The Messenger

A game by Sabotage Studio for PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One, originally released in 2018.
The Messenger stars a ninja in the titular role who must travel through a dangerous monster-ridden landscape in order to deliver a scroll that may help to save the last remnants of humanity. In a remote village, members of a ninja clan have trained continuously for centuries so that they may hold back the demon army that threatens to wipe out the last of humankind. But legend tells of a hero who may yet save them all.

You take on the role of a slacker ninja who is none too pleased with his lot in life… training every day and waiting for the arrival of the legendary Western Hero. But things quickly go to hell and the demons invade, wiping out most of the ninja clan. Arriving barely in time, the Western Hero gives the ninja a scroll with instructions to deliver it to the sages on Glacial Peak.

The game begins as a largely linear action platformer done up in the style of 8-bit classics, with many nods to the Ninja Gaiden series in particular. However, at what appears to be the end of the ninja’s journey, he discovers a mysterious tower that sends him forward in time, and he learns that his mission is far from over. The world of the future is presented in a 16-bit style, and the player must revisit previous areas, sometimes swapping between the 8- and 16-bit timelines to collect artifacts.

The game’s developers originally discussed keeping the 16-bit reveal a secret, but eventually felt that they might be selling the game a bit short if players didn’t understand that there was essentially an entire second game built into the seemingly straightforward actioner. Ultimately, the 16-bit portion of the game was revealed in the game’s pre-release trailer, which is also alluded to in-game by the fourth-wall-breaking shopkeeper.

Aside from a handful of cutscenes, there is very little overt storytelling, but that’s not to say there isn’t much story… Throughout the game, the player has frequent interactions with a mysterious shopkeeper. The shop appears to be floating in space with panels that rise up from beneath the ninja’s feet as he walks, and the shop is filled with numerous oddities. Here, the player may purchase upgrades (more on these in a bit) or engage the shopkeeper in conversation.

The shopkeeper has a number of humorous quips, some of which shed a bit of light on the things around his shop. At any point, the player may ask the shopkeeper to tell him a story, which results in a drawn-out sequence where the shopeeker begins what appears to be a moral allegory… but none of these stories end the way you’d expect. And if you really want to get the shopkeeper riled up, try investigating the cabinet that he keeps in the corner.

As a student of the ninja arts, you are able to perform a 2.5x variable jump that transitions into a summersault, and you can grab onto most vertical surfaces and climb freely up or down, or jump away from them. You can swing your sword while standing, ducking, or jumping. Pressing the ATTACK button repeatedly allows you to swing the sword back and forth, but there is no multi-hit combo, which isn’t much of a shortcoming given that most enemies are killed in a single hit.

The most important technique, which is described in the opening tutorial area, is called cloudstepping. By jumping and striking a lantern, enemy, or projectile with your sword, you are granted a second midair jump, and you can strike multiple targets to repeatedly jump in the air. This method of double jumping is more technical than that offered in other platformers, and it is often used as an advanced technique to access optional side paths… although its use is a requirement later in the game.

You gain some additional items on your journey toward the Glacial Peak, including shuriken that can be thrown all the way across the screen, but their use is quite limited. You can only throw three shuriken before the meter is depleted, and you must break lanterns or kill enemies to get blue orbs that restore shuriken. As such, this weapon is best used to target difficult-to-reach enemies, particularly those that can fly or fire projectiles. That said, enemies reappear when scrolled off the screen and back on, so it’s possible to waste your shots if you aren’t mindful of the screen scrolling.

Another item is a wingsuit that grants you the ability to glide while in the air, which can be used to slow your descent and cross large gaps. The wingsuit can be used in conjunction with cloudstepping, allowing you to glide through the air and strike lanterns, enemies, or projectiles to give yourself a midair jump – or multiple midair jumps in succession – therefore giving you a longer glide. Together, these techniques allow you to reach almost any point in the environment. Later, you get a rope dart that acts as a hookshot, allowing you to grapple to the left or right and pull yourself toward walls, lanterns, enemies, or hooks… and when grappling onto hooks, you are flung quickly past them.

