Living in an age where retro is becoming its own video game genre, we are getting a surge of amazing ports and remakes of all types of nostalgic wonders. Sabotage Studio is taking this a step further by taking some of the greatest elements from classics like Metroid and Ninja Gaiden to create The Messenger. Take a dash of humor, a pinch of ninja moves, a handful of unique bosses and a whole lot of platforming and you’ve got yourself an indie game chock full of action.
The Messenger is all about an unnamed ninja whose village is attacked by demons that must then carry a magical scroll to the top of the mountain to signal warning and fulfill a mysterious prophecy. For a portion of the game you follow a linear path to the mountain, continuously helped by a blue-robed figure, upgrading your abilities or items. However, as you get to the top of the mountain you are greeted by more robed figures who put you through a trial to test your skills. Completing the trials opens up a new format for the game as you have now unlocked the ability to traverse between any of the worlds with a few warp portals to go back and forth. Your quest changes from just carrying the scroll to now stopping the curse of demons that have plagued your world for years. This is performed by going back to all previous levels completed and utilizing time portals that allow you to go back and forth through time. You must succeed to ensure that the curse is broken once and for all!
Visually this game does such a fantastic job of switching between 8-bit and 16-bit art whenever you use those time portals. The animation looks crisp and brings back a lot of old memories of games I used to play as a kid. However, even if you don’t have the nostalgia factor to rope you in, the environment is still beautifully created with a range of depth and colors. You travel from grassy plains to frozen mountain tops and even down to the underworld; so they have a lot of terrain to keep you visually engaged.
This game combines an assortment of platforming elements, small puzzles regarding the time warping portals and thrilling boss fights. The platforming placement felt spot on for just about every level, which blended nicely with the tight and responsive controls. Although it took some time to get used to the various elements, once you get through the first hour or so, the controls really start to sink in and make sense. Once I got used to the hook shot and jump mechanics I felt like a real ninja gliding through the levels, which couldn’t have felt better. Each level is designed with skillful challenges from floating saws, crumbling platforms to even areas where there was no floor and you must use only the enemies flying towards you to propel yourself to a safe location. The levels kept a good amount of variety on how you must accomplish each obstacle to stray from simply jumping from one platform to another.
At the end of each level, you’d stumble upon a boss encounter. Each boss had its own strategy of forcing you to become better at timing your attacks and jumps to avoid projectiles. The specific boss that I had the most fun mastering was the time trial boss; a giant crystal demon with floating hands. The hands would swipe at you while shooting lasers and plasma orbs that you must avoid. Through all this, you must dodge, hook shot and slash your way around the floating obstacles. Jumping off the hands to the monsters face where you could finally do damage. The part that makes most of these exciting is learning the patterns and tricks to keep a constant stream of attacks while quickly dodging the endless plasma orbs coming your way. Many of these bosses would incorporate attacks that would teach you how to use your various skills where you must quickly fly from one side of the screen to the next before the next laser beam or giant boulder comes flying your way. It always rounded out the experience with a witty comment from the bosses to keep you invested in the story. Characters like tiny skull lords, fitness crazy ogre brothers, and robot butlers always added a quirky spin to the game.
This game truly delivers in what I feel is the sweet spot of trial and error. Each boss and level is perfectly designed where they are not impossible but have an element of failing to force you to adapt and learn. The penalty is not terrible since there are numerous checkpoints and unlimited lives that will only cost you a portion of currency you pick up once you revive.
There were few negatives to note, but the major one I found had to do with the length of time it took to travel. Although the Metroidvania style of going back to the levels was a definite plus, it also hurt the game a little due to a large amount of time spent backtracking. As this is a common theme for games of this genre, a lack of fast travel options could sometimes have you walking through the same level multiple times. Overall there were around 18 different stages and yet only 6 major portals that would take you to certain areas. Any other stages without a portal could sometimes take a few minutes just to run through, which could be cumbersome depending on where you needed to go. The only other issue that really bugged me was a few spots that had a portion of a rather excessive button mashing. Though this was a rare occurrence, I found this exhausting rather than an enjoyable affair.