Good game design is one of the strongest forces a game can harness. The Messenger proves just how much intelligent gameplay decisions can make a game so much grander than it has any right to be. The Messenger is an action platformer inspired by the likes of the Ninja Gaiden series, with a retro art style that acts as a genuine mechanic and doesn’t take itself too seriously (or at all). If you like platforming, play this game. Don’t look too much into it. The reason I say this, twists and flipping over your expectations are the game’s bread and butter.
What’s that? That was a poor way to convince someone a game is for them? You are correct. Here’s some quick thoughts of mine, but do be warned, there will be major joy-spoiling information, because of how much of the game is unexpected.
At its core, The Messenger is an action-focused platformer, but never is it simply that. Mechanics on top of a sword slash (including cloud hopping, wall climbing, ninja shurikens, and much more) are elegantly built upon throughout the game before the true unifying mechanic reveals itself. After progressing through a linear world full of unique areas which feels like a full game on its own, the artstyle, genre, and mechanics change entirely. The levels you previously traversed are revealed to be a fully realized Metroidvania world that can be explored through time travel between beautiful 8-bit and 16-bit inspired time periods of the newly-opened areas.
I enjoyed the genre shift much more than I anticipated, being someone who is relatively burnt out by Metroidvanias as of late. It’s shocking to see the linear levels were much more than you perceived them. That being said, a majority of the world was originally linear, which could make it feel slightly repetitive to go through old levels once again. Luckily, this was offset by discovering previous sights in a new time period.
Design choices like the modern death handling, which turns dying into a learning experience rather than a punishment, make The Messenger play like a modern platformer using a retro artstyle to support the vision of the game rather than simply being a cheap choice. Smooth advancement through the game is nearly perfectly handled as new mechanics are introduced continually, expanded on, and don’t overstay their welcome before they adapt with the other features of your arsenal. This progression creates an ongoing challenge that makes mastering the mechanics feel rewarding and natural. Movement and combat is tight, leading to an instantly satisfying system that makes you feel in total control of every positive or negative consequence.
One of the greatest surprises of The Messenger is the top-tier, hilarious writing. The characters are simple at first, but the chemistry between the generic protagonist, the shopkeeper, and the death-handling demon create some brilliant moments that never acknowledge that the 4th wall ever existed. Any time the chance is given to ‘Chat’ with the shopkeeper, take it. Even the level-end bosses are sure to bring a smile to your face.
Humor continues throughout the game, and at no point does it get the way of an interesting story. The plot starts out immediately dire, as a generic ninja decides to become overconfident right before the ruined world is attacked by the demon king. He is given a scroll to carry across the land, and as with the rest of the game, there are many twists involved with a shockingly developed time travelling tale. Having a story and theme tightly interconnected with gameplay is one of my favorite things to find in a game, and The Messenger rivals Celeste in this regard.
Finally, the presentation is overall phenomenal. Art is gorgeous throughout, and the music is extremely unique and memorable. Every area’s track has an 8-bit and 16-bit inspired version, and they really enhance the feel of the game while keep true to the style of the time periods.
I love The Messenger. To me, the platforming genre is the foundation of gaming, and having modern masterpieces of the genre like Celeste, Shovel Knight, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and The Messenger goes to show how much time can greatly refine a timeless experience. This is one solid game that shouldn’t be overlooked.