At the far end of a fallen, pixelated world lies a clan of ninjas living on the edge of a cliff facing the western ocean. Fleeing a demon invasion, this clan had chosen exile over death. The ninajs of The Messenger train non-stop, waiting for the prophesied Western Hero to land on their cliff.
As the game starts centuries later, that day arrives. The Western Hero is finally here to save the world…and it isn’t you.
Instead he entrusts you, a young ninja disillusioned with all these pointless training, to deliver a magic scroll and carry it across the dangerous remains of your island world. Eventually you’ll reach three sages at the top of a mountain and find the path to ensuring your clan’s survival.
Thus begins The Messenger, the debut title from Canadian developer Sabotage Studio. A sidescrolling platformer high on nostalgia and rich in detail, even if it does need to send a ninja star towards a few quirks before its final release.
Before you’ve even done your first triple-flip up to a platform, you’ll have flashbacks to the great Shinobi games of the early nineties. Maybe even early Ninja Gaiden. It’s as much to do with the pixel-perfect recreation of that era as it is to do with the ninjutsu theme. From the retro visuals to the quite brilliant chiptune soundtrack, it’s on point.
The story doesn’t take itself very seriously. There is a bubbling of tongue-in-cheek humour that pops below the surface of almost everything that appears in your dialogue box. We can’t say there are any burst-out-loud moments of laughter, but we’ll admit to some frequent giggles.
The Messenger does start dangerously slow. There’s no specific “tutorial mission,” but the opening 30-60 minutes pit you against lumbering, easy-to-defeat enemies that sporadically dot straightforward platforming stages. Making that slow start more uncomfortable is the first ability you’re granted.
It’s called “cloudstepping,” and it’s confusing and hard to execute. It’s effectively a double jump, only you cannot do it unless you strike an enemy (or hittable item) with your sword first. So you jump, attack and – if you make contact with something – you’re allowed to jump again. You know you’re in luck if a cloud appears at your feet, providing the platform used to stage the second jump.
It just takes a lot of getting used to, and the cumbersome controls don’t help. In the PC build we played, there was no option to re-map the keys and the default setup is thumb-breakingly annoying. Everything is just too unresponsive for the demand cloudstepping asks of your fingers.
The Messenger Opens Up
That said, its potential makes it an area Sabotage Studio should spend some time refining before the final release. Once you get through the game’s slow start, the layers of gameplay on offer begin to emerge. The mix of enemies ratchets up the tension, and platforming challenges begin to lure those with the required skills into secret areas.
At this point you begin to see that cloudstepping could really separate The Messenger from the retro-platforming pack. Stringing together a number of these cloudstepping moves allows a double jump to turn into a triple, then a quadruple and onwards, forming a chain of jumps depending on your skill level.
If nailed correctly, it’s pretty cool scaling through the world in this fashion. Plus, by thinking creatively, you can come up with nifty ways of getting to hard-to-reach areas. Vanquished enemies respawn as you scroll past an area, allowing you to resurrect them if you need their bodies or projectiles as a cloudstepping tool.
But should the age-old mechanic of double jumping really be a core part of the challenge? From our early time with the game, we’re not sold. We’re open to its potential – and playing with a keyboard didn’t help – but pressing jump twice is functionally a proven and well-honed system.
Action Platformer or Sidescroller?
Despite the presence of a ninja, an unlock tree filled with new skills and abilities – paid for by shards you collect – and demon warriors, we’d be hesitant to call The Messenger an action-platformer. This is more a sidescrolling platformer first, action title second.
While there are a range of different enemy types to confront with different movement speeds and attacks, progression is more about timing jumps. It’s not focused on combining your powers together in interesting new ways to “outthink” the enemy AI.
Given this is more of a sidescroller, we do feel the level design could do more to incentivise exploration. If the action was fast, frantic and challenging, then you could see why the gameplay would be focused there. But as it’s more about finding passage through the landscape without falling into spikes or jumping too close to a demon, the lack of alternate routes or frequent secret areas to discover feels like a swing and a miss.
Thankfully, The Messenger isn’t retro to the point of foregoing checkpoints and adding permadeath. And there are some great abilities to unlock that hint at a broadening of the gameplay through the endgame.
Looking Forward to Playing More
The Messenger has plenty going for it. The tone is pitch perfect, the available ninja moves grow pleasingly, a slow start does transition into some genuine challenge, and we’re promised a shift towards a more metroidvania-like experience later in the game. The controls do need some fine tuning, especially around cloudstepping, but we remain excited for the final release.
The Messenger by Sabotage Studio is being published by Devolver, and will be out this year on Switch and PC.