Backlogvania Review: The Messenger (2018)

Backlogvania: The Messenger
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Welcome to Backlogvania

Join me each month as I tackle one game from my backlog, try to complete it in a month, and then tell you if it’s worth playing now, leaving in your backlog, or skipping completely. Not that my opinion means anything, but you’re here. You have now entered the daunting, and traitorous world of Backlogvania!

This month’s game is…

Game: The Messenger

System: Steam, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One

Released: 2018

Publisher: Devolver Digital

Studio: Sabotage Studio

Notable Creatives: Thierry Boulanger (Director), Eric W. Brown aka Rainbowdragoneyes (composer)

Metacritic Score: 86

Duration in my backlog: 140 days

Additional writing and editing: Joseph McBride

History Lesson

In what will most likely earn unanimous applause from Joseph, Steve, my wife, and anyone else who has actually followed along and read each piece of Backlogvania so far, I have to say there isn’t much of a history lesson for The Messenger. We’re only on entry three of this series and we’ve already come to a game with one of the shortest stints on my backlog. The reasons why will become apparent shortly, but let’s not get too carried away with ourselves…  I say when the history lessons are done around here…

Seriously, I don’t have much here in terms of history. I had to do some digging and go all the way to Sabotage Studio’s own WordPress site when Wikipedia tapped out on me (even after all the donation I’ve given them) and even that didn’t give me much. So little, in fact, I am just going to cut and paste it here:

“Firstborn from the mind of an 8-year-old kid from the 90s who never got over Ninjas, The Messenger is a celebration of good old retro-platforming. Created by a core team of 8 people gathered around the idea of capturing what made the classics great, Sabotage spent its first two years of operations developing its own ‘definitive edition’ of this beloved genre. Leveraging expectations as the main ingredient, the vision for The Messenger was to create an experience that would deceive with its simplicity, at first sight, later taking players on an epic journey of time travel supported by 8bit and 16bit real-time transitions, while also delving into philosophy and storytelling on a scale unexpected from the premise.”

Yep, that’s it. The history of The Messenger is “some guy really liked Ninja Gaiden and made a better version of it 20 years later.” It’s possible there is more to it than that but who knows. Honestly, this game is so good I’d watch a 3 hour long documentary on someone putting the cartridge in the box if they ever get around to filming it – but with so little in terms of history, we can close the book on it, for now.

Journey to the Backlog

As “reasons to put a game in my backlog” go, this one isn’t as deep or as complicated as some of the previous games we’ve talked about, but there is something of substance here. I learned about The Messenger when I ended up backing a crowdfunding project for a game called Sea of Stars, a retro 16-bit RPG. Sea of Stars intrigued me to the point of backing it, but while reading up on it I discovered that the studio behind Sea of Stars set that game in the same universe as their previous title, The Messenger.

I immediately looked into The Messenger and downloaded it on my Nintendo Switch because the other 20 games I had on there weren’t good enough, apparently. I started it and gave it a shot but from there, life did its damage to my free time to play games. The combination of my wife and I having our second child, taking our kids out of daycare because people refuse to wear masks and wash their hands properly, and working from home simply formed one giant Voltron: Destroyer of Free Time and I lost track of The Messenger. 

Though, to its credit, it never left my mind. I actually thought it had been on my backlog for much longer, but upon gazing at receipts I determined it was only a breezy 140 days since picking up The Messenger and I became simultaneously proud of how quickly I was able to rebound and get through it so quickly, and deeply depressed at how disastrously slow 2020 has been while taking its time slowly killing us all. JUST DO IT ALREADY, 2020, YOU COWARD!

So, here’s what you came for: the review. Should you play this game, put it on your shelf, or skip it? Well, let’s not waste any more time. 

Let’s dive into The Messenger…

The Messenger: Title Screen
Title Screen for The Messenger… Press Plus? You guys remember ‘start’ buttons? I remember..

Game Review

**Warning: This section will contain spoilers for The Messenger. You’ve been warned…**

The Messenger begins in a village of a ninja academy featuring a bunch of dudes dressed like Ninja Gaiden cosplay who have all been told of a legend of a “Western Hero.” During an attack on the village by a monster known as The Demon King, the legendary “Western Hero” appears. In an instant he defeats The Demon King, and hands a scroll to you, one of the last surviving ninjas, who is now tasked with being the  next  “Messenger” who must take the scroll to the top of a mountain. Roll credits…While there’s a story there, it’s not what’s going to keep you engaged.

“The Messenger is an 8-bit 2D side-scrolling platformer with air-tight gameplay mechanics and one of the best chiptunes soundtracks you’ll ever hear. In the endless ocean of indie games that use the 8-bit style and influence, The Messenger seems to hit all the marks while not doing anything revolutionary.” If you were to use the cookie-cutter game review I wrote in the quotes above to describe The Messenger to anyone who had only put one or two hours into it, that analysis would be more than accurate. 

