Sabotage Studio’s The Messenger is a Love Letter to a Bygone Era
From the moment I first fired up The Messenger, I knew I was in for a treat. Much like Yacht Club Games’ sensational side-scroller Shovel Knight, the game does an excellent job of imitating the production values of the NES era to create something that looks and sounds every bit like a bonafide long-lost relic straight out of 1990. Without a doubt, indie outfit Sabotage Studio has really nailed the 8-bit presentation with The Messenger. From its strikingly authentic color palette to its crunchy sound effects, it’s a game that’s sure to make anyone with a soft spot for the NES’s heart skip a bit.
But those pixel-perfect sprites and pumping chiptunes that drive the action forward, as great as they are, are only a small part of what makes The Messenger shine. Beneath its nostalgic aesthetic lurks a surprisingly robust retro adventure that’s one part Ninja Gaiden, one part Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and 100% badass.
Enter The Ninja
The Messenger doesn’t waste your time with walls of exposition. Moments after the game begins, your humble ninja village is attacked by a demon prophesized long ago. With the fate of the world now resting on your skilled shinobi’s shoulders, you’re tasked with delivering a scroll to the other side of the island to fulfill an ancient prophecy.
Of course, much like the crafty martial arts master you take control of, there’s more than meets the eye going on here. While the game begins as a largely linear side-scroller, not unlike Tecmo’s beloved NES classic Ninja Gaiden, midway through your journey you’re sent 500 years into the future, where the game gets a welcome 16-bit facelift and more Metroidvania-style sense of progression.
It’s an interesting mix. And it’s one that proves to be instantly irresistible thanks to developer Sabotage Studio’s excellent stage designs, superb boss battles, and a slew of fun upgrades that keep the exploration fresh and exciting. Of all the mechanics the game introduces, the Cloud Step is probably its most unique feature. In essence, it’s much like your standard double-jump found in countless other games. However, a Cloud Step can only be performed after you strike an object, enemy, or projectile. This makes for some pretty intense moments, such as being forced to bounce from projectile to projectile to avoid flaming pits of death, turning would-be dangers into life-saving tools to help overcome otherwise impossible situations.
Is it a simple gimmick? Sure it is! But it’s one that’s baked so well into The Messenger‘s stage and boss design that it’s impossible to imagine the game without it.
One Killer Courier
Judging from these screenshots, you’d be forgiven if you mistook The Messenger for your average side-scroller. Looks can be deceiving, though. Sabotage Studio has incorporated a few unexpected features to keep things interesting. When you die, you’re not simply taken to a “Game Over” screen. Instead, you’re brought back to life with half health at the nearest checkpoint. Only now you’re being followed by a Quarble, a chubby little demon keeps a running tab, who will follow you around gobbling up any time shards (The Messenger‘s own form of currency) that you collect until your debt is paid. It’s an interesting premise that encourages smart play. After all, going into debt when you’re on the cusp of buying a nifty new ninja upgrade is no fun.
Speaking of upgrades, the local shopkeeper serves up new gear and hilarious anecdotes whenever you venture into his shop. These upgrades include a handy rope dart that lets you quickly traverse small gaps, a squirrel suit that lets you glide whenever the jump button is held, shurikens, bonus health, and more. I really enjoyed how each stage is filled with secret paths only accessible with the use of these gadgets. This makes return visits during the game’s second half less of a chore, as you’re constantly stumbling across new areas and tucked away goodies you likely missed the first time around.
The Shinobi Express
All of these elements I’ve mentioned come together to give The Messenger a very satisfying sense of progression. You really do begin to feel like a badass as you upgrade your proverbial bag of tricks with new skills. And, thanks to the game’s tight and responsive controls, all of these abilities are incredibly easy to master. Before you know it you’ll be gliding down spike-lined tunnels in your wingsuit, only to find yourself effortlessly cloud-stepping from projectile to weird demon-beetle-monster just seconds later – all before touching the ground.
The Messenger’s loop of exploration, upgrading your gear, and stellar boss battles are a blast. However, during the second half of the game, things do start to come to a bit of a crawl. This is largely the result of the more open Metroidvania design that comes with it. To reach the final chapters, you’ll spend a ton of time backtracking in order to progress. And, as a result, you’ll start to see those lovely boss battles that made the first half such a rush quite a bit less.
Thankfully, this is largely remedied in the last couple areas of the game. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t starting to get a little impatient during my review playthrough. This wasn’t because the second half was bad, mind you. The stage designs and puzzles are inventive and exciting. And the 16-bit facelift that each stage and enemy receives is absolutely gorgeous. Still, the change of pace was pretty jarring nonetheless, as I just wanted to tackle bigger and badder baddies.
First Class Mail
Despite its slower second half, The Messenger is hard to beat. Without a doubt, it’s an absolute must-play for anyone with a love for the classics. From its excellent presentation to its brilliant stage and boss designs, Sabotage Studio has penned an unforgettable love letter to the NES era that any retro gamer worth their salt simply needs in their library. The message is loud and clear. If you’ve been biding your time for the next Shovel knight, your wait is finally over. The Messenger delivers.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Switch ; Publisher: Devolver Digital ; Developer: Sabotage Studio; Players: 1 ; Released: August 30, 2018; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PC review copy of The Messenger given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.