America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 04th Sep 2018 | 2,036 views
Usually a bait-and-switch is a negative experience. In the case of The Messenger, it's a wonderful revelation. What starts off as a solid action-platformer in the style of Ninja Gaiden transforms, after a few hours, into an extraordinary 2D action-adventure complete with backtracking exploration, devilish platforming challenges, charismatic NPCs, and a thoughtful story with plenty of plot twists. In a year with so many interesting Metroidvanias, RPG-vanias, and rogue-vanias, The Messenger stands as the best.
The Messenger begins in a small village on the western edge of the known world. There, the last remnants of the human race train in secret, hidden from the demon army that ravaged the land centuries ago. When the village is discovered by the demon king and his underlings, a ninja-in-training is chosen by a mythical hero to carry a scroll from west to east, to forestall an ancient curse. He becomes "the messenger."
Like the game itself, the plotline in The Messenger is straightforward and simple for its first few hours. A sarcastic shopkeeper relays all the important story beats (and a few playful allegories) during the ninja's eastward quest. Around the three-hour mark, however, both the game's mechanics and narrative explode wide open, revealing many new nuances and twists. What appears at first as an archetypal tale of a fated hero and a monstrous enemy transforms into a fascinating, heady, tragic science-fiction/fantasy story.
The Messenger begins as a traditional 8-bit action-platformer like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. The heroic ninja travels across mostly-linear levels, battling demons, navigating spiked pits, and tangling with an end-of-stage boss. At regular intervals, he will encounter a portal to a shop (which doubles as a save point), where he can spend energy on upgrades and retrieve information on his current location from the shopkeeper. The mysterious shop purveyor will also, on occasion, bestow upon the messenger certain upgrades, for example a grappling hook and a gliding squirrel suit.
It all works well. Running and platforming come easy, thanks to smooth controls, fluid movement, and an interesting mid-air locomotion system where striking an airborne object resets the messenger's jump, allowing him to leap again without touching the ground. Fighting is rewarding, as the hero's sword and shuriken make short work of the diverse collection of demonic enemies that infest each region. Finally, boss battles are exciting and challenging, often demanding both acrobatic maneuvers and well-timed attacks.
If The Messenger continued with this formula for all of its 15 hours, then it would be a prime example of an old-school action-platformer — an equal to the better side-scrollers that appeared on NES and Sega Master System. By switching genres (and art styles) about one-fifth of the way in, though, the game enters more rarefied territory. Thanks to its silky movement, provocative platforming, demanding boss fights, invigorating sense of discovery, memorable characters, and inventive time-traveling storyline, The Messenger deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as classics like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Shadow Complex, and Guacamelee!.
In short, The Messenger switches from Ninja Gaiden on NES to Super Metroid on SNES, with all the mechanical and artistic shifts that transformation implies. From a central hub, the messenger can access portals to previously-explored regions, to retrieve optional medallions and unearth hidden chambers; discover new areas, with new NPCs and bosses; and view each biome as it is and how it will be 500 years in the future. Super Metroid might be the most apt reference point for The Messenger, but thanks to its time-bending storyline, it also has a bit of Chrono Trigger in its DNA.
It's remarkable what an open-ended world does for The Messenger. Being able to move back and forth among levels — and forward and backward in time within those levels — bestows upon the game a thrilling sense of adventure and discovery. This counts doubly for brand new environments. Within are different gameplay experiences, including a fun horizontal shooting segment, and a bunch of new platforming trials.
Although platforming is a highlight in The Messenger, some jumping challenges can be diabolical. Those that stand between the messenger and inessential medallions are the toughest, but some main-quest sequences can cause headaches too. When these fussy platforming puzzles combine with distant checkpoints, forcing a long march back after failure, it can prove frustrating. Still, none of the above are insurmountable.
To go with its mechanical and narrative leap into the future, The Messenger sports a shift in art direction. In the present, the game features a simple, shallow 8-bit graphical style; in the future, character models become more detailed, backgrounds deeper and more elaborate, and colors richer. Both styles are excellent, relative to the video game technology they hope to convey. Basically, depending on your place in the game, The Messenger is either a great-looking NES game or a great-looking SNES game.
Complementing these old-school visual designs is a stellar electronica soundtrack, composed by Rainbowdragoneyes. The catchy, driving tunes are a perfect match for the fast and furious action on display. "Hills of Destiny," with its chiptune crescendos; "Forgotten," punctuated with digital beeps; and "A Home Amongst the Clouds," a synthesis of metal, rock, and electronic dance music, are highlights.
When a game appears to promise one thing and deliver another, it's often met with skepticism and bad feelings. In the case of The Messenger, which, thanks to an early-game narrative and mechanical switcheroo, transcends the limits of the linear action-platformer, no bad feelings need apply. It's arguably the finest 2D action-adventure of 2018, a year that has seen an influx of well-crafted Metroidvanias.