The first time I warped from an 8 to 16-bit world while gliding through The Messenger, I couldn’t help but be overcome by my grin as the game the game seamlessly leapt through time. This was during my demo at E3, and even with my embarrassment from failing to clear platforming segments or recognizing boss patterns in front of the dev, this smile didn’t fade. The Messenger looked, sounded, and more importantly felt like a complete dream even with my mishandlings. Trying to ease my anxiety during the demo, the dev reassured me that the portion I was playing was hours into the game and that in the full experience I would have adequate time to become adjusted to the skills and mechanics I was struggling with. Which to his credit, he was absolutely right, but one mechanic took a little too long to poke out its head.
When looking into The Messenger, the first feature to enchant my gaze was the game’s unparalleled portrayal of time travel by transitioning between an 8 to 16-bit aesthetic. Not only, altering the look, but even reconstructing the environment, introducing a puzzle-mechanic to the platformer. This is what I fell in love with during my 20-minute demo. Regrettably, I wasn’t properly introduced to this mechanic until hours into the game. At this point, the game sends you back to maps you’ve already cleared. This time to farther your exploration as the map unrolls for the first time, introducing Metroidvania-style discovery, with a new objective of locating hidden notes believed to be the key to save the cursed world.
Beat out only by its charm, one of the traits I enjoyed most about The Messenger is the care taken to ensure players are comfortable with skills before pushing them into the deep. One of the first times this compassion shined through was when I came across a wheel. It’s important to note that in this game, any time you strike an object you’re provided with another opportunity to jump. Essentially allowing you to hover indefinitely provided you have the coordination.
Back to the wheel. Leaning into my video game nature when approached with something new I instinctively struck the wheel and noticed that it bumped up slightly, before slowly resetting. Not understanding the lesson, I proceed to climb adjacent to the wheel, intermittently striking as it begins to peak. I do this all the way to the top, yet nothing happens. It isn’t until I venture to the opposite side of the screen, where I’m faced with a similar setup this time with a jagged unclimbable wall that the lesson finally clicked. Silent teaching moments such as these truly stood out to me, providing just the right amount of hand-holding to not deter veterans of the genre. While keeping things accessible for the less intuitive players, like me.
These silent lessons were made even more prominent when compared to some of the comically heavy-handed moral lessons. The Messenger may be the title character, but it’s the Shopkeeper who truly steals the show. Sprinkled throughout the game’s 10 levels are special checkpoints which teleport the player into a mystic shop where they can purchase new skills to assist their quest. While unlocking these abilities certainly lessened my stress as platforming ramped in difficulty, I found genuine motivation in my talks with the shopkeep.
The tongue-in-cheek banter provided within the shop strummed my ambition to make it to the next checkpoint. If only just to hear the next story to be told or the 4th-wall breaking jest, and at times disappointed when my only option was “upgrade.” The shopkeep wasn’t alone in mixing antics within the game’s plot. Nearly every NPC introduced is instilled with a quirk that’ll at least bring a smirk to your face, between the feelings of dejection and celebration provided by the game’s stimulating boss fights.
The Messenger is a game that has everything I wanted but just takes a little too long to hold true to some its promises. The gameplay is as tight as someone looking for an ode to Ninja Gaiden would hope for, ask the Ninja Gaiden devs. The gorgeous art style marvelously transitions between the games two stylizations. While the humor of the NPC’s and interactions with garble post-death, always manage to have just the right amount of strength behind their jabs to get your head back in the game.