Platforms: PC (reviewed), Nintendo Switch

Right off the bat, there was a lot about indie developer Sabotage’s new retro-themed platformer The Messenger that appealed to me. Ninja protagonist? Check. Well-executed platforming and combat? Check. Meticulously crafted levels featuring a variety of different environment types? Check and check. Like many other games in the indie genre, The Messenger combines old-school concepts and new-age ideals into a unique presentation that feels both familiar and fresh.

However, the greatest feat The Messenger accomplishes doesn’t even occur until the player has already invested several hours into their adventure. It’s one of the cleverest twists I have ever seen in an indie game, or any game for that matter, and it proves the old saying that oftentimes the journey is far more meaningful than the destination.

An unlikely hero

The Messenger opens up with a rather grim portrayal of the near future. Humanity has been nearly wiped out by an invading demon army, and the last remaining pocket of humans have hidden themselves away in a secluded forest, training rigorously in the ways of the ninja so that they will be prepared when the demon army returns.

The player steps into the role of one of the less seasoned members of the group, a young ninja who finds little point in all of the constant training since he has never seen the demon army with his own eyes.

And of course, mere moments after the game begins, the demon army shows up and makes a right mess of things, forcing the player’s ninja to step up and undertake a quest to deliver a prophetic scroll to the top of a mountain, thus becoming the titular Messenger.

The journey to the mountain’s peak is a treacherous one, taking the player through a variety of linear levels filled with demonic enemies, environmental traps, and other hazards. Fortunately, while he may not be the most enthusiastic of heroes, the playable ninja protagonist is more than capable of facing down any threats he encounters.

Gameplay in The Messenger consists of fairly basic platforming and combat which slowly grows more complex over time as the player earns new upgrades and key items. These upgrades and items are doled out by a mysterious shopkeeper who pops up periodically in each level and who provides insights into the player’s quest when needed.

These insights usually come in the form of comedic dialogue exchanges between the shopkeeper and the player’s ninja, exchanges which often break the fourth wall and poke fun at many of the standard gameplay and marketing practices that other games rely on.

While, in many regards, The Messenger wholly embraces its retro gaming roots via elements such as chiptune-style music and unique level intro animations, it also uses more unique gameplay features to ease up on the harsh difficulty that retro platformers tend to be known for.

By defeating enemies and activating certain objects, the player earns Time Shards which can be given to the shopkeeper in exchange for the aforementioned character upgrades, upgrades such as increases to the ninja’s maximum health or even brand new attacks like shuriken projectiles.

When the player would normally die, they are instead teleported back to the last visited checkpoint by a helpful demon who then automatically sucks up a certain amount of any Time Shards the player collects afterwards as payment for services rendered (naturally there is also an upgrade to reduce the amount of Time Shards the demon takes during each visit).

This death penalty naturally loses some of its sting once the player has purchased all of the upgrades they want, but it’s still a clever mechanic that forces the player to pause and consider what they did wrong, lest they be forced to keep paying the devil’s due.

The journey to the top of the mountain takes a good couple of hours, with the player visiting a number of linear locations and fighting a variety of both standard and boss enemies along the way. Then, when the mountain’s peak has been reached and the player’s adventure seems to be at an end, The Messenger throws them the mother of all curveballs.

It transforms into a metroidvania game.

What’s old is new again

Yep, that’s right. After many hours spent functioning as a mostly linear platformer in the vein of the classic Ninja Gaiden or Sonic the Hedgehog games, The Messenger eventually morphs into a full-blown metroidvania title in which the player can freely revisit old levels and open up paths to entirely new ones.

Utilizing the key items and upgrades they already have, the player must find even more items so they can in turn access new parts of the world, participating in a more freeform sort of progression not unlike what they’d find in games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or the classic Metroid titles (hence the term ‘metroidvania’).

It’s a bit of a jarring shift to be sure, though it’s also one that’s subtly telegraphed if the player is paying attention. The transference over to the metroidvania genre also ties heavily into a major story point (no spoilers) involving time travel, with the player able to “shift” between two distinct time periods at certain points, thus altering the landscape of each level and, in many cases, opening up previously inaccessible areas.

Funny enough, these time shifts also directly impact The Messenger’s graphical style. Whenever the player crosses over into the future, the default 16-bit visuals are swapped out for a slightly cleaner-looking 32-bit presentation, complete with an updated outfit for the ninja protagonist.

Making up lost time

Despite how well The Messenger manages to combine the old and the new, there are still a few retro gimmicks that ultimately prove to be more frustrating than fun. In most cases, coming into contact with an environmental hazard merely reduces the player’s health, but falling into a bottomless pit results in instant death no matter how much health the player has.

This can be an especially frustrating prospect in some of the later levels where incredibly precise platforming is required to navigate over long stretches of a bottomless pit hazard.

Once the game transforms into a metroidvania, the issue of cheap bottomless pit deaths is also compounded by an inconsistent checkpoint system involving a new series of hub portals that are meant to facilitate easier travel between levels.

However, since the portals don’t count as checkpoints, a mistimed jump into a bottomless pit can force the player to repeat several minutes of backtracking since they’ll often be sent back to a checkpoint in an entirely different level (i.e. the last checkpoint they used before heading back to the portal hub).

Granted, these are relatively minor quibbles overall, and one could even argue they’re to be expected given the sort of unforgiving retro platformers that The Messenger so clearly pays homage to. However, if Sabotage ever decided to implement changes which turned portals into functioning checkpoints and made it so that, instead of instant death, falling into a bottomless pit merely teleported the player back to their last-used platform with some lost health, I certainly wouldn’t object.

Even with the above frustrations, The Messenger is still a well-crafted ode to retro gaming that also essentially functions as two distinct games in one. The game’s clever marrying of two different genres may not appeal to everyone, but if you’re the sort of gamer who enjoys being caught up in a grand high-stakes adventure, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed by what The Messenger offers.