04th Sep2018

‘The Messenger’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

messenger-screen-1

The debut game from Sabotage Studios, which was founded in 2016, is a decent enough hardcore platformer. It has great heart and a handful of neat ideas, but a myriad of niggles – not to mention a catastrophic late-game shift in gameplay – hold it back from sharing the pixel art pantheon with the likes of Shovel Knight and Celeste.

The Messenger begins with an authentically NES-style aesthetic, before leaping through time to the 16-bit era. First you need to take your Messenger from the burning village to the top of the mountain, to deliver a sacred scroll. Then, suddenly the graphics switch from Ninja Gaiden to Shinobi 3; and while the gameplay goes unchanged, the effect is equally convincing. From the start you have access to a form of double jump called a “cloud-skip”. To do this you must hit something (an object or an enemy) in mid-air, which will enable you to take a second leap. Technically, it’s possible to remain airborne indefinitely. It’s a mechanic that never feels completely comfortable for a single thumb, and later in the game I found myself mashing the buttons to stay aloft.

Enemies are the standard grunts, bats, fire-spitters and hammer bros, which can be dispatched via a sword swipe or a thrown shuriken. Your attacks are purely horizontal until you have the cash to upgrade your character. Upgrades are available via shops dotted around the landscape. There’s a rudimentary skill tree, but it’s only a question of the order in which you purchase all the upgrades, not which ones you choose. In terms of collectibles, there are 45 special green discs to pick up throughout the game, and these can be found in challenge rooms off the beaten track. As is normal for the genre, these hard-to-obtain trinkets are optional, for those that way inclined, and collecting them all will unlock a special bonus.

What are not optional are the bosses. Their design is often stunning to behold, but it’s here that the game’s difficulty balance comes into focus. More than once I breezed through a zone, only to be stopped dead (literally) by a boss. It’s not that they’re unreasonably challenging, it’s just that they last forever, even when you have the pattern nailed. It’s a war of attrition; a test of concentration, rather than skill.

The graphics are authentically of a bygone era, right down to the way the sprites overlap the score bar at the top of the screen in the 8-bit sections. I particularly admire the Tower of Time, which recalls the lost NES classic Kabuki Quantum Fighter. The chiptune music is similarly authentic – something especially noticeable when you unlock the ability to shift instantly between the eras – although the musical themes themselves aren’t particularly memorable.

Comparisons with Shovel Knight are inevitable, not just in the look and in the simple idea of problem-solving your way through static and scrolling screens of pits, monsters and traps. There’s also the way that the bosses are merely misunderstood, and end up either forgiving you or helping you. What The Messenger sadly lacks is Shovel Knight’s surreal but sober tone, opting instead for juvenile dialogue which is tiresomely self-referencing. The (very skippable) dialogue has a sarcastic, mocking tone which renders the characters indistinct. A little sincerity goes a long way.

The game is largely linear. Until, that is, you reach the later levels where everything changes and it becomes a faux Metroidvania. What had begun as a taut and efficient challenge now becomes an exercise in exploring the same zones you have already beaten, except now they are interconnected.

The insanity of this design decision cannot be overstated. It changes everything. Where once checkpoints were placed to maximise challenge and minimise frustration, opening things up makes the game a confusing, unbalanced mess. Suddenly you’re given some vague instructions to collect a bunch of things from each of the different regions. You’re also given a map – but there’s no need, really, since we’ve only just played through these levels. The combination of devilish platforming and a sprawling open world really doesn’t work, especially when you’ve become accustomed to a certain way of playing.

You will also have gotten used to a certain set of annoyances: the way monsters respawn the second you move a pixel off screen; the inconsistent collision detection; the way your little devil companion mocks you when you die; or the way that sometimes it’s not clear when moving off the bottom of the screen means progress or instant death. And, on Switch at least, the spectre of framerate slowdown rears its head when things get hectic later on.

The Messenger is clearly a heartfelt homage, affectionately referencing and improving upon its ‘80s and ‘90s inspirations. As many of its contemporaries have managed, it brings modern conveniences to a much-loved 2D aesthetic. Two aesthetics, in fact. (Although if you want the broader story of retro platforming, seek out Super Icon’s Life of Pixel). However, it also brings a host of irritations to the table, and undoes its good work entirely by unwisely shifting genre late in the game.

Overall, The Messenger is recommended for those who are dextrous of hand, and for those who are looking for a solid and – for the most part – well-designed throwback. But be aware that it may frustrate as much as it delights.

The Messenger is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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