Tuesday, August 28

Review: The Messenger [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One of the most fascinating elements of the indie movement is the re-emergence of brutally difficult games that are, at the same time, more forgiving and thus accessible than their forebears. Way back in the day you could be expected to grit your teeth, curse, and scream at your screen as you’d get to a major boss battle, get your ass handed to you, and then need to endure a lengthy run to get back to where you had been just to yet again earn an opportunity to shine. These experiences still do exist (I’m looking at you roguelikes, you delicious bastards) but thankfully for people who value their time (and sanity) a kinder, though not necessarily gentler, generation has come to play. The latest game in this vein, mixing very classic action platforming and a steep challenge, is The Messenger which in terms of visuals and feel is reminiscent of the infamous Ninja Gaiden titles but brings some welcome new ideas and surprises to the table as well.


The most talked about element of The Messenger is certainly one that deserves fair praise. At a minimum this feels like 2, but could almost be considered 3, titles in one. Journeying through several distinct and challenging areas, each with a pretty nasty boss fight to top it off, you’ll spend hours getting through the initial very traditional platforming section of the game, initially played in an 8-bit but then transitioning to a terrific 16-bit style. It’s only when you’ve defeated all the game has to throw at you, which feels like it would be the conclusion of lesser games, that everything opens up and changes the style and flow of things significantly. What had been well-designed linear levels are now revealed to have been far more complex and interesting frameworks for a deeper level design, one that you’re then able to explore by manipulating time by going through portals, revealing new pathways and challenges. While the initial run through the stages of the game are pretty amazing it’s really only when you’re able to view the entirety of what they have to offer in this later phase that the brilliance of the complete design come into focus.


What I’d say is the greatest secret concerning the game, and the one that for me takes it from being merely really good to being absolutely great, revolves around the amazing humor you’ll hit throughout. Whether it’s the biting or silly comments from your very busy savior Quarble, the unexpected follow-up discussions with defeated bosses, or the laugh out loud dialogue you’ll have with “the shopkeeper” I was as invested in seeing what these characters would say next as trying to plant my flag on the game as done. In particular I have to commend the people who contributed to this game’s personality, it manages to carefully toe the line between being funny and over the top. It’s specifically the shopkeeper’s stories that I was most interested to catch up on, the time it takes to read them is well worth it as they’re consistently unexpected and fun for a wide variety of reasons. If you’re looking for more than just conquering the challenges within the game for the sake of “beating it” I’d say this dimension is the one that stands out from almost anything else out there and will help the game feel special for a long time to come.


If there’s a downside to note it’s most definitely that the game is extremely tough and there are some sections and bosses you’re simply going to need to grit your way through. That’s in no way to say anything feels unfair or that there are extreme spikes in difficulty. On the contrary, the level of challenge is pretty consistent. But that’s also what I’d say increases the chances an average gamer may decide to give up on it too soon.The checkpoints are, in general, very fair in their spacing and don’t tend to put you through too much torture before you’re able to save your progress. The thing is, you really need to be on top of every move at your disposal, and be able to utilize them in some creative ways, to ultimately be successful. While games like Celeste provided a way to scale things down so you could still enjoy the experience even if you couldn’t quite hack it there’s no such mercy rule to be had here. If, somehow, you feel like it’s all a bit too easy there are also an abundance of hidden areas you can find with some even more devious challenges. Not all hidden areas mean certain death, some will actually help you out, but keep in mind that some of the tougher challenges are very aware of where the save points are and seem to be put in place specifically for the purpose of tempting you. For the person who loves to dig in this probably all sounds great, but if it gives you anxiety just reading about it understand that the hill to be climbed to enjoy all of these things is high, possibly meaning you’ll get frustrated before appreciating most of it.


Games that are so clearly terrific and special in many ways, but that have a degree of difficulty that makes me concerned not everyone will get a chance to appreciate it, always pose a scoring challenge for me. Unlike, say, a roguelike where some mild progression and sheer luck can give you good runs every once in a while here there are no tricks, shortcuts, or luck to be had. Your options are merely to “git gud” or to stop playing. It’s an approach I find admirable, and given the generally generous spacing of checkpoints I think it’s as fair as it can be without completely compromising. If you’re up to the challenge, or to give it a serious try, this is absolutely a rewarding experience and one that pays off more and more the further in you’re able to go. The evolution of its visual style and gameplay are something I’ve simply never seen before and I think will inevitably be copied, they’re so impressively done. What will be far tougher to have any hope of replicating, and what really sets The Messenger apart, is the game’s tremendous sense of humor and poking fun at itself. The result is one of the most deserving titles of “the hype” I’ve seen in quite some time.


Score: 9.5

Pros:
  • Amazing, challenging, and inventive gameplay
  • Looks absolutely incredible, especially once you unlock the final more open mode of play
  • Tremendously funny writing that compelled me to progress

Cons:
  • Though the checkpoints help to respect your time, ultimately this game is full of challenges where there’s no net or way to avoid what’s kicking your ass
  • No matter how cool elements of the game may be if you’re unable to appreciate them the magic may not be there for you