The Messenger – Part One

Factfile
Developed by:Sabotage Studio
Published by:Devolver Digital
Released:2019
Format played:PS4

Ruminations

In many ways, The Messenger is a standard, old school action adventure. Sprinkled with a distinctly retro flavour, you take the role of a Ninja, tasked with delivering a sacred scroll to help liberate his people from the clutches of an evil ne’er do well.

And so off you set, jumping here, attacking there and progressing through the various areas of the world. Eventually you battle your way through to your destination at the top of a mountain where you deliver your scroll and do battle with the final boss. Or at least that’s what I thought…

Gameplay

The Messenger is distinctly old school in flavour but with more than a doff of the cap to the modern audience. Taking control of the titular messenger, you have to traverse a series of stages to deliver your scroll. Your ninja is a breezy fellow to control, sprinting across the screen and hopping over platforms and ledges. Early on you are introduced to your first special move, which grants you the ability to perform a double jump by striking an object whilst mid-jump. It takes a few goes to get used to, requiring some manual dexterity to remember to jump and strike at just the right time. But once mastered, you can perform some incredible acrobatic feats to get you across gaps and up into other areas.

As you progress, further upgrades are unlocked. Some of these are granted to you, others must be purchased with the in-game currency. These extra abilities allow you to cling to walls, float through the air, attack whilst floating and fire off a grappling hook. In some instances the upgrades are essential to progressing, the flying / floating power for instance introduced at the start of a level that relies on this mechanic for progression. Other abilities, such as firing of shurikens, are optional upgrades that simply make life a bit easier.

And you’ll take any help you can get. This is old school in more ways than one with a difficulty level that commands your respect. You are eased in to an extent as the game takes you through the basic controls but it isn’t long before you need to start chaining together a jump, double jump, float and grapple just to traverse a single screen. All the while, everything in the world is out to kill you, from retracting spikes to dissolving platforms, lava pits to electric beams of death. And dotted in between are all sorts of beasts that need to be taken out. You come equipped with a sword, which will only strike the way you are facing. Some enemies potter around a ledge at their own pace like they’re out for a Sunday walk, others fly around the screen, spit fire at you or just tear from one side of the screen to the other in a blur of violence. Most take no more than a couple of hits to dispatch and you can make life easier for yourself with an upgrade that lets you whack your way through incoming attacks.

Those upgrades are all purchasable via a shopkeeper who pops up throughout the game and very much sets the tone for the adventure. At the outset, this feels like a competent but potentially po-faced action platformer but it soon morphs into a post modern assault on genre tropes. The shopkeeper is a Deadpool-style fourth wall breaker, cracking out witty asides about your progress through the game, a trite plot point or even an upgrade that he knows you need to progress. He always has a story to tell too, but for goodness sake don’t try to touch his cabinet. His wares can be purchased with crystals, collecting throughout the adventure by smashing objects and enemies, upgrades allowing you to purchase extra health and other helpful mods.

Each level has an end of level boss, which will often require you to make use of your latest power to overcome. And it is here that my first real niggles appear. They body of the game is challenging. It combines the single screen puzzle design of a Kid Gloves, the platforming acrobatics of a Mario and even the adventurous spirit of a Rick Dangerous. But unlike our old friend Rick, there are no unfair spikes in difficulty and no hidden traps. Completion of certain sections is occasionally reliant on memory and repetition but death is nearly always down to challenging difficulty rather than spiteful design. It might be hard. It might take you a dozen or so attempts. But it can be done, you can make it to the next section with patience and perseverance, if not just a slice of good old fashioned luck.

The end of level bosses maintain this approach but I consistently found the encounters frustrating. Like all the best boss encounters in retro gaming, they each have a set of signature moves and weak points and victory is achieved by navigating through their attacks and striking at the right moment. Boss battles include a set of brothers who tag in and out to bash you up, a Skeletor-alike you patrols the screen on a hoverboard of carnage and a dirty great fiery snake that wipes out part of the platform as he swoops down towards you. Victory is hard earned and satisfying when it comes but a number of these battles took me dozens of attempts to the point that it put me off wanting to reach the end of the next section, knowing that I would face another long slog. I much preferred my time leaping ninja like through the levels themselves.

Whether in level or during boss fights, death is inevitable and thankfully the Messenger does cede to one important aspect of modern gaming, that of the checkpoint. They are reasonably generously placed, often just before and after particularly tricky sections and always before a boss fight. Just to keep you on your toes though, each time you die a little fellow flies around after you for a short time, collecting any crystals you pick up as a debt payment. it is never too punitive, and you can purchase an upgrade to reduce the tariff, but it is a clever way of allowing you to continue whilst offering some incentive to not die in the first place. That and the fact that he gives you a sarcastic comment each time you come a cropper, reminding you of just how many times you have restarted or how many crystals you have diverted his way.

Level design is nicely varied, both in location and layout. Your progress to the mountain sees you traversing forests, underground caverns, marshes and more and the design of each section becomes more fiendish as you go. Some parts of levels are single screen affairs, almost like mini puzzles, whilst others are multi-screen tests, scrolling from one platform to the next, attacking, grappling and leaping as you go. Whilst it is linear, there are plenty of hidden secrets to find too, extra rewards on offer for those hardy enough to risk a particularly tricky optional section. Graphically this wears its retro gaming badge with pride, the visuals harking back to the 8-bit NES with gloriously basic, but ridiculously catchy music to accompany you on your journey.

Bottom Line

The Messenger is a fun, challenging action platformer. I spent a very satisfying four or so hours battling my way to the top of the mountain, traversing the most fiendishly difficult level yet and doing battle with a mighty boss. Yep, it was one tough but enjoyable experience. But then a funny thing happened. Having carried the scroll to the mountain, inched my way to the top, faced my fears and battled the fiendish end of level boss, instead of the game ending, it turned into something else entirely.

But we’ll talk about that next time.

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