Review: The Messenger (PS4)

Review: The Messenger (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • Nintendo Switch
  • PC

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: The Messenger
Format: PSN (352.7 MB)
Release Date: March 19, 2019
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Sabotage Studio
Original MSRP: $19.99 (US), £15.99 (UK)
ESRB Rating: E10+
PEGI: 7
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Author’s Note: In order to review The Messenger in its entirety it is necessary to discuss some aspects of the game that may encroach on spoiler territory – however, these discussions are kept as vague as possible.

The Messenger represents the best-case scenario for reviving a timeless game genre and adding modern touches that provide depth and replayability.

From the onset of the opening cutscene, it’s clear that the game not only pays homage to 8-bit classics like Ninja Gaiden and Super Mario Bros., but that it seeks to transport the player back in time with all the authentic form and function of that era in gaming.

The menus, sound effects, music, and unforgiving platforming of The Messenger are all reminiscent of the early days of console gaming. However, the game adds its own contemporary creativity to the classic 2D side-scrolling platformer genre. This is where it truly excels and proves that it can stand on its own merit, rather than being just another trip down memory lane.

Gameplay:
The story of The Messenger starts simply enough. You play as a sword-wielding ninja, training endlessly in a hideout for a purpose unknown. When your hideout is suddenly attacked by a giant four-headed demon, a mysterious warrior flies in on a dragon to fend off the enemy. You are then given the task of carrying an ancient scroll across the world.

Soon you teleport to a celestial storefront, where a hooded figure known as the Shopkeeper fills in more details of your task. You will be bringing the scroll to the top of a faraway mountain where three other hooded figures will be waiting for you.

The appearance of The Messenger may be of a bygone era, but it’s quickly apparent that the game’s writing is not. The quip filled dialogue is genuinely funny, and it even breaks the fourth wall within the first hour of gameplay.

Review: The Messenger (PS4)Review: The Messenger (PS4)

This contrast is well done and it’s not the only example of how the game masterfully balances old and new. It’s all done in a way that engages a player with a fondness for classic games who has developed a palette for a deeper, more full-fledged experience than some of its predecessors can offer.

Gameplay is king in the platforming genre, and The Messenger nails it with effective, varied mechanics that feel great and require practice to master. Abilities like double-jumping and wall-hanging can be purchased from the Shopkeeper using Time Shards. These are acquired by defeating enemies or striking deposits of the glowing currency with your sword.

Upgraded abilities are fun to use but require some work to master. Once they are mastered, though, these moves increase mobility greatly and make parts of the levels more easily accessible.

The death mechanic in The Messenger is creative and serves to heighten the stakes of the game’s challenging platforming sections without grinding a player’s progress to a halt or forcing them to start over.

When you die for the first time, a small, one-eyed, flying demon appears and introduces itself as Quarble. Quarble explains that it appears and actually stops time just before you truly reach death. The punishment for completing this task is that Quarble takes a fee in the form of Time Shards.

Review: The Messenger (PS4)Review: The Messenger (PS4)

You’ll see Quarble appear again after each near-death, often taunting you with a sarcastic line about your lack of skill or reminding you of how many times you have been saved. It will then float next to you, siphoning Time Shards into its mouth until it has fulfilled its quota.

This quota can be halved via upgrade at the Shopkeeper, which may prove to be the most cost-effective way to spend Time Shards early in the game, depending on how many times you need Quarble’s services.

Each level in The Messenger carries a theme throughout it which is often inspired by the forefathers of platforming games. You’ll see things like a cave with moving spike-covered platforms or a snowy world with frozen surfaces that cause you to slip while hopping across them.

Multiple paths are usually available for traversal and sometimes they can even lead to difficult, hidden rooms that contain a collectible green crest. Once all of the green crests throughout the game have been found and destroyed, a chest in the store will unlock and reveal its secret hidden within.

Enemies in The Messenger are as creatively crafted as everything else in the game, however they are often reused throughout several levels regardless of theme. There does seem to be design merit behind this decision because learning the attack patterns aids in quickly hacking your way through them as you become more comfortable with the controls. The main issues is that it still leaves you wishing for some more variety later in the game.

Review: The Messenger (PS4) Review: The Messenger (PS4)

Many of the enemies seem to be giving not-too-subtle nods to baddies from the early Super Mario franchise entries, such the different varieties of turtle-shelled creatures who hurl spiked balls, breathe fire, or simply stroll back and forth in a predictable pattern.

