The Messenger - Brutal Backlog

March 9, 2020
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Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today. 

The Messenger is a Ninja Gaiden inspired, 8-bit sidescrolling platformer...and 16-bit platformer...and Metroidvania? On paper, it seemed like trying to be so many things at once would just result in a complete mess that misses the mark at every turn, but everyone who played it wouldn’t shut up about how fun it is.

I’ve never played a Ninja Gaiden game in my life, but I do love a good Metroidvania as much as the next guy, so maybe I’ll enjoy this one.

The 8-Bit Adventure Begins

Ninjas can be late for school too

The Messenger is late for his ninja history lesson and, of course, he hasn’t done the required readings yet. My first task is to race to class by performing wildly unnecessary acrobatics that would put an Olympic gymnast to shame and join my fellow students. The Messenger performs these feats of acrobatics with a power called Cloud Step, where your jump action is reset each time you hit an object with your katana, essentially letting you stay airborne forever, as long as you could pull it off.

From here, the Demon King descends upon the human race, seemingly out of nowhere, and I am given a very simple mission: take a scroll to the top of the mountain by moving from screen to screen until I reach the peak. It sounded easy enough to me, but boy was I wrong. The Messenger died. A lot. 

Upon dying for the first time, you meet a little red demon called Quarble who resurrects you every time you die. The catch is, instead of losing all of your currency Dark Souls-style and you having to reclaim it again, Quarble will take all the Time Shards you find for himself until you have paid your bill. It was a nice little twist on a currency loss system.

Right out of the gate the dialogue has me giggling, with a nice mention of John Gaiden that the shopkeeper in blue robes just needed to get out of the way, as well as receiving the gift of a wingsuit from Warriors of the Squirrel Clan and a rope dart that everyone will probably end up calling the grappling hook anyway.

You'll see this room a lot early on

Combat in The Messenger is pretty straight forward: whack enemies with your katana until they die. You’re also given a shuriken ability early on that was a nice way of taking out annoying enemies from a distance, but it’s not a very reliable weapon aside from that. Most enemies except for bosses only take one hit to kill, but some of them are placed in awkward positions where you have to Cloud Step to avoid projectiles, sometimes even using their fireballs as the object to reset your jump. I’ve played a handful of Metroidvania games that use similar mechanics, and Hollow Knight’s nail bounce-double jump combo is one that immediately came to mind, but The Messenger does it in a way that feels a little more natural, if a bit clunky at times.

After defeating a handful of bosses that were more annoying than challenging, as well as the comedy duo of Ruxxtin the necromancer and his talking staff, I reached the base of the mountain and met the first real test of my skills: Colos and Suses.

This boss is a tag team of cyclopes who just want a good workout, with The Messenger being their living punching bag for a good dozen deaths. The boss fight was a nice change of pace from the usual “jump around until they stop moving” thing the previous bosses had done. This time, you actually have to use your wingsuit and grappling hook to manoeuvre around the boss room. 

On defeating them, they thank me for the workout, then volleyball served me up the mountain as an added bonus. At least I didn’t have to walk the whole way?

This part of the game is the first test of my Cloud Step abilities, with bottomless pits and spike walls encasing most of the screens on my trek up the frosty mountain side. Almost all of the enemies here either threw projectiles at me or threw themselves at me, and most combat took place in the air rather than on the ground. This is also the area of the game where I finally realised you could use the grappling hook on more than just the flat walls, and I could also use it on enemies and lanterns to pull myself around the levels like a purple Spiderman. Had I known this earlier, I probably wouldn’t have died so much.

I reached the peak of the mountain and I met more guys in blue robes, one of which is very excited to “do the thing”. I’m a little worried about what this thing is. 

16-Bits and a cool hat

Manfred didn't appreciate me dropping from the sky and into his home

After conquering the Tower Of Time and a fight with the Arcane Golem that I can only describe as gorgeous, The Messenger is asked to fling himself into an endless chasm for...reasons? If there’s one thing that has become blatantly obvious at this point it’s that this game doesn’t take itself seriously, at all.

I came out of the other side of the void and suddenly the world is in glorious 16-bit vision, complete with a new straw hat that the shopkeeper immediately compliments me on.

Quarble enjoyed letting me know how bad I was at this

The straw hat also marks the first major difficulty spike, and Quarble takes great pleasure in reminding me how many times I have died (I hit the 100 mark rather quickly). The combat stays largely unchanged and no more difficult, but the level layout means I found myself falling into holes a lot more frequently than when I was only made of 8-bits.

