Has it really been four years since Shovel Knight? With precision platforming and a killer soundtrack, Yacht Club Games’ stellar debut instantly set the standard for what a retro-inspired game could be. Since then, many have tried to capture the same magic, but few have succeeded. There’s just something to the authentic feeling that a game is simultaneously old and new. An experience that builds on the past from an alternate universe where the 16-bit consoles lasted forever. This is what Shovel Knight gets so right, and this is what Sabotage taps into with their debut. Taking inspiration from Ninja Gaiden and countless others, The Messenger bursts onto the scene with that same retro conviction. Four years is a long time, and we have a new standard-bearer.
Your village is under siege. Demons are invading, and your ninja training is finally going to pay off. In a whirlwind intro, you accept a sacred scroll from a mysterious hero and start a quest to deliver it to the tallest mountain peak. As you adventure, you meet a cult of robed guardians and a menagerie of boss characters. Everyone has a role to play in this grand story, even if it might not seem so at first. Nothing is ever as it seems, and the twists and turns the narrative takes over your ten-hour journey push you ever onward.
If unlocking the mysteries of The Messenger‘s world doesn’t drive you, perhaps the humor will. Whether it’s listening to the shopkeeper’s stories or surviving the latest burn after you die, every bit of dialogue on display is charming and heartfelt. Said burns come from Quarble, a sarcastic demon who revives you whenever you land on a spike or hook yourself into a buzzsaw. While adding greatly to the overall vibe, his quips can get long in the tooth. There just aren’t enough of them to sustain the entire game, and you can see the same couple of lines pop up if you keep dying to a single threat. What is here is great, and that goes for pretty much the entirety of the writing on display. Characters are extremely self-aware, but they also sell everything happening as genuine. Time travel lets you get away with that sort of thing.
Yes, one of the game’s biggest selling points is the ability to play around in a world shifting between 8 and 16-bit. I won’t give too much away, as the hows and whys of this change reveal themselves masterfully as you go. Purely looking at presentation, you can tell that the development team at Sabotage dedicate themselves to perfection in their work. Much like going back to an old game after playing a remaster, The Messenger constantly tricks you with its slight upgrades. The backgrounds go from black hues to beautifully detailed landscapes, and no stone is left unturned in this graphical overhaul. The soundtrack adds in that Genesis bass seamlessly when warping forward, and the music even becomes muffled underwater.
It’s not just the presentation that evolves. Everything is based around this dichotomy of styles. As you get to the 16-bit levels, you’ll see more advanced traversal challenges and a break from the linear progression. The game attempts to point you in the right direction, but those hints can be vague. This is especially true if you weren’t paying close attention to your earlier travels. Towards the very end of the adventure, going back to previous worlds can also get tedious, but this is the exception to the norm.
Utilizing the included hint system is vital in pointing you in the right direction, especially if you’re not a fan of backtracking. If you’re into exploration, the game lets you scour levels for secrets, but it can stay linear if you’d rather have it that way. No matter what you choose, it’s always fun to see exactly where they hide the next level. Turning up in a place you’ve already stomped through only to open yet another hidden passage is a great trick. A stylish world executed this well would be enough to recommend any game on its own. In The Messenger, it’s just icing on the cake.
The true star of this show is the precision platforming and the ninja action. You’ve probably seen a preview where a developer that you feel just like their protagonist. Whether it’s a space marine or a wizard with a company of heroes, this kind of talk is usually just for building hype. After my time with it, I can say without hyperbole that The Messenger makes you feel like a ninja. You can scale walls, hurl shuriken, slash your katana, and traverse impossible terrain with fancy footwork. Every acrobatic move flows into the next one and attacks are rapid-fire and deadly. There is seemingly no height beyond your reach, even if it looks impossible on the onset. You’re always gaining new tricks to access more and more of each stage, and nothing is difficult enough to incite rage.
I felt in the zone while playing The Messenger. Much like a ninja might achieve zen, each new challenge became something to learn, repeat, and conquer. I can count on one hand the number of times I truly became frustrated at a death trap or enemy placement. Jumping puzzles I can handle, but the instant kill lasers and crushing walls always gave me trouble. Even in these instances, I could simply take a small break, come back, and I was progressing again in no time. Despite how challenging the gameplay can be, I’d never say that it was difficult. It’s the perfect mix of offering achievable goals without handing you victory on a silver platter.
From the eye of a retro gamer, The Messenger has everything you could want in a throwback. While there are minimal nostalgic references to the games that inspired it, there’s much more effort placed on letting you tackle scenarios in the same way you did back in the NES days. Learning boss fights feels just as exhilarating now as it did back in Dracula’s castle. Purposeful or not, I even found spots where I could avoid all damage by standing in the right place. These moments are fleeting but repeatable, and you’ll need all the help you can get against later opponents. In the end, these exploits never feel game breaking. Instead, it feels like you’ve found a batch of secrets and shortcuts you can show off to your friends.
Anyone who grew up with these types of games knows how difficult it is to truly go home again. Outside of a few nostalgic favorites, the majority of retro titles have designs against the player in one way or another. Those new to the hobby can appreciate what came before, but sitting down for hours and hours with something like Milon’s Secret Castle just isn’t happening. This is why games like The Messenger are so important. Here, the style of these classic games lives on with dedicated affection and modern sensibilities. Checkpoints appear at a proper clip, but you don’t save after every room. Lives are never an issue, you just might have to give up some upgrade currency along the way. Games like The Messenger are exceedingly playable, but few can achieve Sabotage’s high level of craft in this pursuit.
The Messenger succeeds in just about everything it does. It's a masterful retro throwback with challenging action-platforming and a charming story to tell. At the same time, its mastery of revealing itself over its ten-hour runtime and pushing the player forward is something that every modern game could learn from.
- Best in Class Ninja Action
- Dedicated Retro Presentation
- Charming Cast of Characters
- Surprises at Every Turn
- Quarble Repeats Himself Too Often
- A Single Instance of Annoying Button Mashing
- Occasionally Vague Hints
- It Eventually Ends