Shards are earned by breaking lanterns and killing enemies, or occasionally found by breaking huge gemstones into smaller shards, and these shards act as the game’s currency, which is used for purchasing upgrades and a couple of new abilities. Among these are the aforementioned shuriken and the ability to slash projectiles. Additional upgrades include an air recovery jump that can save you from being knocked back into danger, an underwater dash, additional health and shuriken, and increased defense. Upgrades are arranged along a tree, so several remain locked until earlier upgrades are purchased, or until you reach a certain point in the campaign.

The player begins the game with five units of health, and restoratives are uncommon. However, one upgrade grants the player a partial health restore when crossing a checkpoint, and checkpoints appear at a moderate rate. Death is not terribly punishing, as dying sends you back to the last checkpoint and spawns a little red demon character who follows you around eating up collected currency until he is satisfied and flies away. The player is also given full health shuriken restoratives immediately before boss encounters, and health is restored between levels.

While most enemies fall quickly to your sword or shuriken, level designs continue to grow more complex in later areas. Eventually you’ll find yourself cloudstepping multiple times over bottomless pits while dealing with flying enemies, sliding along ice and snagging hooks to fling yourself across chasms, gliding between rows of spikes that sap half your health with a single touch, and activating switches while cloudstepping alongside moving lanterns to reach distant platforms.

In addition, there are some challenging boss encounters that require you to make use of all of your abilities. These include encounters where you must cloudstep in order to reach a boss’ weak point, and one that challenges you to glide through the air striking lanterns to avoid falling off the bottom of the screen. Boss behaviors change battles goes on, with most bosses having several increasingly complex phases. The game’s humor shows through in these encounters as well, including a fight against a diminutive skeleton lord with a talking staff, and a pair of musclebound ogres who take you on in tag team fashion with some silly attacks.

Throughout your journey toward Glacial Peak, you’ll notice a few oddities in the environmental design, such as paths that are inaccessible with your given abilities, or rooms that appear to be navigable from the opposite end. These hint at the back half of the game which sees you revisiting each of these areas to pick up items, warping between different regions, and backtracking extensively.

The pace in the back half of the game is completely at odds with its brisk first half, changing the genre from a straightforward actioner to an open world action-adventure, complete with a metroidvania map and the need to explore every corner of the environment. There are a some unique areas to be found, but you’ll mostly be covering previously-trodden ground. Some new mechanics are introduced where you can hop through portals or pass through lines in order to shift between the two timelines, which alters the environment similar to light world / dark world mechanics featured in other games.

Aesthetically, the game offers an array of crisp and chunky 8-bit environments, along with detailed 16-bit variations of these environments that are very much representative of a franchise moving from one generation to the next, along with the corresponding increase in visual fidelity and available color palette. The game’s soundtrack also changes between these styles when you swap between timelines. There are a number of nice touches along the way as well, including the fact that music and sound become muffled when you move underwater, and travelling between themed areas is done with a transition cutscene introducing the new area.

The game is quite lengthy and also features a New Game+ mode which unlocks once you have reached 100% completion. This includes collecting dozens of Power Seals, which are generally found along optional side paths within dedicated challenge rooms. The New Game+ mode features harder difficulty but allows you to begin the game with all of your previously acquired upgrades.

The Messenger was developed by Sabotage Studio, based in Quebec City, Canada and founded by Thierry Boulanger and Martin Brouard in 2016. The game’s soundtrack was created by chiptune composer Eric W. Brown, a.k.a. Rainbowdragoneyes, using the Famitracker tool. This was the studio’s first release, and the studio also collaborated with Oddworld Inhabitants on the development of Oddworld: Soulstorm, which was developed concurrently with this title.

The game was published by Devolver Digital, which has published a number of 2D indie games including Serious Sam: Double D XXL, Luftrausers, Broforce, Foul Play, Fork Parker's Holiday Profit Hike, Hotline Miami, Hotline Miami 2, Titan Souls, Not a Hero, Ronin, Downwell, Enter the Gungeon, Mother Russia Bleeds, Serious Sam’s Bogus Detour, Minit, The Swords of Ditto, Crossing Souls, Gato Roboto, Katana ZERO, Carrion, GRIS, and Witcheye.