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I suck at video games: The Messenger review

Wow, I suck at video games. I know this because a little red demon named Quarble told me he’s had to save my luckless ninja hide over 200 times already — and I’m only halfway through the game!

I didn’t expect The Messenger from Sabotage Studios to be this difficult. As the game progressed, Quarble rescued me an additional 300 times. Each time, he’d make a humorous quip about my performance, until the messages began to loop. I still laughed each time. Like I said before, I suck at video games.

I also didn’t expect it to be such a fantastic game. It begins simply enough — an evil demon is wreaking havoc upon the world of mankind. Our hero is a ninja who doesn’t pay much mind to his studies. That is, until the demon overlord attacks! The ninja village is bathed in glorious hellfire as our hero leaps into action. What follows is a fantastic adventure that begins like a game of Ninja Gaiden and morphs into Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s amazing.

Though clearly influenced by 8-bit and 16-bit era games, The Messenger checks its nostalgia at the door the first time the player enters a shop. With a facetious shopkeeper and a load of metagame references, the game feels fresher than some other retro-style games on the market. While chatting with the shopkeeper, the player is told several hilarious stories and, while acquiring items throughout the first part of the game, the shopkeeper jokes about the very tropes upon which the items are based. It’s hilarious. Or I’m old and remember the tropes in the original games. Either way, I found myself looking forward to chatting with the shopkeeper because of his funny, tongue-in-cheek personality.

Calling this game a “Metroidvania” title is underselling its true value. It’s a blast from the past aesthetic, with tons of replay value and minimal tedium. Without further ado, let’s look at the game elements and see how they stack up.   

Graphics: 5/5

The graphics in The Messenger are phenomenal. The masterful blending of 8-bit and 16-bit graphics throughout the game is great, but it’s in the visual nuances where the graphics shine. There will be a nod here and there to an older system, and boss fights are visually stunning.

Music: 5/5

The music is catchy, reminiscent of the best Ninja Gaiden had to offer. The authentic NES style sound became even better when the game began switching to 16 bit. The seamless transition between the two soundscapes whenever a time warp was entered made the music stand out even more. I especially enjoyed the music for the Autumn Hills stage/area.

Gameplay: 4/5

The gameplay — like the NES/SNES games that inspired it — is intuitive, but does provide extreme difficulty at times (as one would expect from a game of the era).

It did take me awhile to grow accustomed to the gameplay on the Nintendo Switch controller, especially after acquiring the grappling hook. Movement is smooth, but sometimes I would meet certain doom by accidentally latching onto a wall and being hit by spikes or projectiles. I also had some difficulty with the cloud jumping mechanic (you hit an enemy, item container or projectile and can hit the jump button to leap higher), but found that once I got the hang of it, it made the game much more enjoyable. Attacks and movement are perfect, hit detection is good and button response is to die for — which will happen often, by the way. I died 420 times before completing the game. Good luck; you’ll need it!     

Plot: 5/5

The plot — steeped in time travel, humor and 8-/16-bit era tropes — made for a fun adventure. There were quite a few twists along the way and the ending leaves things open for a sequel or two. Overall, it’s well written and enjoyable. The various plot elements may seem convoluted, but they work. It’s a blast.

Fun: 5/5

I became addicted to this game after level two. The challenge wasn’t frustrating to the point of wanting to throw the controller, but it was quite difficult. The challenges are either puzzle-based or require practice and muscle memory. Fighting bosses is a blast and navigating the world after the initial stage-based gameplay is a nice touch.

Sabotage is certainly a studio to follow. They made a great game with The Messenger and I look forward to their next endeavor. Hopefully we see a sequel to this one soon. Until then, play this game and don’t let Quarble make you feel bad — you’re probably better at this game than I am.

The gory details:
  • Total time played — 6 hours, 15 minutes
  • Total player deaths — 523
  • Is it worth a replay — YES!
Verdict on The Messenger:

What are you waiting for? Buy this game! You won’t regret it. The Messenger is available for $20 on Switch via Nintendo’s eShop and Windows PCs via Steam.

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About the author

David Buck

David Buck is an author, musician, copywriter, and voice over artist based in Colorado. His work has appeared on Nerdvana Media, The Nintendo Times, Star Trek.com, EN World, SyFy Wire and across the web. In his spare time, he composes music, writes science fiction, and paints miniatures.