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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (386)

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Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5
Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5
Evoland Legendary Editi... 4.5/5
Evoland 2 4.5/5
Burokku Girls 2/5
Finding Paradise 4.5/5
To the Moon 4/5
Marvel: Ultimate Allian... 2.5/5
Valley 4/5
Satellite Reign 3/5
The Fall of Gods 3.5/5
Even the Ocean 3.5/5
Asterix & Obelix XXL 2:... 3/5
Valkyria Chronicles 4 5/5
Ninja Gaiden ( Shadow W... 1/5
Super Mario Land 2.5/5
The Messenger 3.5/5
Super Mario Land 2: 6 G... 2/5

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The Messenger   PC (Steam) 

Mess Anger    3.5/5 stars

“The Messenger” is the first, and so far only, game by French-Canadian Indie developer, Sabotage Studio. Released in 2018 and published by Devolver Digital, “The Messenger” became something of an Indie Darling in its time, garnering numerous praise and awards at gaming tech shows before and immediately after its release. From what little pre-release information I’d garnered about the game personally, I felt like it had enough potential to wishlist it on Steam and wait for it to go on sale. However, upstart gaming-monopoly-wannabe, Epic Games, beat me to the punch, for once, and gave this game away for free to everyone who bothered to claim a copy.

Presentation
“The Messenger” is, at first glance, a typical retro game with overly-thick nostalgia goggles for the 8-bit gaming era dominated by the Nintendo Entertainment System. Specifically, it’s transparently inspired by the ‘Ninja Gaiden’ trilogy of frustrating 2D platformers that graced that platform, with character, enemy, and environmental designs lifted straight out of those games. Thus “The Messenger” employs 8-bit-style pixel art that is impossibly more appealing to the eye than even the best-looking NES games, by virtue of the fact that modern systems can display so many more colors at once and can handle so many more layers of sprites and effects. Partway through the game, though, “The Messenger” reveals another one of its inspirations, “Evoland,” in that it introduces a time travel mechanic that takes the player character into the future where everything is, amusingly, 16-bit and even more detailed. The combined whole of these two art styles is masterfully executed, with copious attention to detail and subtle differences between the two different timestreams.

Audiowise, “The Messenger” also wears it 8-bit and 16-bit inspirations on its sleeve, with pseudo-chiptune and pseudo-MIDI tracks aplenty. Most importantly, though, is that these tracks, composed by someone known as Rainbowdragoneyes, who is apparently a big name in the retrodigital music scene, are all quite memorable and earwormy. Sound effects are also competently done, however there is no voiceacting, because there was no voiceacting in the 8-bit era (now get off “The Messenger’s” lawn).

Technically, “The Messenger” is rock solid. It runs smoothly and glitch free, supports Xinput controllers natively, includes a save system, and is, overall, the type of quality-controlled experience PC gamers of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras could only fantasize about.

Story
“The Messenger” takes some story cues from the ‘Ninja Gaiden’ series, or so I am lead to understand, having never played any of them back in the day. Our hero is a ninja living in an enclave of the last humans in a world that has been conquered by the evil forces of the Demon King. As our hero, an unnamed trainee ninja, prepares to go about another day of seemingly fruitless training while the village awaits the return of the Hero from the West, the Demon King and his most trusted lieutenant invade. Just as our hero is about to be squashed flat, the Hero from the West appears, chases the Demon King away, and hands our hero a sacred scroll, which must be delivered to the top of the tallest mountain in the land. The one who undertakes this feat is the titular Messenger, and as the last ninja standing, our nobody hero gets picked for the task.

“The Messenger” is quite well-plotted for a game in its style, with several twists and turns of varying predictability. Of course, when I say, ‘in its style,’ I don’t mean ‘8/16-bit knockoff,’ I mean ‘meta.’ “The Messenger” tries to have a sense of humor to go along with its bleak and serious scenario, but the entire tone is thrown off by the constant stream of ‘meta’ jokes. One of the plot reveals at the very end sort of explains it away, but I ultimately found the inconsistent wavering between serious and silly somewhat offputting.

Likewise, with the game’s sizable amount of plot-twists and narrative secrets, the pacing generally suffers, with a bare-bones excuse narrative driving the player forward for most of the game, only to run into an extensive 20-minute-plus lore dump just as things are coming to a close. And then it closes with a ‘to be continued…’ which is never a good sign.

Clocking in at almost exactly 15 hours for a blind first run, “The Messenger” is about the right length for an Indie game at its $20 price point. Unfortunately, I found the experience somewhat exhausting and was quite ready for it to be over.

