The Messenger is a retro-style platformer that looks and feels a lot like Ninja Gaiden, but has a whole lot more going on than a basic stage-by-stage action game. It is a wonderful synthesis of tried-and-true techniques and some cool new platforming ideas.
Like so many modern retro-style games, The Messenger can be described largely as an amalgamation of various NES games. However, a few things set it apart. First and foremost, while most such games blend their influences, The Messenger is very nearly split into two entire games. The first is an action platformer in the style of Ninja Gaiden, while the second is an open-world adventure more in the style of Symphony of the Night-style Castlevania games.
As with many good platformers, you gain various new movement and attack abilities during the game. The first ability you get is the most original, and serves as the core piece of gameplay that sets The Messenger apart right away: you can air jump every time you attack anything in mid-air. This applies not only to enemies and projectiles, but also objects, many of which are placed for this specific purpose. You will face many rooms where the challenge is to navigate a room without hitting the floor, or perhaps without having a floor at all.
The Messenger is a tightly-made experience that doesn’t get bogged down in dozens of upgrades and abilities. Your action set is fairly limited, and aside from upgrades purchasable with the plentiful in-game currency, you’ll earn all your major abilities during a normal playthrough. There are 45 “Power Seals” to find that will unlock an extra ability, but this isn’t a typical Metroidvania in the sense of having an ever-expanding arsenal. Instead, the game itself expands, opening up levels you played through previously with new passages and mechanics.
The world map is not a sprawling maze, but rather a series of interconnected caverns. Navigation is somewhat reminiscent of Castlevania II in that way, but various shortcuts are introduced later on to make it easy to get around. The exploration part of the game is less about traversing entirely new ground than it is about finding nooks and crannies that were previously hidden or inaccessible.
I don’t want to spoil any major plot points, so suffice it to say that the game introduces a lot of fun mechanics that keep the gameplay fresh despite technically retreading a lot of old ground. The writing is fun and very self-aware, though if you’re not into that kind of humor it could be a little grating. The graphic style is attractive and smooth, and the fact that you play as a ninja basically guarantees the game plays stylishly.
If you like retro-style platformers and are not looking for a game that will take up weeks of your time, give The Messenger a shot. There’s a lot of great platforming and some very cool ideas on display here, and the game is consistently fun to play. It’s a satisfying experience, and one that will keep you guessing as well.