The Messenger is a delightful little throwback to the days of Ninja Gaiden.
In The Messenger, you play as - wait for it - The Messenger, a Ninja-in-training who is bestowed The Scroll, which he must carry across the island to the highest peak in order to Do The Thing.
On the surface, this game is a throwback indie 8-bit 2d platformer that will seriously make you think of some old-school games. I've already mentioned the original Ninja Gaiden - a likeness the game itself touts very early. However, below the surface is some very clever writing and deep philosophical insights about both storytelling and interpersonal relationships.
Throughout the game, you'll meet some very standard archetypes and tropey characters. Quarble - your Ninja's Greed Demon - is your primary companion throughout the game, there to taunt you viciously and take your Time Shard currency in order to resurrect you anytime you die. When you're not bribing your savior to reset the clock a few seconds and erase your death, you can spend your Time Shards at the Shopkeeper.
The Shopkeeper is quite possibly the heart of this game. Superficially, he is the typical trope of a surly wisened overseer, set to look out for our hero and ensure he gets where he's going. But a few dialog options will reveal him to be quite the philosopher and storyteller. Almost every new zone of the island will come with a new story which the shopkeeper will offer, purely in text format, with some very interesting (and at times, snarky) insights at the end. Even the non-skippable monologues you receive as punishment for being overly curious at the wrong times (required for some achievements) of the game end with deep reflection on the human condition. It's a nice aside from hacking and slashing your way through an endless horde of demon minions.
The first time I picked up the game, the platforming threw me. The Messenger comes from a tribe of Ninja that possess a unique ability: cloudstepping: a double-jump that you can perform mid-air after striking any object (destructibles, enemies, their shots, etc). "Double-jump" is a bit misleading as you can do this an endless number of times so long as you have something to hit after each jump. This allows the Messenger to effectively stay aloft infinitely, which is a very odd mechanic to wrap your head around at the beginning of the game.
Once you master it, though, the platforming really solidifies. The game's most difficult platforming segments are built around cloudstepping across chasms, or over magma pits, or endless spikes, or just across big open spaces that you just spent several minutes carefully climbing. You'll cloudstep over and through enemies and their fire, often with very little room for error for your next cloudstep-charging hit. This mechanic is, in and of itself, very neat and makes for some super fun challenges. But it pales in comparison to the game's main twist.
My only complaint about The Messenger is that the controller layout sometimes causes Cloudstepping to turn into a button mashfest. You have to hit an object with
and then jump with
. After getting the wingsuit, holding
down will allow you to glide, where tapping
to hit something will give The Messenger a small boost. However, the timing to switch between jumping, gliding, striking, and glide-striking with only two buttons can get very, very tricky.
The bumpers and triggers are hardly used:
is used by the Lightweight Tabi to run across liquid (water or lava), which is useful for all of maybe 4 rooms in the entire game; and
opens the map once you unlock that ability late in the game. Had Sabotage Studios opted to use
for gliding, it would have simplified the controls considerably and reduced the (read: my
) tendency to devolve into button mashing during some unnecessarily difficult platforming segments. There are some achievements that cause a ton of frustrating replays which (IMHHO) could have benefitted from improved controller use and button layout. Even hampered this way, the game is still a very playable and a quick completion that can be done in less than a day.
Overall, The Messenger is one of the better gems I've played recently. It's fun, light-hearted, reminds me of my very early days in gaming, and has a bunch of funny, clever, self-aware dialog to pair with awesome level designs and challenges.