Gameplay
‘Ninja Gaiden’ clone! ‘Ninja Gaiden’ clone! It’s just like ‘Ninja Gaiden,’ you guys! We can relive our misspent childhoods playing a horribly-designed platformer that hates us!

At least, that’s some of what you can expect to hear from people excited about “The Messenger.” However, having dipped my toes into the first “Ninja Gaiden” after finishing “The Messenger” just for the sake of comparison, I’d say the similarities are only skin deep.

“The Messenger” does, however, start off highly reminiscent of a ‘Ninja Gaiden’ title, provided it’s a ‘Ninja Gaiden’ title from an alternate universe where the series is actually good…ish. “The Messenger” spends about 6 hours of its runtime as a straight-forward, stage-to-stage, move-to-the-right sidescroller. Our ninja hero can run, jump, crouch, and slash to the side, as expected, but he can also perform a cloud jump, which is an unlimited form of double-jump that requires him to hit an enemy or environmental object between each jump to charge-up the next one. In addition to this starting stable of skills, the ninja can gather a currency called Time Shards and spend them at a shop (which appears at most save points) in order to unlock additional upgrades, such as the ability to throw shurikens, and passive changes to the world, such as causing enemies to randomly drop health items or shuriken recharge items. Other upgrades, like climbing claws that allow the ninja to stick to walls, a wingsuit that allows him to glide, and a rope dart (“you’ll just call it a grappling hook”) that allows him to grapple onto objects, enemies, and walls.

All of this sidescrolling gameplay is highly polished, with incredibly tight, responsive controls no 8-bit ‘Ninja Gaiden’ game ever had. However, the difficulty curve is kinda all over the place, with mostly-easy platforming and brain-dead bosses that suddenly shift to “Super Meat Boy” platforming and pattern-memorization bosses that will randomly throw seemingly-unavoidable strings of attacks at the player. Fortunately, even when it gets frustrating, it’s never punishing, as “The Messenger” has save points all over the place that ensure the game never wastes the player’s time retreading half of a stage for another crack at a difficult-to-read boss. Of course, that didn’t prevent the game from making me cuss up a storm. Moreover, player death is only penalized by a small, rotund, cyclopean imp, who ‘rescues’ the Messenger at the last second before death, but then follows him around stealing his Time Crystals for a while, after offering a pithy comment about the player’s skill, of course.

However, that’s all just the first part of the game. After about the 6-hour mark, story dumps happen and the game is revealed to be, not just a sidescrolling ‘Ninja Gaiden’ clone, but a Metroidvania ‘Ninja Gaiden’ clone. At this point, fast travel points to certain previous stages become available, as well as a map showing how each of the stages the player slogged through in linear fashion are interconnected and riddled with secrets. Most of these secrets take the form of hidden Power Seals, which are optional collectables hidden behind super-tricky platforming rooms. And now we see “The Messenger’s” third inspiration: “Guacamelee.” The Power Seal platforming puzzle rooms remind me of nothing more than the two ‘Guacamelee’ games’ platforming puzzle rooms hiding power-ups. Navigating the whole, unlocked map frequently requires the player to slip between the ‘past’ and ‘future’ timestreams, however, unlike the ‘world of the living’ and ‘world of the dead’ swapping mechanic in ‘Guacamelee,’ the Messenger is limited to time-hopping through portals which appear at specific spots all over the map.

Unfortunately, with a fully-powered-up Messenger, one major design flaw presents itself that makes many of the platforming puzzles more challenging than they ought to be for the wrong reasons. Jumping and cloud jumping are both mapped to the A button by default. Gliding with the wingsuit is also mapped to A, and requires to player to actually press and hold A again in the air instead of just continuing to hold A after jumping. This overuse of the A button for all of these different technical skills frequently causes them to clash with each other, causing the player character to glide when the player wants him to cloud jump, cloud jump when the player wants him to glide, or just drop like a stone into a bottomless pit instead of gliding or cloud jumping. For a game with such solid, responsive controls otherwise, this is something of a black eye, and would be easily remedied if the default mapping for gliding was the left trigger, which is used for nothing as-is.

Overall
“The Messenger” is a not-as-fun-or-as-funny ‘Guacamelee’ clone with a ‘Ninja Gaiden’ skin and an “Evoland” gimmick. But, boy, is it a treat for the eyes and ears! Old school ‘Ninja Gaiden’ fanboys won’t like it because it’s ‘2EZ’ and the Metroidvania part adds what they consider ‘padding’ (taken straight from the mouths of the Steam Community’s horses), and it doesn’t really introduce anything new to the Metroidvania subgenre that ‘Guacamelee’ hasn’t already done better (and with coop!). Still, there’s nothing wrong with it, so if you’re in the mood for some platforming, metahumor, and cussing, go ahead and pick it up.

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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