“Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry with a splash of blood.”
-Runaway Horses, Yukio Mishima
“The following is a contributor post by the Moronic Cheese Mage.”
As something of an indie game connoisseur, I’m always on the lookout for the next great indie experience. The problem is that there are A LOT of them coming out all the time.
Yet sometimes, one crops up which sweeps the board with critical acclaim and overall excellence. The Messenger is one, a Ninja Gaiden-inspired NES romp with moments of genuine brilliance.
Canadian indie team Sabotage Studio is behind it. Having launched in August of 2018, you can pick it up on the PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. Here’s why that’s a rather sound purchasing decision:
The official site sums the plot up rather well:
“As a demon army besieges his village, a young ninja ventures through a cursed world, to deliver a scroll paramount to his clan’s survival.”
Anyone familiar with the NES era of gaming will know plotlines were of little importance back then. Usually, you got a few boxes of dialogue and then into the adventure you would go.
And if you know of the excellent Ninja Gaiden series, this will all look rather familiar. And that’s because it’s a loving homage to those fabulous NES titles.
In fact, Sabotage Studio was so excited about the reinvention of Ninja Gaiden that it commissioned a live action trailer.
But it’s not the only modern ninja game available. There’s the largely excellent Mark of the Ninja, for example. And even Ninja Gaiden had a 3D reworking!
I prefer the former, with its impressive 2D stylings – as you can see below – but that’s all personal preference.
Back to The Messenger. It’s a surprisingly complex and involving title with Metroidvania elements.
At its heart, it’s an action/platform game. And it’s one that has a simplistic opening set of stages that develop into far more complex levels.
And it’s a big game! Massive. If you’ve played Hollow Knight, you’ll know how that turns into a sprawling epic.
The Messenger has a similar feel, with loads of levels. Crucially there’s some amazing level design here. Really clever stuff that makes you grin and appreciate the effort that’s gone into it.
During the NES era, it was common for developers to be stunningly lazy and derivative with their games. Basically, they stole the best ideas to turn them into a quick buck.
But anyone trying that on now has the often volatile gaming community descending upon them rapidly. Hard work pays off. The critical acclaim for Sabotage Studio’s game says it all.
The thing here is, it initially comes across as a simple hack, slash, and wall-bound type of title. Yet it develops and adapts – the linear experience of fantastic level design shifts and you’re introduced to 16-bit SNES-era styled gameplay/graphics.
After that, the Metroidvania elements really kick in as you drift between the past and future, making it all rather more complex than first seems apparent.
It’s a clear indication Sabotage Studio went into the project wanting to do something a bit more than the generic series tropes.
As much as I love indie games, a lot of them don’t have the creative heft to go beyond predictable gameplay mechanics. Often they rely on one gimmick they try to drag out for a whole game.
The Messenger puts in that extra effort and slashes through such concerns, assassinating boredom, infiltrating excellence, and sabotaging stale industry norms. On the whole.
As you might expect – because this is the case with so many indie games – it’s difficult. It’s really up to you with this one. If you die, it’s very much your fault… most of the time.
The boss battles are brilliant but highly frustrating. It’s one part of the game I found to be so annoying I abandoned it for over a month.
It’s a confusing state of affairs as I know the bosses are fantastic. A lot of creativity has gone into them and each one is memorable in its own way. So what’s my problem?
Call me a noob who needs to get good, or whatever, but the indie team went a bit overboard with the difficulty of these things.
Some of the fights drag on for an eternity. Your initial delight in the latest ravishing boss design can quickly turn sour when you reach your 10th attempt.
Each one is a muscle memory battle – remember the pattern, rinse, and repeat until you’ve hit it enough times for it to die. And, my word, some of them take a lot of hits. I mean, they really, really drag on for a very long time.
Generally, I find boss battles tedious these days. They ruin the flow of the experience, which is one reason why I think titles like Half-Life 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are so exceptional. That traditional boss interruption to gameplay is abandoned. For the large part, the flow of the experience doesn’t receive a sudden, jolting halt.
To be fair to The Messenger, there are collectables you can pick up in the build-up to some bosses. My advice is to make sure you’re ramped up with as much health as possible – get add-ons and whatnot (itself not an easy task). That’ll do you a big service. Other than that, you’re on your own.
Those of you familiar with Ghosts ‘n Goblins may notice the above dragon is similar to one of the bosses in that immensely difficult game.
Kind of apt, really. But, whatever – you can view this as me needing to get better at The Messenger. Or, perhaps, indie studios should look to curb the ongoing trope of reliving the annoying difficulty standards of the NES era.
As a working adult, I don’t have the time to burn so I can “git gud” at the thing. A difficulty setting to lower the maddening nature is always an option, you know.
But Sabotage Studio was conscientious in other aspects of the title. It took great efforts to add a sense of heft to the story.
One of the most affecting parts of the title is a character referred to as the Shopkeeper. This enigmatic individual, shrouded by a long cloak, is no mere assistant.
An intellectual and ready wit, he/she runs rings around the Messenger’s inferior intelligence. And it creates some very endearing, and even poignant, discourse between the two. Particularly with some of the fables the character is ready to depart with.
Additionally, the Shopkeeper allows you to power-up and improve your chances of advancing in the game… but the character is never quite what he/she appears to be.
But it’s the humour that won us over here. I find it amusing just staring at him sitting there stoically. The dry wit and condescension had me looking forward to visiting the chap in each stage – just make sure you stay away from its cupboard.
The novelty of modern games doing NES-era type stuff doesn’t have the same impact as, say, when Shovel Knight did it. But The Messenger bucks the trend by adding in variations such as SNES-styled sections.
And the attention to detail and little flourishes – often seen flashing away in the backgrounds – are great. If you like this type of thing, then it’s all rather fabulous.
It’s taken the Shovel Knight approach in recreating a NES soundtrack. It’s not quite as joyous as Yacht Club Games’ effort, but for The Messenger it’s still a catchy effort that helps to relive the NES era through looping bleeps and bloops.
Memories of Ninja Gaiden? Yes. Heaping doses of modern platforming sensibilities? Yes. Brilliant level design? Absolutely.
And that’s what the title just does so well – it takes all those favourite moments of yours from certain 2D platformers them and adapts them just enough to be new, engaging, and thoroughly compelling.
As much as I enjoyed the game, I really had a problem with the bosses. I guess that makes me a noob, but some gamers may grow bored of the muscle memory approach to advancing in the game.
But if a challenge is your thing, then this one really piles it on during the boss fights. Have the patience to overcome those and you’ll find an immensely rewarding experience, even if you punch a hole in a wall on a few occasions getting to that stage.
There’s a certain addictive quality to the game – especially with the various clever little details to it – that’ll draw you in.
Even now, months after having moved on but here writing this review, I want to have another dig. That says a lot, non? And there are plenty of gameplay options and extras to hunt for to keep you coming back.
For all its charms, I wouldn’t say it’s an overly innovative experience. But that’s partially the point as it exists to advance the Ninja Gaiden series. It’s a homage to that title, but it stands proud and alone as its own thing as well.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
The Messenger stands out in a crowded indie game market thanks to its commitment to constantly introducing new ideas. Just when you think it’s hit a Metroidvania trope, something new and surprising happens.
But at the core of the experience, it’s just a damn good platformer! Whether you played similar titles back in the NES heyday or you just love the genre now, this is a fantastic example of a developer getting the formula so very nearly perfect.
My chief gripe remains with those damn bosses. But if you’ve got the moves, then you’ll boss this one big time, ninja.
Aggregated Score: 7.9
The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.
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Categories: Game Review