The Messenger truly is a game of two halves.
Tasked with carrying a scroll to the peak of a mountain in order to thwart a demon invasion, The Messenger‘s first half reminded me a great deal of Shinobi. I used to love Shinobi. Then, in a sudden twist, The Messenger‘s second half becomes a sprawling metroidvania. I still love metroidvanias. The Messenger, then, is like two games in one. An old-school platformer and its more advanced sequel in one package. The only problem is, playing both back to back eventually becomes tedious. And somewhat frustrating.
Honestly, I immensely enjoyed my first seven hours or so with The Messenger. You quickly establish that it has got a wicked sense of humour and tight controls that make its platforming a delight. Moving from one screen to the next, you’ll dispatch foes with your sword, carefully negotiate platforms, and practice your ability to jump after hitting an airborne object, whether it be an enemy, one of their projectiles, or even some kind of light source. And you better practice it, because it becomes an essential skill as you progress further into the game.
Initially, The Messenger throws a steady stream of upgrades your way. You’ll often find yourself at a platforming impasse, but with a quick visit to the game’s humorous shopkeeper, you’ll be newly equipped with a skill that allows you to overcome it. Ninja claws that allow you to climb up walls, a wingsuit that enables you to glide over long distances, and a rope dart that gives you the ability to grapple hooks and walls; they’re all yours for the taking. Numerous other upgrades are available for purchase from the shopkeeper too, like extra health segments and the ability to throw ninja stars. You just need to collect enough shards to afford them.
Going through changes
The pace at which you accumulate new skills and upgrades at the outset of the game, plus its challenging but fair difficulty level and enjoyable bosses, all make for an extremely addictive concoction. It’s only as you approach the end of the first half that it all somewhat falls to pieces. The upgrades dry up, the platforming becomes overly frustrating at times, and one boss battle felt so drawn out that it made me want to quit playing the game after retrying it for the nth time. Still, after every boss battle there’s a feeling of elation, and with the game receiving a visual upgrade quickly after that point, my interest in my adventure was suddenly renewed.
The Messenger‘s second half, which plays out like a metroidvania, just didn’t grab me like the first, though. There are additional upgrades to unlock, but they don’t feel impactful, and backtracking through levels you’ve played previously is about as interesting as it sounds. It just feels like padding. There are some new gameplay mechanics, sure, like portals that allow you to visit the past, changing the layout of areas and the dangers within them, but they’re not enough to keep things truly interesting. Hours into The Messenger‘s second half, it begins to feel like a slog.
Jump-slash-jump until you die
Level design also becomes a problem as The Messenger shifts into a metroidvania. As a standard platformer, it doesn’t feel unusual to die when falling into a hole or lava. But for a metroidvania game, it feels very strange indeed. While I died a fair few times fighting bosses, which eventually become a case of trial and error until you’ve seen all of their attack patterns, the bottom of the screen was my biggest enemy. The Messenger relies heavily on its jump-slash-jump mechanic, weaving it into its platforming wherever possible. It’s not such a bad thing, but when you’ve also got enemies firing projectiles at you, sometimes things go wrong.
Die, and you’ll be taken to the last checkpoint you activated, which can be anywhere between one to five screens back. A devious little demon will also appear, stealing any shards you acquire for a short period as payment for “saving you”. At first, I quite liked The Messenger‘s checkpoint system, but as I found myself falling to my death more frequently, it became a chore. It doesn’t help that your health isn’t fully restored when you die. I found The Messenger testing my patience a lot during its second half. There will no doubt be many who will revel in its challenge, but there’ll be an equal amount who will find it disappointingly off-putting.
The sum of its parts
I had another big problem with The Messenger, too: respawning enemies. As soon as an enemy you’ve defeated goes off-screen, it gets respawned. It means that should you fall off a platform in a room you’re exploring, you’ll possibly find yourself in a world of hurt. Playing on Nintendo Switch, I also encountered some framerate issues in docked mode that I couldn’t replicate when playing in handheld mode. They didn’t affect the gameplay too much, but slowdown is never welcome when fighting a boss or trying to remain airborne.
The Messenger has a lot going for it, it really does. It’s funny at times, its visuals are generally a joy to behold, and its controls are tight and responsive. Its soundtrack isn’t too bad either. The tedium of the second half of the game, and the increasing frustration brought on by its level design, checkpoint system and challenging platforming somewhat sour the experience though. Had The Messenger been two separate games, I’d have waxed lyrical about the first while eliciting a “meh” for the second. Put together, it’s a package that some will adore, while others will simply grow tired of.