A review copy of the game was provided to Real Game Media, courtesy of PopAgenda
Since I first heard about The Messenger, an indie game from Quebec which I first saw at the Nintendo ‘Nindies Showcase’ last March, I really wanted to play this game. I was able to try it at Montreal ComicCon last July, and I was sold. I knew the game would be a huge hit. Now that I have played, and finished it, I can confirm with this official The Messenger review that this game is one of the best games of the year.
The game follows the story of a ninja who’s part of a little village wrapped up in the sharing of myths and legends. The biggest one of which is about the arrival of the ‘Western Hero’, who will help the village when demons come to upset the current peace. When this situation inevitably occurs though, the hero arrives, but too late. Almost everyone gets killed except you, and you are given the mission to go deliver a scroll to a group of three sages on top of a mountain, so it can be used to repel the evil forces and break the curse coming from the demons.
The story bits are delivered mostly through in-game conversations between yourself and the NPCs that you meet during your adventures. There are some cinematic scenes, but they are not CGI videos: they are presented through images (sometimes static, sometimes moving) with captions below them, not unlike the JRPGs of the NES/SNES era. This fits perfectly with the graphics and gameplay styles of the game (which will be discussed in the graphics/soundtrack section).
One of the most important things regarding the story element of the game is interacting with the Shopkeeper. This NPC is the one responsible for acquiring skills during your game time (further details in the gameplay section). One of the interactions possible with the character is “Chat”. When you do, you can get information about the world, possible enemies, hearing random stories, etc. It is a lot of fun to read those because the writing is well done and very funny. There will be allusions to stereotypes linked to videogames, witty comments between the hero and the NPC, retro-gaming name drops, etc. Even though there is no voice acting in the game, it was never monotonous.
Let’s get ready for some action!
The most surprising thing about The Messenger is the fact that, in a way, there are two games in one. In the beginning, it starts as an 8-bit looking action platformer, not unlike the Ninja Gaiden games from the NES. The platforming is tight, and the controls are very responsive, which it really should with this type of game. A quick word of warning for Switch players: playing the game in portable mode (with Joy-Con controllers) is not the best way to experience this game. I had a lot more enjoyment in either tabletop or dock mode using a Pro controller. The precision of the controller made my experience a lot more enjoyable.
There are about a dozen regions to go through. After doing so, the game keeps its fast-paced action style, but switches style totally to go 16-bit. The regions to explore are the same, but the music and graphics change totally to respect the new era. The important thing though is the fact that the maps change. If you have a memory of how things are laid out at this point, you realize that things are different. The combination of the new art style and the new maps make the experience really fresh, which is not an easy thing to pull off.
The Shopkeeper: the key to success
All along your adventure, you’ll encounter doors/portals that will lead you to a very important NPC: The Shopkeeper. He will be the one responsible for the growth of your character. At some key moments, he will give you abilities that will allow you to go on your journey. Mostly though, he will unlock new skills and make your character stronger in exchange for yellow shards that you collect throughout your playthrough.
Checkpoints and death: let’s meet Quarble
The portals in which you meet The Shopkeeper can be seen in a destroyed state or not. They both serve as checkpoints. They are not rare, so when you die, you will rarely respawn very far from where you were. Loading is also pretty fast, so you are not idle for a long time.
There are no lives or continues whatsoever in the game. Once you reappear at the previously encountered checkpoint, you have a small demon appearing next to you called Quarble. He is responsible for your death tool. What it means is that you don’t lose anything you have collected. The penalty though is that for a certain amount of time, Quarble will collect the shards that you collect. He disappears when he has had enough or after a certain time. He also disappears if you reach certain events like boss battles.
You will get many funny lines from Quarble while waiting, where he will just give witty comments, insult you, etc. It is another part where the funny writing really shines. Interesting fact: sometimes, Quarble will tell you how many shards you gave him until now, and how many times you died. It is funny that he does. It’s a shame that there are no other ways to find that information out.
It is now time to explore!
When we reach about half of the game, it switches from an action platformer to a Metroidvania game, where exploration is the key, and you must search for special types of collectibles.
An important new mechanics start at this moment. When going around the world, there will now be portals that allow you to go from the 8-bit universe to the 16-bit, and vice-versa. By doing so, in addition to the abilities you will have unlocked, you now have access to the entire world. Some locations are hard to reach though, and you will have to think hard. The back-and-forth between worlds really makes me reminisce about the Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver games.
When you start the second half of the game, you can talk to an NPC called The Prophet. He is responsible for giving you hints about the location of those collectibles. If you have any difficulties understanding the hints and/or finding the proper locations, you can go to The Shopkeeper who (for a fee) will point you directly in the right direction.
The artistic direction in this game is perfect and really puts emphasis on both of the worlds that you can explore. When you are in the 8-bit world, the graphics could have come straight out of the NES era. The music also has the same graininess and the graphics have the same composure. When you reach the 16-bit world, the graphics get a real overhaul (there are even jokes with The Shopkeeper about this). The music also gets an upgrade. The ability to compare some of the same songs, but in two different environments and instrumentation is incredible. I’m giving my very special congratulations to the artist, rainbowdragoneyes. For those who appreciate the music, it can be found on the artist’s band camp page.
The amount of replayability is really dependent on the type of gamer you are. It is a pretty long game; my playthrough took me about 25 hours. Another factor is that it is a difficult game! Last time Quarble told me how many times I died, I was at around 350! The game is demanding and asks of you to be patient. There is one additional optional quest that the game offers you. At The Shopkeeper’s store, there is a special chest that you cannot open until you get the green power seals that are spread all around the world. This is a REALLY difficult achievement. I successfully collected about a third of them. Some I just didn’t find. There are others I found where they were, but I just abandoned. The task at hand was too much for me. Once you get them all, you unlock a very powerful upgrade. I’m not sure what it is though. So, there is additional content to continue playing after finishing the game. You can just replay the same game though and give this incredible experience another shot, which will be more than enough for a lot of gamers.