The Messenger Intro
“Yep, they like Ninja Gaiden alright…”

Where The Messenger really goes from having your curiosity to securing your attention is about the halfway point. Just when you think you’re close to defeating the final boss and seeing the end credits on a well-spent yet quaint little indie title, something magical happens. The Messenger reveals a time travel plot twist that sends the eponymous ninja 500 years into the future and the entire game shifts from 8-bit to 16-bit. The transition from 8-bit to 16-bit includes all new character sprites, enemy assets, and even level design changes that take over in the updated graphical engine along with a shift from the fantastic, but limited 8-bit tunes to a rich 16-bit version of the same music all completely redone to match. Is your mind blown yet?

Plot twist 2! The Messenger isn’t the 8, or even 16-bit platformer you thought it was sucka! Turns out, that scroll you were bringing to the top of that mountain? Well it was actually a map and now the entire world you’ve played through, and more, has just opened up and is entirely available for traversal in what has now just become a Metroid-fucking-vania! Oh, it’s also revealed that you, as the new messenger, are just the latest in a long line of messengers in a cycle that repeats itself over and over again. In fact, you’re just another in a long line of successors meant to hand off the scroll to the next person until the guy that comes to replace you as the next messenger dies because you give him the wrong instructions putting you back in line to break the curse and fulfill the prophecy by doing “the thing.”

The Messenger screenshot
“Collect all the things!”

The Messenger goes from being a mid-tier indie title to being one of the most creative and innovative games I’ve ever played in a matter of a couple of hours by combining several styles and genres in a masterwork of game design and it only gets better the further you get. While doubling back to previous, as well as newly discovered, parts of the map, you encounter portals that shift you back and forth between the different periods in time; many of which are required to be used to get to certain parts of a stage or to reach previously inaccessible locations. What once could be seen as a simple gimmick has now become a core gameplay mechanic and doesn’t just leave as quickly as it came – it sticks around for the long haul and The Messenger is all the better for it.

Along the journey in The Messenger, you’re assisted by hooded wizard looking dudes, one of whom is called The Shopkeeper who will assist you with hints, and upgrades, and hilarious jokes. When not in the shops, the insane platforming challenges will cause you to encounter death frequently. But rather than a permadeath or limited lives system, The Messenger takes some inspiration from Shovel Knight and adds a new wrinkle – instead of losing currency or lives, a demon named Quarble follows you upon your resurrection and eats any new currency or items you may find until he’s satisfied and he leaves you be until your next inevitable death, of which there will be many. Each time you die, he gives you a bunch of shit for it. It’s hilarious.

The Messenger: Quarble
Oh, this guy’s got jokes… No, he really does and they’re pretty funny. Sorry if that sounded sarcastic.

Did I mention this game is hilarious? The humor in The Messenger is fantastic. Whether it’s the less than gentle ribbing Quarble gives you, or the way the Shopkeeer will put you into an insanely long, un-skippable story if you continue to try to look into his cabinet once too many times after he tells you to leave it alone – there’s no shortage of humor here and it is constant throughout the game.

The Messenger
“Why you dragon me all over this map, man?”

In terms of presentation, I’ve already gushed about the visuals and the music but it just cannot be overstated how good the visual and sound design is here. The seamless transition between two disparate art-styles is one thing – but the way The Messenger manages to make both of these two styles feel like they’re part of one larger whole rather than be two completely separate games is jaw dropping. And let’s talk about the music – the composer Eric Brown, who I was able to find under Rainbowdragoneyes when searching for the soundtrack on streaming services, is one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard in any game. I’ve found myself listening to the OST for The Messenger almost daily since completing my playthrough and the songs are on repeat in my head even as we speak – it’s not often that this is the case, but The Messenger is worth playing to hear the music alone. Check out an example below…

General Commentary, Trivia, and Credits

  • The prequel to The Messenger, Sea of Stars, is a crowdfunding project and is still able to be backed on Kickstarter if you’re interested. Check it out here.
  • The Messenger won Best Music and Best Gameplay during the Montreal Indie Game Festival of 2017 – if my endorsement wasn’t enough for you to listen to the music…
  • It was nominated for “Best Independent Game” and won “Best Debut Indie Game” at The Game Awards in 2018
  • This is the first entry of Backlogvania where I was able to provide my own screenshots due to playing on Nintendo Switch! My wife also got me a capture card which should help to make capturing footage a little easier in the future!
  • I don’t think I gushed about the visuals enough, but man, for being a game trying to capture 8/16-bit aesthetics, they really push the visuals to the limit… check this out, man… y’all never had SNES or Genesis games looking this good. Shit, I don’t even think we had N64 games looking this good…
The Messenger
“Prettier than any sunset in 2020, that’s for damn sure…”

Verdict

The Messenger is one of the best games I’ve ever played. By combining impeccable gameplay, supremely tight controls, fantastic humor, incredible music, and several genres of gameplay into one unique and innovative package it stands peerless in both the 2D platforming and Metroidvania genres. The Messenger is a game that I may have put down for a time (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading it here) but when I picked it back up I didn’t stop until I was done and I only wanted to start it all over again. You should play this game now.

The Messenger Verdict
The Messenger Verdict

Rating: Play it!

Final Thoughts and Next Game Up

Next up is October – you know what that means – a case of the spookies. It also means it’s the perfect month to play another game that’s been on my backlog for quite some time as well as being based on one of my favorite movies of all time… Ghostbusters: The Video Game! Check back for the next spooky entry of Backlogvania!