For a game about Ninja’s, The Messenger is not stealthy about how heavy it hits you with the nostalgia stick, but that is more of a blessing than a curse.
In The Messenger, you play as a nameless Ninja, whose clan trains for the day that the Western Hero will arrive and while being summoned to another lesson, evil attacks and the Ninja runs forth, only to discover a giant demon king and some minions. But before he is attacked the Western Hero bursts onto the scene, the demons flee and he is handed a scroll and is told to take it to the highest peak on the eastern side of the island. That begins the adventure, but soon after you will fall into a whole and find yourself trapped, the only option is to enter a mystical portal, which takes you to the shop and the shopkeeper gifts you a tool to help, but also allows you to learn more about events, including some non-related and highly funny stories.
As you progress across the world, more and more information is given to you, most of which is done by the shopkeeper, but sometimes its in the form of visual cues. While the world is full of enemies to discover, it is the bosses that provide the most challenge and insight to how things are going, with some bosses just being people/creatures doing their own thing and others going out of their way to fight you, heck there are a pair of ogres on top of a mountain only fight you to pass the time. As you progress through the game, you will unlock new equipment moves that will make some enemies just to easy to dispatch and while fighting is cool, it is not the games biggest strength, that comes from the movements you can pull off.
The first move you learn is the ability to do a second jump, what they call cloud jumping, after you have hit an enemy, lantern or other item, which means you can reach higher levels, it is a simple move, but requires some concentration to accomplish. After you get the Rope Dart, or Grapple Hook, depending on your naming preference, you can start using that to pull yourself along, via hooks or enemies and when you combine that motion with that of the double jump, you can really get moving. The issue with this is that you need to remember to reapply the squirrel suit, each time you break out of it, as the game does not do that, which lead to my death a number of times. In fact, there are a number of screens, especially later on, where you need to combine the two moves together, in order to clear a massive gap, if you mess up the timing it is death for you.
But not really, the game has a really cool mechanic for when you die, when you do it first, you will meet Quarble, a creature who saves you from dying and his only request is to eat up time shards. While that might not seem like a big deal, time shards are what you use to unlock new abilities at the shop, some of which can be quite costly. When you die and he appears, there is a maximum time that he will hang around, but he still needs to each shards, the sooner he eats his fill, the sooner he leaves. The most interesting part of him though, is when you die, he will appear on screen and give you some little witty comment, about the number of times you have died, telling you to avoid the spikes you just got killed by and more. The messages repeat, a lot, but they are still entertaining and you will see them a lot, because you will die a lot.
What the game does differently than others, it is really four games in one, an 8-bit side scrolling ninja game, a 16-bit version, an 8-bit Metroid-vania and a 16-bit version as well. Once you have helped the monks ‘do the thing’ you will find yourself pushed forward in time, around 500 years to be exact and that is when the game changes. When you are let in on the secret, you can start to explore the world in any way you want, with heaps of hidden rooms, multiple paths and more to discover, it becomes a true Metroid-vania game, giving you reason to explore the earlier sections again.
But it is not just being able to explore that changes things up, the game also gives you the ability to swap between the era’s, so even if you know the 8-bit one quite well, when you go to 16-bit, walls might be gone, platforms replaced and more. The best example I found was that in the 16-bit era, I found a pedestal, but it was empty and the Ninja stated, if only he had gotten there sooner. I left the room, went and found a time travel portal, went back to the entrance to the room, only to find that in the 8-bit work, its full of quicksand. Taking a sink of faith, rewarded me with entering the room, locating the artefact that was there. It is that level of exploration and dealing with the multiple time periods that really help make the game great.
Sadly, there are some downers here, the one that I think is the worst is just how inconsistent things are, there are times when you get save points every few screens, then for a while, nothing. The rooms that contain the power shards can be a mix of easy or incredibly hard, there is no middle ground and even some of the earlier ones need a lot more effort applied to them, than some later ones. The same inconsistent nature carries over to the bosses, the two ogres are a challenge, but the demon king is a push over, heck even his demon general is a much, much harder fight. I suspect that out of my almost 200 deaths, across the 20 hours I played, at least a third of those deaths were against him.
Inconsistent carries across to performance as well, which is a shame, for the most part the game runs perfectly, the transitions between times are instant and work just as you would hope. The slowdown I experienced was always after leaving a shop, the game would struggle to run for a few moments, leaving me to stop moving and letting the game catch up. What made it worse was that I was playing the game while docked and when I played it in handheld mode, I never had those problems, but handheld has an issue, the load times. The game seemed to be unsure of how long things needed to take here, returning to the first area again, would load up fine at first, but then later visits would take some time.
If there is one aspect of the games presentation though, that is clearly the best, it is the music, it is incredible, the score works so well, though the repeating score for some boss fights or when you die a lot, does tend to be a little damper on it. The fact that the score has a number of variants, so when you swap between time periods, the music matches appropriately, even going underwater gives you another version of the theme. Sound effects and creature sounds also have that same impact, so hearing that, helps reinforce the changing of the years.
The Messenger is a game that is defined by its inspiration, without a doubt it shows a love of said inspiration, but also goes above and beyond exceeding almost every aspect of what you might expect. Some inconsistent difficulty across puzzles and bosses are a blemish and some minor performance issues and load times, will frustrate some people, but it is not enough to remove the shine off this gem of a game.