Never before have I bashed my head against the (virtual, thankfully) wall before. Celeste came close - very close. But this game… Oh, where to start. Its gameplay is brutally difficult. Its soundtrack is unbelievably good. Its storyline is surprisingly compelling. And on top of all that, the game is actually very funny. Does this have all critical components that make up a perfect 2D action platformer?
Part I: Run-and-rope action
Everyone who saw a trailer or a clip about the game - or even a screenshot - knows it’s a 2D action platformer with clear retro vibes. Sabotage Studios doesn’t try to hide The Messenger’s legacy. The Ninja Gaiden inspiration never feels blunt, and the NES chiptunes - that later evolve into 16-BIT Genesis ones - complement each level perfectly. The first few hours of the game are quite manageable for the occasional 2D platform gamer like me. But then… A few difficulty spikes in the form of boss battles literally kick your ass.
I’m no stranger to the genre, but I do detest masocore-like games such as Super Meatboy. I’m used to a bit of difficulty present in many Castlevania or Metroidvania-like games, but the Cloudstep mechanics, the unique ability that allows for a double-jump after hitting a target, took a very long time for me to settle in. At first, it’s only occasionally needed, but the game does a good job at gradually throwing other things at you such as a dart rope and a wing suit. All these things work together and help The Messenger in becoming a swift Ninja-like killer.
That is, if you manage to get your timing precise. I didn’t.
Many times, this ended with bitter frustration. Luckily, the game allows you to continue where you left off an indefinite amount of times - that is, starting from the last Shop Portal which also acts as a save point. These points are sometimes spread a bit too thin to my liking. You are expected to die again and again, and yet, unlike in Celeste, it’s clear that the game laughs at you. Quite literally: the little devil helper called Quarble comes up with funny lines such as the following:
In Metroidvanias, save points act like save havens and replenish your health. Not so in this game. In Celeste, dying simply means resetting the current on-screen stage. Not so in this game. It is also striking that the music resets after dying, and even though I absolutely loved the soundtrack (which you should buy at Rainbowdragoneyes' Bandcamp page), only hearing the first 10 seconds and falling in that same pit again and again starts to wear off pretty quickly.
Still, the first part of the game could - besides a few major hickups - be called straightforward. After defeating the “big boss” in the Temple of Time, you’re suddenly transported into the future, which visually and auditory catapults you forward from 8-bit to 16-bit: a very pleasing experience. And the first major plot twist. This proves that when it comes to the story, The Messenger has a lot of tricks on its sleeve: it’s far from a standard run-and-gun 2D platformer.
Part II: Backtracking. Where to?
After the Temple of Time and a few other stages, the game suddenly “opens up”. With that, I literally mean the possibility to “select” stages from a central hub, and parts of stages that can be revisited that reveal other exits due to new trinkets in your possession. Sound an awful lot like Metroidvanias, right? Sadly, the game does a very poor job at guiding you where to go, besides very vague “prophecies” that still had me reaching for an on-line guide.
The trouble is, I absolutely do not want to backtrack in this game. Especially not in pesky stages that had me die a lot! Even though Circle of the Moon is also considered hard, I had less trouble navigating those castle corridors compared to the many jump-through-the-hoop stages in The Messenger. This was mostly due to my incapability of mastering the Cloud Jump. Only the seventh hour or so in, it finally started to feel like even difficult paths were doable. Pfew…
Usually, backtracking in Metroidvania games involve slight level adjustments that introduce other pathways. The Messenger is very clever in this by introducing “time rifts” that enable rapid switching between 8-bit and 16-bit environments, where hurdles suddenly disappear or appear. You’re sent on fetch-quests that involve collecting demon artifacts, bridge builders, magic faeries and even tea leaves and candles - that one was particularly hilarious. It’s all done with flair and a few well-placed jokes that never feel over the top. I love The Messenger’s atmosphere.
Thanks to that guide, that is.
Part III: The finale, another plot twist?
After finally collecting even more seemingly random stuff, such as music notes, without particularly knowing why, the last part of the veil is lifted, and another plot twist is introduced (the second-last: after defeating the final boss, there’s this “haha, be continued!” one). For a game that is inspired by classic NES-era “hardcore 2D platformers”, the story is indeed surprisingly deep.
In the end, The Messenger is truly a one-of-a-kind. It is responsible for days and days of me humming Hills of Destiny or Impossible Ascent tunes. Its unique 8/16-bit switching mechanic - or even the cloud stepping ability - or the way the game gradually introduces the gamer to new abilities - is amazing. I loved every minute of it.
Yet, I also hated the game and the way it laughed at my feeble attempts to get to the next screen. It does a poor job at soothing me, saying “It’s okay, just try again”, like Celeste’s “proud” death counts. Here, Quarble simply mocks you, proclaiming things like “zigged when you should have zagged?” or “If someone is watching, you can say it was input lag”. As much as I appreciate the humor, at that moment, it only adds to my anger.
So there you have it. The perfect love/hate relationship. I would have no problems paying
€60 for a game like this, but instead, it’s regularly available for
€10 in the Switch e-shop. Just remember that The Messenger should not be classified as a Metroidvania game.
I hope the free DLC proves to be just as good!