Into The Spine Of: The Messenger

Two games for the price of one, or something like that.

The Messenger is a game-length meditation on the history of games; a meta-as-hell platformer about what it means to be a platformer. At a time when the 2D action-adventure market is as crowded as a metroid graveyard, The Messenger stands out, not by introducing new gameplay ideas, but by synthesizing and snarkily commenting on the genre’s history. This is a tribute to explore-’em-ups past, sure, but it isn’t reverential. Ryu Hayabusa and Samus Aran may be the teachers, but The Messenger cracks jokes and shoots spitwads from the back of the classroom.

It’s impossible to talk about what makes Sabotage’s game unique without ruining The Messenger’s biggest surprise. Given that the developer alludes to the twist on their Steam page— in the game’s description, footage and screenshots— I don’t feel bad talking about it here. But if you want to experience the gonzo way that The Messenger upends the tea table unspoiled, read no further.

This is a game about ninjas—a whole village of them—and The Messenger begins by introducing us to that village, the last settlement of earth’s 8-bit inhabitants, where they train day and night to prepare to defeat the demon army that prophecies say will soon appear. You’ll recognize your ninja right away; he’s dressed in a midnight blue Shinobi Shozoku that makes him virtually indistinguishable from gaming’s most famous ninja. And when the demon army attacks, raining fire on the village, he also happens to be the messenger (there’s that title) they need to transport a sacred scroll to the summit of a mountain on the other side of the island where three sages await.

The game’s setup, both from a narrative and mechanical standpoint, is tropey. But, The Messenger immediately begins mocking, if not actively subverting, those tropes; knocking on the framework that supports it, as if to see how sturdy it is.

“Slow down! That was way too much text for one dialogue box!” your messenger complains as the shopkeeper, who shows up through the portals that accompany most checkpoints, hurries to explain your predestined quest.

“People will probably just end up calling it the grappling hook,” that same shopkeeper says a few levels later, as they hand you the “rope shot,” a weapon/tool that I did, indeed, just end up calling the grappling hook.

It’s in these early levels that The Messenger’s quips show its hand, hinting at what it will eventually become. While the first half of the game is devoted to a linear, hack-and-slash kind of action platforming, The Messenger quickly kits you out with upgrades that are straight out of the Metroidvania playbook. You’ll nab the wall climb in the first level; the grappling hook eagerly awaits you a few stages later.

For hours more, though, The Messenger remains a strong, level-based, action platformer. Our hero swings his sword quickly with a tight, crisp animation. When he jumps, he turns a compact, fluid somersault. Bounding up walls and grappling onto platforms feels natural. It’s all nice. Satisfying. Fun. Not remotely new, though.

Then, the game goes through a pair of transformations. As the ninja travels 500 years into the future, The Messenger swaps out its limited color palette and pixel count in favor of an SNES-era aesthetic. A short while later, it trades in its linear gameplay for the sprawling exploration of the Metroidvania it always foreshadowed it was. Why does a shift in time that transports our hero forward half a millenium only upgrade the graphical settings one console generation? I don’t know.

While I don’t claim to understand the dog-years-to-human-years logic on which this plot twist hinges, it does recontextualize the game in a fascinating way. Remember that scroll you were carrying? It was actually a map displaying the ways that all the discrete, unrepeatable levels you just ran and jumped your way through are actually smaller pieces of an interconnected island.

And, SURPRISE, there are music notes that are scattered throughout the world. Now you’ll need to backtrack through the island’s many levels, unlocking new abilities and tools to collect the necessary MacGuffins. It’s a wild twist, and one that you don’t need to be surprised by—I heard about it before I started playing the game— to marvel at. Imagine that the original Castlevania and Symphony of the Night were actually the same game all along, and you’re in the neighborhood of what The Messenger is doing.

Honestly, I’m mixed on how well it actually works in execution. The first half of The Messenger builds to a climactic, nails-tough battle against a general in the demon army. Slaying the bright red bastard, at last, after dozens of attempts, was triumphant. But, the wind was knocked out of my sails when the game then opened up, revealing that I was only halfway done with it. The Messenger feels like two complete games—games that are in conversation with each other, to be sure—but, two separate wholes, with separate arcs. Both halves are good. But, finishing one and realizing the scope of what’s left, I suspect, will have a polarizing effect on players. Some will be deflated like me; others will be enticed by the new game that awaits them.

The back half of The Messenger is a rock solid Metroidvania, if a bit disorienting at first. Whereas, the worlds of most Metroid-style games unlock slowly, The Messenger, in a brilliant flash, reveals itself all at once. Every level you’ve visited so far is open for you to re-explore. It’s a lot to take in. Fortunately, hints are available, for a fee (and once you finish filling out the upgrade tree about three-quarters of the way through the game, you won’t have anything else to spend your money on anyway). These are helpful at curbing confusion, but I’m mixed on their inclusion. There are two levels of hint. The first is, just that, a hint about where to go next. The second, (which costs money), will result in the exact spot on the map being marked for you. This cuts down on the aimless wandering that searching for secrets in a map this big (and with a fast travel system this inefficient) necessitates. But, it also takes most of the excitement out of progress. Congrats, you can follow a waypoint.

Most of the challenge, then, results from traversing environments which are designed with difficulty in mind—think bottomless pits aplenty— in a way that Metroidvania maps rarely are. The multiple deaths that this can result in can be frustrating when you’re not even convinced you’re heading in the right direction.

Overall, though, The Messenger is the deconstruction that 2D platformers needed. I don’t envy any developer attempting to stand out in this oversaturated market. But, The Messenger is the first Metroidvania that I would genuinely call postmodern. That’s something.

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