The pixel art style was once rather contentious. Anecdotally, many of the complaints I heard were that it was simply a ploy to try and sucker people who are easily swayed my nostalgia. That may have once been the case, but these days, the emulation of low resolution sprite art seems to more frequently be employed as a way of streamlining the art process to allow small studios to pump out enough art assets to build a game. It’s the indie art style.
Still, some games do use it for the nostalgia points, especially games that take direct inspiration from specific classics. Take The Messenger for example. One look can tell you that, yeah, this is based on the NES versions of Ninja Gaiden. The twist is that, at some point of the game, it swaps to a more detailed and colourful art style; still pixel art, but higher quality. This is supposed to signify moving into the future, moving from 8-bit to 16-bit, if you will. The game never directly refers to it as such, but it comes across as a lot more than just a nudge and a wink.
That’s just BS. What 8-bit console can pull off these kinds of parallax backgrounds and detailed colour palette, and what one can pull the sort of depth and effects in the latter segments? If you’re going to compare the restrictions and limitations of one graphical generation with another, then you should stick to those limitations. Otherwise, you’re just demonstrating two different art styles, and if that’s the case, what’s the point?
The Messenger puts you in the role of an unnamed Ninja, who is tasked by a hero from the west to carry a scroll to the top of a mountain to try and prevent a cataclysm. Things kind of go sideways from there, and, well, I won’t spoil things for you too much, but they’ve probably already been spoiled. Like, I think a lot of the twists were in the trailer. All the surprises are in the bullet points.
Anyways, the game plays like Ninja Gaiden but not as maddeningly frustrating. You run, slash, jump, and cling to walls. You can also jump after any successful hit with you katana, which is necessary for getting across some gaps. You gain more abilities as you go, adding more facets to platforming, like gliding and a grappling hook. You can also buy upgrades in stores by spending crystals that you pick up throughout the world, which increase your health and ammunition.
LEFT TO RIGHT
When you start out, The Messenger is your standard left-to-right platformer that has you going from the beginning of a level to the end goal. Usually, there is a boss, though that’s not guaranteed. There are no lives or continues, so the penalty for death is instead simply being sent back to the last checkpoint, as well as a small crystal debt to a little imp who follows you around.
It’s pretty rudimentary, but what lets it down most is its level design. You know those segments in a game like Mega Man where things aren’t really challenging? There’ll be a section, for example, where you’re just jumping over short gaps and killing the odd enemy. It’s essentially filler, meant to space out all the challenges that are unique to that stage, whether that’s a set of laser beams or slippery floors. The Messenger is, like, 80% that.
Oh, sure, there are some stages where the challenge ramps up and things get to be a little more consistent, but most of the levels feel like they’re heavily padded out by these areas. It’s not that the game lacks difficulty, it’s just filled with these areas that seem to only require you to traverse them and nothing else. It doesn’t go unnoticed. This portion of the game is actually rather hefty, and it’s hard to ignore that half of it is inconsequential padding.
THE NOOKS AND CRANNIES
This all changes later, however, when the game turns more into an explore-’em-up, similar to the Metroid titles. This sort of makes things worse.
So, after the plot twists and the graphical upgrade, your objective is updated to, “Oh, yeah, maybe collect these MacGuffins to avert crisis.” You then have to explore the levels, swapping between the two time periods, to try and find these magical items. It’s a pretty cool transition, honestly. I was overjoyed at first and felt like things had finally clicked. Then, oh no, I guess not.
See, those traversal portions are still there. Sometimes they make more sense, because hidden in the alternate time period is some other sinister challenge, but most of the time they’re just as they appear; long filler sections. What makes them more vexing is that you’re constantly darting around, trying to access the secret areas revealed on the map, not knowing whether it’s the place you need to go or just another one of those damned challenge tokens, and there’s these long sections of nothing breaking things up.
It makes the final portion of the game feel like a slog. At one point, I explored an entire section of the world, looking for a music note and was only rewarded for my time with some worthless pickups and a challenge token.
The game goes on and on, forcing you to trek over its flat, filler portions over and over, trying to locate the MacGuffins that will save the world. It drags, oh boy, does it ever drag.
BITS AND BYTES
That said, there are some things that The Messenger does well. Notably, the dialogue is mostly enjoyable. The stories told by the shopkeeper, and the interactions with other characters are typically entertaining. The imp who saves you at death has a lot of quotes to make fun of your inadequacy, and, as is par for the course, this can be funny in certain situations, but increasingly more infuriating if you find yourself struggling in a particular area.
The story works, but it seems far too in love with itself. It’s told using blunt exposition, allowing you to play the game under one pretense, then suddenly dumps another purge of information on you with the subtlety of a heavy metal concert in a fireworks factory. That at least means that the narrative is bunched up and put aside while you just go about your platforming ways, but considering the reverence it seems to have for characters that it drops on you out of nowhere, it’s a bit vexing nonetheless.
The music is also catchy. I’m on the fence as to whether or not I like the soundtrack as a whole, as I feel that it’s almost a bit too hyperactive. However, it’s hard to deny that it’s a pretty fun listening experience that gels well with the gameplay.
NO FUN ALLOWED
While The Messenger certainly has some high points, I feel like the game was having a lot more fun with itself than I did. It feels almost self-indulgent, caring more about showing off how clever it is than actually trying to entertain me. Or maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, I’m not sure.
I think the issue I have with it boils down to the fact that it feels kind of half-measured. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to have 8-bit graphics and music that transform into 16-bit, but it’s unwilling to adhere to the limitations of both. It wants to have gameplay that evolves from linear to exploration based, but it’s not willing to put in the work to create a world interesting enough to accommodate either. On the other hand, it’s way too long, so it spreads itself thin and excels at nothing.
Yet that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad game. It’s not. It’s playable, there’s nothing broken about it, and it’s aesthetically well-executed. But can I really recommend a game based on those merits? You can get that sort of thing elsewhere within better executed games dating back to the actual 8 and 16-bit eras. So, while The Messenger doesn’t offend in any way, it’s maybe not worth seeking out.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Switch using a digital copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.