to potential audiences with this aesthetic.
The Messenger does things a bit differently in that at a critical point in the game, they splice in a glimpse of “the future” – 16-bit graphics take over the game and suddenly you find yourself experiencing a whole new level of what the game has to offer from a visual standpoint. Not only that, but the music shifts to demonstrate this change as well.
There have been some great 8-bit games. There have been some fantastic 16-bit games. The Messenger is the first title (that I’m aware of) that excellently blends the two worlds in a way that makes sense not only from a design perspective, but also from a narrative standpoint.
When it comes to the music, Eric Brown had the following to say in our recent interview: “The goal was quite simply, to make a bunch of badass tracks that aren’t annoying or distracting to listen to, that don’t feel out of place given the levels and environments, which also includes having two versions (8 and 16 bit) of every track on hand.” To this end, I’m happy to say that he succeeded immensely. As I mentioned at the start of the interview, my love of the music started from the opening notes of the classic intro scene, and didn’t let up through the entire game.
While the gameplay certainly invites you to start playing The Messenger, the vibrant world that was built, and soundtrack that it’s set against, makes it impossible to leave.
What The Messenger makes perfectly clear, and quite possibly one of its most endearing features, is that it demonstrates that the true feel of an 8-bit game isn’t just in how it looks, but also in its pacing, gameplay, and soundtrack. Playing The Messenger, it honestly feels like you are lost in the wonder of your first Nintendo game. Boss battles are challenging, but doable. The death & revival mechanics are well balanced. The music (bless it) demonstrates the depth that classic NES games had to offer.
Overall, The Messenger is a triumph, and has currently set the bar as the indie title to beat in 2018. Sure, we have AAA games like Spider Man, Red Dead Redemption 2, Fallout 76, and others to look forward to – but in this space, The Messenger has thrown down the shuriken.
Many thanks to Devolver Digital for providing us with a review copy of The Messenger. The game will be released tomorrow!