The Messenger is an action-platformer inspired by the Ninja Gaiden series. Its initial release was on the Nintendo Switch in August of 2018, with a delayed-launch on PlayStation and Xbox.
To start things off, The Messenger is a great game. Fans of retro-style platformers should rejoice that it has finally made its way to Xbox and should go grab their copy now. Published by Devolver Digital, you know you can expect great things when their portfolio includes other great games like Enter the Gungeon, Hotline Miami, Titan Souls, and more.
The story begins as a ninja, called Ninja, disenchanted with his life of endless training and prophecy memorizing, who yearns for a greater purpose. His wish is granted when within the first five minutes of the game demons arrive, kill most of the other ninjas, and make him the protagonist by default. Ninja is tasked with carrying a scroll across the land to the top of the tallest mountain. What follows is a comical and challenging journey to defeat the Demon King and break the curse that torments the land.
The game begins as a linear action-platformer where the only ability Ninja has to start is “Cloudstepping”; this allows him to jump mid-air after any attack on an enemy or object. New abilities are acquired relatively frequently and there is even a blue-robed shopkeeper that will help you out along the way. He’s even kind enough to give you the first upgrade for free – the climbing claws. These allow the player to jump against walls and then jump off them, which the game assumes is something everyone tried anyway. Because, and I quote: “The way everything looks, it just felt like I should be able to do that”.
There are more skills to be earned and unlocked, but to get them Ninja will need to collect Time Shards. These are lying around all over the place and can be dropped by enemies when they are defeated. There are even secret rooms jammed full of them.
Every challenge overcome is incredibly satisfying and the controls are some of the most responsive out there. The Messenger is so confident in this that the developers even joke about it in one of the many possible death messages. The point is, succeeding is based on skill and that makes playing all the more fun. Each obstacle overcome and boss beaten is an accomplishment, despite all the deaths that are sure to happen.
Speaking of death, The Messenger has a unique in-game explanation for how death works and why every fall into a bottomless pit, impalation by spikes, or death by fireball isn’t the end of Ninja’s journey, and that comes in the form of Quarble.
Quarble is a Greed Demon who stops time when Ninja dies, reverts it back to the last save point, and then hangs around collecting all of the Time Shards Ninja gets for a set amount of time until he feels the debt is paid or simply gets bored. He’s also a bit of a chicken and will tuck-tail and run whenever a boss is encountered. He has a habit of scribbling notes condescendingly when Ninja dies while he is around, and will often make sarcastic comments at his expense. But without Quarble the journey would be a short one, so perhaps his existence is a lesson in taking the good with the bad.
Regardless, the journey must go on! After a few hours of playing Ninja will finally reach the mountain he must climb, and when the top is finally reached, it is discovered that the scroll can summon the Tower of Time. At the top of which it is discovered that the tower will send the person inside to “when” they are most needed and, for Ninja, “when” just happens to be 500 years into the future. Here his job is to pass off the scroll to the next messenger, thus continuing the cycle that set him off on his journey. After a series of events that is best left experienced instead of explained, Ninja is given a new task: break the cycle’s hold over the land.
It is at this point that the game really starts to shine. Done with the linear levels, the second half of the game makes use of the time travel mechanic to expand on old areas and introduce new ones. Not only is there more content but there are stylistic changes that come with it, the most noticeable of which are the updated graphics. Up until this point in the game everything had been in 8-bit graphics, but when in the future everything is 16-bit. Not only is the art updated but the audio quality is bumped up as well, and Ninja even gets a fancy new hat. It gets mentioned, multiple times.
At this point it’ll be a bit before the game starts to make full use of these new mechanics, but they are coming, and it’s such an integral part to the game that it would be a disservice to not mention it.
Something else that eventually gets brought up is that the mystical scroll Ninja has been carrying is also a map, he just never bothered to read it. And really this is the only part of the game that could be improved on. The map would’ve been nice earlier, if simply for reference for finding side rooms and getting the collectibles, mainly the power seals. There are 45 of these seals throughout the game and for completionists it will be a little frustrating knowing there was a map that just wasn’t accessible until this point. The layout is also a little bland, especially when compared to the rest of the game, but these are minor issues and by no means detract from the overall experience.
The real reason it gets introduced is because at the same time the map function is revealed, the game changes from a linear experience to a Metroid-esque experience. In fact it all comes together to have the plot elements of a Zelda game and the mechanics of a Metroid experience. Those comparisons aren’t all encompassing by any means.
But these are all things The Messenger does, not only to pay its respects to classic games but set itself apart as its own game. Solid mechanics, lots of humor, and unique and amazing stylistic choices, all come together to make an immensely fun game. It even includes a New Game+ which greatly improves on the replay value of the game.
There really aren’t many negatives to The Messenger but it certainly won’t be for everyone. It is challenging and will take time to get through depending on skill level, especially for completionists. But the base game can be completed in around 8 hours. The humor, while something I greatly enjoy, also won’t be for everyone. The amount of fourth wall jokes is a lot and some may find it a bit much. It also never takes itself seriously, so it’s not for people looking for a serious adventure.
But if those aren’t deal breakers then go pick up a copy of The Messenger on Xbox One and play it yourself. There is plenty of content that can’t be covered here, including a few more collectibles, secrets, and some incredibly challenging achievements, which are all worth checking out.