Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Messenger Review

The Messenger is a Ninja themed action platformer from indie developer, Sabotage, and publisher, Devolver Digital. It's available now on Switch and PC for $19.99. This game might look like an off-brand 2D Ninja Gaiden revival at a glance, but there’s a lot more going on here. It's actually much closer to platformers like Shovel Knight Specter of Torment, with a little Metroidvania exploration thrown in.

In The Messenger, you play as a young Ninja bored with his daily training in a secluded Ninja village. The Ninjas there are waiting for the arrival of the legendary “Western Hero” who will save the world from demons. The Western Hero isn't necessarily from the geographical West, he's just coming from the left side of the screen. Like in a lot of 2D platformers, the world starts on the left and ends on the right. One day, demons finally show up, and sure enough, the Western Hero shows up, too. He drives the demons away and gives you a scroll to take to the highest mountain in the land, making you the Messenger.

That's just the basic premise, though. The game is full of interesting twists, which usually affect the gameplay in some way. It breaks the fourth wall and is silly at times, but it works. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously. The characters seem to be aware that they're in a videogame and often make gameplay related jokes. This kind of stuff usually comes off incredibly lame in other games, but the writing here is witty and actually funny.

The game starts off as a straightforward action platformer. You can run, jump, slash things with your sword, and double jump using game's main mechanic, the Cloudstep. Cloudstepping allows you to double jump, but only after slashing something with your sword while in the middle of a jump. It can be an enemy, hanging lanterns, or an enemy's projectile, after buying an upgrade. As you progress through the game, you’ll get other abilities which you’ll have to use in combination with the Cloudstep to make it through the game’s platforming obstacle courses.

The 3 major upgrades are the Climbing Claws, Rope Dart (AKA grappling hook), and Wingsuit. The Climbing Claws allow you to cling to walls, climb on them, and attack and jump from them. This is a real wall climb. You don’t slide down the wall, like in mega Man X, and you don’t need to do the Ninja Gaiden 1 shimmy to climb up them. The Rope Dart pulls you to whatever you grapple onto and propels you farther if you do it while jumping. You can use this to stay airborne and Cloudstep across large gaps. The Wingsuit allows you to glide in the air by pressing B when descending from a jump. It’s similar to the flying squirrel suit in NSMBU. You can do this before and after Cloudstepping, and there’s an upgrade to do a spinning vertical attack while gliding, so you can do another Cloudstep after that, and stay airborne indefinitely, as long as you have something to hit. I won’t try to sugarcoat it, constantly juggling yourself in the air and grappling to things to boost your speed while in the air can get demanding and sometimes confusing, but it makes for some great platforming.

Around a third of the way through the game, things start getting weird. There are twists in the story that I won’t go into, but the result is that the game turns into a Metroidvania. There’s time travel involved and portals that let you travel between 2 time periods start opening up all over the world. The “8-bit” world is in the past and the “16-bit” world is the future. It works kind of like the Light and Dark Worlds in Zelda LttP, and in a bunch of other games. You’ll have to constantly travel between the 2 eras to progress past obstacles and make your way through the levels. A new hub area with portals to all the levels becomes available, and you’ll have to collect a bunch of musical notes to play the song that will open the door to the last level. Yes, it’s very Mario 64.

I think The Messenger is a great platformer, but I don’t think it’s a great Metroidvania. There are a few puzzles in the second half of the game, but the level design never really changes to fit the Metroidvania gameplay I associate with games like Castlevania SOTN. The levels always feel like they’re made for challenging platforming, so backtracking and wandering around aimlessly looking for musical notes gets tiresome very quickly. Thankfully, you can get free hints from an NPC, and if that's not enough, the shopkeeper will mark where you need to go on the map for 300 shards, the in-game currency. Once you take the exploration aspect out, you can just focus on the platforming, which is where the game truly shines.

The Messenger also has a bunch of great bosses. They’re all very different and put your Ninja skills to the test. You’ll have to master the Cloudstep and all the different combinations of it and other moves to make it past these guys. I had a pretty rough time with one that required me to stay off the ground for a whole phase of the fight.

I think the graphics in The Messenger are pretty nice. The future era looks especially awesome. I guess the 2 graphical styles are supposed to be 8-bit in the past and 16-bit in the future, but I don’t think either either style hits that mark, because they just look too good. It’s not even as close as in other fake 8-bit games, like Shovel Knight and Bloodstained CotM, so I’m not even sure if that was the intent. The 8-bit past looks more like a TG16 game than an NES game, and the 16-bit future looks like a modern day 2D indie game with really nice pixel art.

I think there are a few good songs in the soundtrack and it fits the mood of the game, but for the most part, I didn’t really like the music. I think it sounds like an indie rock band doing Halloween songs. Not the band, the holiday. It’s very repetitive, goofy, and it has a certain bassy chiptune sound that reminds me of classic tunes, like the Donkey Kong stage intro theme. The audio quality is also way too good to fool anyone into thinking it’s coming from an 8-bit or 16-bit system.

The Messenger is not the Ninja Metroidvania I’ve been waiting for, but it is the awesome Ninja platformer I didn’t know I wanted. I don’t think the platforming level design mixes very well with Metroidvania exploration, but you can choose to get rid of a lot of it. I’d be interested in seeing if they choose to focus on just one style of gameplay in a sequel. I can’t help but think that this game would have been better without any exploration at all.