I had my first glimpse of The Messenger a few months ago on an indie sizzle real during an Xbox event. My initial impression of the game wasn’t too positive as I assumed by the art style that it would be crushingly difficult. But I knew the game was heading to gamepass one day, so I told myself I’d try it when it did. And I am very, very glad I did.
The Messenger is a 2d platforming action game in the veins of old classics such as Ninja Gaiden, the 8-bit art style being a clear call back to retro titles. While the game looks and sounds retro, the gameplay itself is responsive and modern. The core of the game has you jump, slash forward, and duck your way through a variety of levels and enemy encounters, with the complexity and progression in the game coming in the forms of various ninja tools you unlock. The most important of which, is the “Cloudstep” skill.
The skill itself is simple, allowing you to jump again after landing a hit while already in the air. Couple the skill with the ability to hit projectiles and the path is open to many unique platforming designs. Wall climbing, a grappling hook and gliding all work together with the Cloudstep to help keep the levels feel unique and engaging. Though of course the stark contrast in aesthetic between the levels also helps immensely.
My immediate worry when I first saw the game and when I first started playing, was that it would be too difficult. I remember playing some of the old classic games as a child and it’s fair to say I never made it far before calling it quits. I was pleasantly surprised when The Messenger did not start too hard. The game slowly introduces you to the new mechanics to master and the difficulty curve, for the most part, was nice and steady. The amount of HP and hits you can take are large enough to keep you going, and eventually being able to recover HP back from defeated mobs helped prevent the pace of the game from slowing down. It was after quite a while of playing that I first hit a skill wall, but I had gotten good enough at the mechanics that I never once thought it was hopeless.
The games progression comes in the form of a skill tree, unlocked by collecting Time Shards obtained from lanterns, enemies, and breaking large crystals in hidden locations. The unlockable skills are essential in keeping the difficulty of the game manageable, such as reducing the damage spikes or traps do to you. Which in turn gives you more chances to make mistakes and progress to the next checkpoint.
There are also optional Power Seals placed throughout the game. These seals are in hidden rooms and require the player to complete a platforming challenge. Usually in games like these it’s the optional locations that are truly impossible to complete, but barring a few power seals, I felt the rest were a fair challenge. The reward for collecting all of them was a huge help as I approached the end of the game.
The enemies encountered are, for the most part, simple. They either walk around meaning to damage you on contact, or they fire projectiles with various trajectories. These enemies aren’t here for you to hunt them down, rather they’re meant to both help and hinder the player as they platform through the level. Using enemy projectiles, you’re able to bypass entire rooms on a regular basis and spending time hunting down the enemies can feel wasteful, as they respawn the moment you lose sight of them.
At the end of each level you come across a boss encounter. Now historically, this is where I have the most trouble in platformers. I think I’ve beaten maybe two Mega-Man bosses over the years and died numerous times to the others. In The Messenger, the bosses feel just as fair as the levels. The patterns aren’t difficult to learn, often require only seeing them a few times, and being able to master the mechanics in the middle of a fight and then surviving with just one or two HP, feels amazing.
While playing through the game, I had two issues that were consistently present. The first of which are the hitboxes. Several times throughout the game I would run into a projectile, trap, or enemy when I shouldn’t have. The hitbox for the player isn’t bad, but during some close encounters it could have benefited from being a little tighter. I did rectify this problem for the most part by switching to the d-pad during position sensitive moments.
My second problem is in the way the game handles taking damage in the air. Early in the game you unlock an ability to do a “recover jump” if you take damage. This ability requires you to press the jump button after taking damage to recover, then allowing you to use your jump, abilities and attacks. I felt that this wasn’t intuitive at all. For example, I would take damage and expect to grapple to a nearby wall for safety, but until I “recovered” none of my commands would work. While I did eventually get used to this mechanic, I felt it didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the game.
The game’s music and carefree tone worked perfectly for me. I know many others might not enjoy the humorous atmosphere and fourth wall breaking, but I felt that it did a great job at keeping the game light and enjoyable. Each level has a distinct and memorable music track that never really grows tiring. Now this is no easy feat considering the time and frustration some of these levels take. The tracks also being in 8-bit really helps sell their charm.
Now about halfway through, there’s a surprise waiting for the player that sets the tone and pace for the remainder of the game. If this were a review, I’d go more in depth and fully explain the new mechanics. But this isn’t a review. This is a spotlight of a game available to millions of people already subscribed to Game Pass, with the main question being: is the game worth trying?
This is a very easy question to answer. Yes, the game is worth trying. Don’t be afraid of the classic look of the game. The Messenger is smooth and responsive in its gameplay, the tone is light and comedic, and the game has several surprises that make you both laugh and groan at the same time. The Messenger is available on Xbox Game Pass at the time of this writing and I encourage anyone even slightly interested in platformers to give the game a shot.