The bosses encountered throughout the game are fantastically creative, varied, and feature just the right amount of difficulty to make them feel satisfying to defeat but not so tough that you want to put the controller down and walk away.

As was the case in the games that inspired The Messenger, boss battles feature patterned attacks that must be learned through trial, and sometimes a great deal of error, to achieve success. The writing continues to excel throughout any dialogue with these antagonists, who range from hilarious parodies of gym-rat bros to a woefully misunderstood rock golem.

After jumping and slashing your way through the game’s levels, you are faced with the Demon General, who you first encountered at the beginning of the game. It seems that this encounter will neatly tie together the story and end the game, but this is where a twist awaits. Without going into too much detail, the story not only goes on at this point in The Messenger, but the game itself evolves.

What is seemingly a side-scrolling action platformer with some minor RPG elements suddenly blooms into a Metroidvania complete with a branching narrative, addictive collectables, and expanding gameplay mechanics. While this alone makes for a much fuller experience than meets the eye, a time travel mechanic is added that must be used to solve puzzles and reach previously inaccessible areas of the game’s levels.

Review: The Messenger (PS4) Review: The Messenger (PS4)

While being able to play though more of the game with some added mechanics and redesigned levels is a welcome addition initially, The Messenger certainly does suffer from some repetitiveness. Some of the levels, though superbly designed as a whole, do force you to backtrack at times in order to access the necessary time period or obtain all of the collectibles.

All said, though, these changes not only more than double the playtime, but they help it ascend from an excellent platformer to a memorable, well-crafted experience with surprising amounts of replayability and narrative scope.

Visuals:
The visual design of The Messenger as a complete package is outstanding. Painstaking detail went into each menu layout, enemy sprite, and beautifully rendered background. The game is not afraid to show its reverence for the games it takes inspiration from. Instead, it feels more like a tribute to these games.

Animations seem to be the best blend of old and new, with frame-by-frame action that would be right at home in a 90’s platformer while also reaching levels of smoothness and consistency that can only be made possible with modern technology.

Details like transition screens between levels and enemies “glitching” out of view at the edges of the screen make the entire experience feel straight out of the classic gaming era that inspired this game.

Review: The Messenger (PS4) Review: The Messenger (PS4)

Aside from serving as a unique way to solve puzzles and access new areas, the time travel mechanic also creates a standout visual effect. When you travel into the distant future, the graphics of the game actually transform from 8-bit to 16-bit. Backgrounds sharpen and change color palettes, and environments appear to age hundreds of years in an instant.

Your own character model is even given a 16-bit overhaul. The transformation takes place simply by jumping through a time travel gate or into what appears to be a tear between the two time periods. Flipping the switch between eras and visual styles never gets old and works in a way that sets The Messenger apart from other time-bending games.

Audio:
In a game with so many strong features, it truly is amazing that the music may be its strongest. The original, two-disc soundtrack (Disc I: The Past and Disc II: The Future) is by self-proclaimed “extreme chiptune dance metal” artist, Rainbowdragoneyes.

The songs range from understated moody crawls to frantic, sci-fi pop anthems. And they serve to define the levels of The Messenger just as aptly as their visual designs. Each level has an 8-bit and 16-bit version of its soundtrack, and is changed instantly when you jump between time different periods. The tracks are catchy enough that you will be humming them long after the credits have rolled.

The sound effects are great, and yet another feature that jumps straight out of arcade classics into this modern throwback. From the slash of the sword to the grunts of defeated foes, sounds in The Messenger contain just the right amount of a dull, muffled quality to lend themselves to old-school authenticity.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is one player only with no online component.

Review: The Messenger (PS4) Review: The Messenger (PS4)

Conclusion:
The Messenger is a game that wows from its opening frames and does not let up until the very end. The amount of care that went into it is obvious from the depth of both the narrative and the ever-adapting gameplay.

It’s truly special when a game can so proudly wear its inspirations on its sleeve while also building upon that foundation in fresh, creative ways that set it apart from other genre copycats.

Score:
9.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Brock Arnett

Gamer since the NES days, Boilermaker, Colts and Pacers fan. I can’t wait until my two boys are old enough to play games with me.

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