2018’s The Messenger was a game that I had anticipated like few others. Previews indicated a throwback to the 8-bit Ninja Gaiden series with an infusion of modern indie game design. Having been blown away by Yacht Club Games’ 2014 indie gem, Shovel Knight, and the way that it paid homage to the NES DuckTales game while providing a fresh and challenging new experience, my expectations for The Messenger were sky high. After finally completing it, I can say that it met those expectations… mostly.
Stylish Ninja Action
Let’s start with the positives, which there are a lot of. Developer Sabotage Studios absolutely nailed the aesthetics. The graphics look appropriately retro, but feature smooth scrolling with no slowdown or flashing, and humongous pixel bosses that could never have been realized on actual 8-bit hardware. The Messenger truly is a feast for the eyes, but the soundtrack is equally impressive, with catchy, high-energy chiptune melodies that will happily live in your head rent free.
The real draw here, however, is the gameplay. In many ways, The Messenger feels exactly like the evolution of Ninja Gaiden that it appears to be, but it’s actually more than that. Rather than giving you a simple, no-frills double-jump, the eponymous ninja protagonist can use his “cloudstep” ability to gain one additional jump for every enemy or object he slashes while mid-air. Mastery of the cloudstep allows the potential of staying in the air indefinitely. So long as there is at least one enemy or background object nearby.
Primed for Perfection
The game’s protagonist can cloudstep from the very beginning of the game. Plus, he’ll learn plenty of other abilities over the course of the game. Each ability makes environmental traversal faster or more efficient. Either allowing the ninja to zip or float over obstacles, or by making it easier to eliminate enemies that threaten to knock you out of perpetual movement. You learn abilities fairly consistently until the first major story twist, which is when things start to go slightly downhill.
At the risk of spoiling the game’s surprises, I’ll just say that it becomes much more non-linear in its second half. Similar to how Metroid Prime 2 made you spend its latter portion seeking out Sky Temple keys, The Messenger sends its ninja on a quest to retrieve a number of “McGuffin” items. The key (no pun intended) difference here is that backtracking through a set of interconnected levels is expected in a Metroid game, while The Messenger initially appears to be a linear action game. When I first played the game, closer to its launch, I stopped shortly after the world opened up.
I believe I understand Sabotage Games’ intentions with its late game collectathon. After slowly accumulating a set of abilities that are fun to use, why not allow the player to run through previously-completed levels again in the most efficient manner possible? My frustration with this is a combination of the cryptic nature of the clues for item locations and some questionable checkpointing. On occasion, I would think I knew where I was going, making my way through a long and difficult level, only to find out I was on a wild goose chase.
When all was said and done, I had invested around nine hours into The Messenger. The latter half tarnished what initially seemed to be a near-perfect throwback action game. However, I still mostly enjoyed my experience. Perhaps if there were fewer collectibles. Or if they simply contributed to a good or “true” ending or optional unlockable item. Then I would be more forgiving of the stretched-out content. As it stands, I will limit any potential future playthroughs of the core game to the first few hours’ worth of content.
No Need to Panic
In mid-2019, Sabotage Games released a free DLC expansion titled Picnic Panic. I’m happy to say that it does not suffer from any of the pacing issues that plagued the core game. Taking around three hours to complete, Picnic Panic is a fun and creative set of new levels and boss encounters that require you to make efficient use of all of your abilities. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and was the perfect high note to end my time with The Messenger on.
The Messenger is an excellent action-platformer that offers an embarrassment of riches. There are worse caveats than the warning that a game goes on for too long. There are most certainly gamers who just can’t get enough of a game they’re enjoying. What are your thoughts on games with padded out content? What do you think is an appropriate length for this style of action-platformer? Let us know in the comments!