My mission now is to defeat the Demon General Barma'thazël in the future and prevent him from destroying the world (I never once tried saying his name out loud). This means finding a way back down the mountain, tracking down the Demon King in the underworld level and smacking him over the head with my pointy metal stick. Pretty par for the course stuff.

Timey Wimey Ninja

It looks so much better this time around

Barma'thazël is defeated (death count nearing 200), I take a joyride on the back of Manfred, who just wants to be a butler, give the scroll to a soldier from the future, who totally isn’t Samus Aran, and pass on the role of The Messenger to him. The game is now over.

At least, that was the idea. Unfortunately for me, the new Messenger dies pretty quickly, meaning I have to take up the role once again. The shopkeeper fetches the scroll for me, which turns out to have been a map this whole time, and I go back into the world to finish the mission. This is where it shifts to the metroidvania style gameplay, which it does surprisingly well for a game that has been linear up until this point.

Now I actually have to save the world instead of just playing a time-travelling version of pass the parcel, which sounds great but kind of fails in execution. Unfortunately, it just becomes a fetch quest that opens up a couple of new areas, and is probably the weakest part of the game so far, until the final boss that is. It’s a far cry from games like Super Metroid and Hollow Knight, where there was a non-story reason to backtrack through the game, but in The Messenger you’ve already been given every item and taken every upgrade from the shopkeeper, so it just feels tedious to run through the levels again.

The Messenger is sent to find six musical notes and some cute little bridge builders, which means going back and forth through time, doing a few side quests for some tea leaves and finding out whatever happened to the tiny necromancer and his talking staff.

Ruxxtin and his staff are some of the better side characters

After a very underwhelming boss battle with the Demon King and being chased through time by a giant prawn, I enter the music box and make my way to the final boss room. All Ocarina of Time references around this box that had been nagging me were pretty much on point, as Phantom sits at his organ playing music, then makes me play tennis with a ball of light to see who is the better player. I would have guessed Ganondorf, and I would have been wrong.

Turns out it’s me, but the Phantom of the music box isn’t done with us yet. His suspiciously piggy-looking mask tries to destroy the world once and for all, but the men in blue robes aren’t having any of it. 

We join forces Power Rangers-style, summon the Arcane Golem and end up in a beam battle that would put Dragon Ball Z to shame. The mask is destroyed, the Demon King is defeated and humanity is saved once and for all.

Until the DLC came out.

But wait, there’s more

The best way to describe this story is 'dumb fun'

In an alternate universe, Barma'thazël has kidnapped the cute bridge builders, who just wanted to have a picnic on the beach, to try and lure out The Messenger. It doesn’t make much sense, but nothing in this game has really made sense.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t think the game could get any harder after the main story, and that was my fault for thinking that just because it was called Picnic Panic, that meant the DLC would be a walk in the park. Nope, more dying happened in the few hours with Picnic Panic than with the main game.

This one line sums up my experience quite nicely

There were some nice callbacks to the main game characters, one of which I had completely forgotten about until they revealed themselves after I once again destroyed their totem (I’m so sorry, little green sprite thing). 

Just like the main game, there was some great non-Metroidvania gameplay to break up the repetitive dying by spike holes, in this case it was a Battletoads-style surfing mini-game and a final boss fight that played like a round of Super Punch-Out. Those breaks aside, Picnic Panic plays just the same as the base game, travelling back and forth through time as you wander around the island level looking for collectibles and stabbing weird demons with your sword. 

Final Verdict

There’s a lot going on in The Messenger, and not all of it lands as well as it could, but what’s here is enjoyable, funny, and incredibly frustrating at times. I think it could have done without drawing from so many different games at once, and by the end I found myself comparing the writing and gameplay to Guacamelee! as an example of how it could have been done better, but that’s not to say it’s a bad game. It did win a good handful of awards after all.

The Messenger is not for the faint of heart. If you find yourself getting easily frustrated I highly recommend you avoid this game like the plague, or risk having to buy a new TV because you threw a controller through it shuriken-style.

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Worth playing? YES - it's still enjoyable today.
Callum Archer

I've been gaming since the days when PlayStation's mascot was a wildly disproportionate marsupial and not an angry Spartan who'll never win Father of the Year. Most of my free time is spent in Hyrule or the world of Pokemon, but I'll dip my toes in something else if it's interesting enough.