Review: The Messenger

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Retro-inspired games are a favorite genre of mine, but they go wrong at least as often as they go right. It’s easy to take the wrong lessons from classics, after all, as they definitely had their own flaws that get memory-holed over time. The original Ninja Gaiden trilogy, for example, is still held in high regard despite its absolutely sadistic enemy placements and challenges. The Messenger is clearly drawing from that well but only taking the good parts thankfully, and then somehow mixes in a mess of quality pieces from all over the place. The result is one of the most creative and surprising retro titles in recent memory, one that’s hard not to play without a permanent smile stuck to your face.

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Yet again the world has effectively ended, shuffled off to oblivion at the claws of an insurmountable demon army. Tiny pockets of resistance yet remain, and on one remote island a clan of ninjas is training for the day their prophecy is fulfilled. Turns out that’s today, when a demon attack is thwarted by the hero of legend. You’re not him, you’re some screw-up ninja who ends up entrusted with a sacred scroll that must be delivered to the highest mountain peak. Your journey as the titular Messenger will take you through grim catacombs, fiery caverns, and icy peaks before sprawling further in ways you never would have imagined.

I’m going to explain as much as I can about the structure of The Messenger without spoiling it, because the reveals of its many systems are serious highlights of the experience. Starting out the game will feel very much like a conventional stage-based platformer, akin to the old Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania titles. You’ll have enemies to cut down, bosses to face off against, platforming challenges to overcome, and secrets to uncover just off the main path. There’s also a fair number of upgrades to your mobility, most given as part of the story and a few unlocked on a modest skill tree at the mystical shop.

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Everything proceeds apace until you reach the summit of the mountain, where it explodes in incredible fashion. You’ll be introduced to a whole new area you never knew existed, that’ll lead to a whole new game mode you may not be expecting, and THAT will open up the game from a stage-based platformer to something far more involved. It’s a frankly breathtaking progression, each step being so bold and delightful that you’ll hardly suspect anything more is waiting in the wings. But it is, and that’s the strongest aspect of The Messenger’s design. Even as you close in on the finale nearly ten hours in, the game will keep finding ways to surprise you.

It’s not just a matter of mechanics, but also one of details. The amount of polish on this title is insane, from curious bits of background to genius dialog sequences. Character movement is tight and fluid, featuring a wealth of acrobatic moves and a skill-based double-jump that feels intensely satisfying to use. Levels are gorgeously decorated, with impressive backdrops and clever cues for finding secrets. The writing here also deserves special mention, perhaps the most special of all, for being some of the wittiest and engaging text I’ve ever seen in a game. Every character you encounter is charming in their own way, and just genre-savvy enough to poke fun at the game itself. Several sequences had me laughing out loud, and it even manages to make a sort of buddy-comedy out of your desperate quest to rid the world of evil demons.

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There’s so much to love about The Messenger that it’s hard to find things to criticize, honestly. That enthralling dialog I just mentioned does fall off a bit in the latter half of the game, as a side effect of everything opening up so dramatically. The bosses are a bit uneven in difficulty as well, but not really in a bad way. As far as difficulty goes this one is incredibly accessible, and even has a charming and hilarious system to replace lives and continues. That’s really the beauty of The Messenger, that there’s not a single part of the design that wasn’t thoroughly polished and made as engaging as possible. It’s a game that loves to shock you with how good it can be, and even with so much adventuring and battling to do keeps on shocking until you’ve seen it all and are left craving even more.

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