The Messenger released originally back in August 2018 on PC and Switch to an excellent reception. The game was praised for everything from its music, to its tight controls and sense of humour. Now Sabotage Studio has completed its port to PS4, and so PlayStation gamers can see for themselves what the fuss is about.
The easiest comparisons to make are with Ninja Gaiden and metroidvania style games. The Messenger is decidedly retro in its presentation and gameplay. It’s a platformer where, initially, you press forward from screen to screen using your various ninja abilities (gradually unlocked as you progress) to leap across death-traps and slash your way through hordes of demons. But then when the game hits its half-way point, things become a bit more metroidvania, with you gaining the ability to backtrack, returning to previous areas with your “end game” gear and uncovering new paths and areas.
The story follows a ninja in training – belonging to a group who are preparing for an inevitable world ending battle with a demon army. Prophecy foretells that a “western hero” will spring forth to save the day, and while this sort of transpires, our ninja in training ends up being tasked by this hero to take a scroll to the top of a mountain – thus revealing you as ‘the messenger’.
The story is delivered in superbly droll fashion – our protagonist not being totally clear on his task, and more than willing to speak up about it. A regular character for banter is found in the shopkeeper – a robed individual that keeps a store that you can access via portals throughout the game world. Not only will the shop keeper offer you upgrades for sale, but also provides some context to what is going on in your adventure – giving you vague hints as to the importance of your journey, and also telling you a bit about the level you are on and what boss you fight at end of each area.
Dialogue is text based, as you might expect, but the writing is excellent. It’s entertaining and self-aware in a way that doesn’t get pretentious or try-hard, and the various characters throughout the game – including the bosses – are all unique and amusing in their own way. To give an example, there’s a couple of bodybuilding giants that you face off against, both who are waiting around for their stew to be cooked, who are perpetually working out (doing push ups and squats as they talk to you) and this is even built into their attacks and animations.
Speaking of boss fights, I was glad to discover that there was variety and creative challenge to these encounters. The rest of the game has you platforming past obstacles that range from simple jumps over chasms, to timing jumps on moving platforms, dodging projectiles, grappling to and running up walls, and even gliding through the air; and all of this is implemented throughout the game’s multiple boss encounters. Essentially, each boss has a distinct set of attack patterns and weaknesses. At its simplest, this means dodging out of the way of their attacks and countering when you get the chance, but some of the more elaborate bosses see you leaping over platforms, attacking weak points, and even falling through collapsing levels and fighting it out in the air. A lot of these retro inspired titles seem to pride themselves on interesting boss characters and fights, and The Messenger is no different.
As for the core levels/stages themselves, you will experience a few different environments. From the breezy coastal setting of the first area, to forests, underground caves and icy mountains; there are only a few stages, but all are sufficiently different in aesthetic and challenge. The first couple of areas just focus on traversing obstacles and jumps, whereas later ones see you climbing walls, utilising your grappling hook, and with regards to the snowy areas, dealing with slippery surfaces.
The Messenger is undoubtedly a challenging game, and particularly when the game shifts half way through you may find yourself in a conundrum on a fair few occasions. This is the most interesting part of the game, and also potentially the most jarring. You see, not only do you unlock a map and the ability to backtrack to previous areas (via convenient portals or on foot), but a time travel mechanic is also introduced. This mechanic involves jumping through time portals that are located in specific parts of each stage. Once you do so, the time period will switch from the past to the future, or vice versa.
Time switching doesn’t just have aesthetic effects (though the transition from 8 to 16 bit is a nice touch), but it also changes the layout of the levels. Obstacles appear where they weren’t before, and thus utilising the time travel portals becomes a puzzle in its own right. The aim of the metroidvania-esque side of the game is to collect music notes (as part of the prophecy) and so you must return to areas to search for these. Some are hidden in previously unreachable areas, and some are revealed in more plain sight (though never easy to access) via the time shift mechanic. This is what I meant by it being a puzzle in its own right, because you need to be in the correct time period in order to get the note.
Essentially, the developers have very cleverly placed the time portals throughout the levels so that you need to pay attention to what order, or direction, you go through them. It could be that you need to be in the past in order to perform a certain action, however just before the area where this action takes place, there will be a portal that switches you to the future. As a result you need to figure out how you can get back to that location so that when you hit the portal you are first in the future, not the past. It can actually get a little overwhelming at times, especially while you are also having to contend with the challenges of the environments and enemies, however the way in which this time travel mechanic has been infused with the platforming and puzzling is very smart indeed.
I haven’t spoken really about what I dislike about the game, and the main reason for that is because my issues are more subjective than objective. Speaking of the game’s challenge, I did at times find The Messenger to be woefully frustrating. Especially due to the difficulty of actually finding the key notes when the game flips genre on you, I did find my patience waning somewhat. Thankfully there is actually plenty of assistance throughout the game if you’re willing to pay for it. I’m not talking about real money of course, but the shards that you collect through the levels. These are used for upgrades primarily, however they can also be used to buy hints from the shopkeeper – placing a waypoint on your map to show you the location of music notes (you can also buy an upgrade that shows you where the secret areas are).
The gameplay itself is quite challenging and may be off-putting to some as a result, however even in this department, there are plenty of checkpoints throughout the levels, and the only real punishment when you die is a creature that follows you for a bit stealing any shards you gather. The way the game berates you for dying may be tiresome for those who aren’t up for the banter, but for everyone else this is just another area where the game shows off its comedic personality.
I’ll be honest, these sort of games aren’t usually my bag, and so if you’re wanting to know how it compares to others of a similar design then you aren’t going to find it here. But what I can tell you is that The Messenger is a solid platformer and a very well written and designed game. Its story and characters are interesting and humorous, and though minimalistic and retro in presentation, the game is as refined and well-paced as one should expect from a modern title. The platforming is challenging, but creative and fun, with not many occasions presenting themselves as truly obnoxious in design, and the music is excellent. For those who are more invested in platformers and metroidvania style games, I’m sure you’ve probably already played The Messenger, though if not I can see this being a must buy, and for those who generally aren’t (like myself) the game isn’t as difficult to get into as you might initially assume. The PS4 port is without issue and so PlayStation gamers can trust that they will get as good an experience as everyone else. Otherwise, the game is available on PC and Switch.
+ Interesting boss fights and character
+ Good writing and sense of humour
+ Excellent soundtrack