The Messenger PS4 Review: Retro-Styled Action Refined

by David Sanchez April 5, 2019 @ 2:36 am

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

There’s no shortage of “holy crap” moments in Sabotage Studio’s The Messenger. The game, an homage to Ninja Gaiden and Metroid, as well as the 8-bit and 16-bit eras of gaming in general, frequently aims to surprise. Its devilish difficulty will challenge you, its charm will hypnotize you, and its gameplay will hook you. Throw in twitch-perfect controls, a lengthy adventure, and witty character dialogue, and you’ve got a truly winning formula for what can only be considered one of the best indies, no, one of the best action games period in recent memory.

Save the World… Or Something

The Messenger starts out by info-dumping the hell out of its story with a brief cutscene and text boxes. Basically, you’re a small but important part in a centuries-long war between good and evil. Your mission is to deliver a scroll that’s the key to saving humanity. If you’re thinking of writing off the plot as your average save-the-world deal, well, you can. That said, you shouldn’t ignore the writing entirely, because there are hilarious character interactions spread out literally everywhere throughout the course of the game.

The best of these come when you interact with an enigmatic shopkeeper. His fourth-wall-breaking, tongue-in-cheek remarks are just the start. Practically everything this guy says is a hoot, particularly his short fables, most of which have twist endings or, in some cases, literally no moral whatsoever. Sometimes a foul fate befalls the characters in his stories just because that’s life. Seriously, any chance you get to hear a new tale from this guy — he’ll tell you a new one just about every level — you should give a listen.

While the shopkeeper is easily the most colorful character, even the bosses are smartly written. I’m not just talking about the things they say, either. There’s one boss encounter, for example, where you meet a towering, menacing enemy for the first time. His back is to you, and he’s speaking to his skull-adorned magical staff as he levitates above you. When he finally descends after tripping over his words, it’s revealed that he’s not towering or menacing after all — he just happens to be wearing a long cape. Comedic gold!

Metroidgaiden… Ninjavania… Ninjametroidvaniagaiden… Never Mind!

For about the first half of the adventure, The Messenger presents itself as a Ninja Gaiden-like. At first, the resemblance is uncanny, both visually and in terms of gameplay. You’ve got tricky jumps, deviously positioned enemies, and brutal obstacles standing in your way. It’s up to you to use your grappling hook to maneuver around those platforms, slash your way clean through those baddies, and wall jump around those traps. The mechanics are intuitive and the controls are responsive, and everything you do in the game feels pretty great.

If that’s all The Messenger was, that would be totally fine because the controls are so good and the abilities are finely tuned to the point where I would’ve gladly taken eight hours of what the game offers at first. But Sabotage Studio ain’t about that, son!

After the first four or five hours, the game’s linear progression is thrown out the window and you’re presented with a more Metroidvania-esque game. The map opens up, allowing you to revisit previous locations and scour for different exits and hidden items that are essential to reaching the end. Unlike most Metroidvania experiences, you’re not seeking out new abilities that’ll allow you entry to previously closed off areas but rather key items that you need to unlock new levels as well as boss battles in addition to opening up those previously inaccessible spots.

The Metroidvania element works well for the most part, and it’s fun revisiting old areas and finding things you may have missed, especially if you’re a completionist. Unfortunately, the backtracking can definitely be a bit much, especially since you can’t really fast travel to any of the save points. While you can use a hub area to spawn to most of the worlds, you’re still going to have to do a lot of on-foot traversal just to get to an important area you may have missed. It can be pretty tedious, especially later in the game.

Thankfully, at the end of the repetitive stuff you’ll usually find a cool new area, brand new level, or awesome boss fight. Speaking of which, the bosses in The Messenger are true retro-like awesomeness. These larger-than-life menaces seem like they’re right out of an NES or SNES title. Most of the bosses take up a huge chunk of the screen and have tricky attacks that require precision reflexes and patience. The boss battles are fun and never feel cheap. Yes, you’ll feel overwhelmed, but once you start figuring out how to approach each big bad, everything sort of clicks.

A Pixel-Filled Must-Play

Interestingly, The Messenger presents two bold visual and musical styles. During those first few hours, the game is very clearly inspired by the 8-bit look of the NES. Once it turns into a Metroidvania, you travel to the future, where the game adopts SNES-inspired graphics. From there, you can use different portals placed all over the stages to switch between 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Doing so is definitely aesthetically interesting, but it also affects the levels themselves, with certain paths and secrets only revealed in one realm or the other. This adds a puzzle-y aspect to the action-heavy gameplay.

The music receives a similar alteration, with the chiptunes having a more NES-like sound in one realm and a more SNES — sometimes even Genesis — sound in the 16-bit timeline. This attention to detail is great, and it makes both timelines look and feel linked but still fairly different from one another.

Traveling between the two timelines allows for a lot of exploration. As previously stated, this can get repetitive. If you like exploring and hunting collectibles, though, you’ll be glad to to know that there are a few to look for, and figuring out which timeline to hunt them out in is part of the fun and will definitely add a few hours to your playthrough. I defeated the final boss after collecting everything and finding every secret room, and I was just below the 14-hour mark. Whether you go for the optional stuff or not, there’s plenty of game here.

Sabotage Studio has hit one out of the park with The Messenger. Initially available only on Switch and PC, the game has officially hit PlayStation 4. It was about time, too, because now owners of Sony’s platform can play catch-up and experience this rad 2D action game.

Score: 8 out of 10

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