The Messenger: The Ombra Review
Innovation is a concept that gets thrown around a lot in the video game space. From studios innovating on established tropes to publishers using innovative marketing strategies to garner hype around an upcoming release, it happens a lot within the medium and sometimes we don't even notice it. But every once in a while, a game finds it's way to our screens and delivers a distinct flavor of innovation that lingers just long enough to become addicting. Sabotage Studio's The Messenger does exactly this, and then some. From frantic aerial boss fights to secret levels accessed through time-travel, this part-retro-platformer-part-metroidvania provides hours of non-stop nostalgic fun, and consistently subverts expectations along the way. Backed by a flawless chiptune soundtrack by the supremely talented Rainbowdragoneyes, The Messenger serves as a stunning benchmark in the evolution of indie game development.
At its core, the story of The Messenger is a simple one: you, a ninja, are tasked by the elder of your clan with delivering a scroll to the top of a mountain. This info, if you wish, can be the only story point you receive throughout the entire game--as almost all dialogue is skippable. However, even from the earliest stages in the game, it becomes clear that missing out on the dialogue is a huge mistake. Dripping with sarcasm and wit, the writing is sharp as a shuriken and serves as a reminder that it's just a game. Even after dying, players are met by Quarble, a sassy one-eyed demon that wastes no opportunity to mock their lack of ability. This playful "contract with the player", as Sabotage Studio founder Thierry Boulanger calls it, is a wonderfully executed wink to the player--and a nod to the genre's giants upon whose shoulders The Messenger stands so mightily.
As the story unfolds, you become more familiar with the themes of the game with every jump, grapple, and cloud step. It eventually becomes clear that you, the messenger referenced in the title, are only one piece of a well-realized game world. With every stage introducing new enemies, traps, and challenges, you realize that the universe of The Messenger is fairly indifferent to your existence--a realization that lesser games fail to deliver. Each NPC has a unique part to play in the progression of the story and provides meaning to your journey, encouraging you to uncover the next piece to your puzzle. Each boss is more than just a "your princess is in another castle"-style distraction, acting as a welcome break from the frantic platforming of the lead-up. And with the Shopkeeper (easily one of the best characters in the game) peppering context into each stage, players should expect to feel a true sense of impact with every cleared stage.
The secret sauce of The Messenger lies in the mastery of combat and traversal. You can pick your poison (not literal poison) with combat options that range from basic run-of-the-mill katana attacks, to tossing shurikens across the stage, opening new points of egress into the next. Progress through the game a bit more and you'll have access to more advanced ninja gadgets like the rope dart (grappling hook) and a wingsuit that allows you to glide vertically on gusts of wind. The truest form of Ninja Gaiden-inspired magic comes out when you're able to abilities together into a stunning blur of platforming skill. One of the most useful abilities, the Cloud Step, allows players to gain an extra jump if they can time an aerial attack just right, replacing the traditional double jump that most platformers are known to employ. This suite of skills and abilities lets players become the ninja, eventually learning exactly when certain tools should be used over others and utilizing them flawlessly. Once you max out your skill tree, overconfidence is hard to suppress--despite the consistent challenge throughout each stage. The penalty of death is a small payout of Timeshards (the game's main form of currency), and you're back to work delivering the map...er, I mean scroll.
As you close in on what you might think is the end of your journey, The Messenger breaks from expectations once more, and morphs into an entirely new game. Shifting from a linear 8-bit ninja platformer to a sprawling 16-bit Metroidvania, the game reveals that your journey is actually nowhere near its end: new skill trees open up, entirely new levels appear on your map (woah, the scroll was a map the whole time?), and new objectives take shape. From this point on, time travel becomes an key element of gameplay, using the 8-bit and 16-bit art styles to represent the past and future, respectively. While this unfortunately leads to a fair amount of backtracking, finding and accessing time rifts in past levels will open new pathways, obstacles, and enemies to encounter--making the trek entirely worthwhile. As Studio Head Martin Brouard told me at Pax West, "You're gonna go left a lot." After taking a moment to appreciate the first time a beautifully detailed 16-bit world flashed across my screen, "going left" became far more of a joy than a chore.
To keep progress moving along at a healthy clip, players also have the option to "purchase" hints from the Shopkeeper, giving them a clear indicator for where to travel next within the sprawling system of connecting worlds. The overt sense of discovery combined with the clear attention to detail in each 16-bit stage motivated me endlessly to keep pressing on. I never felt like the game became stagnant or repetitive, though the completion of the ninja's skill tree did result in less motivation to collect Timeshards. Even the soundtrack (which is split into two separate albums) was redone to reflect the changes in gameplay: the music in 8-bit worlds was created using FamiTracker, a software that produces music for NES and Famicom systems, while the 16-bit world's music was produced with DefleMask, a software used to create music using the SEGA Genesis library. This commitment to immersing players in every detail shines bright in each stage, across both art styles. Cloud Stepping from world to world between the past and present will simply never get old.
At the end of the day, there cannot be enough praise said about The Messenger. The intensity, the style, and the charming punk attitude of the game delivers an experience that I have rarely felt from an indie title. Having spent time with the Sabotage team, both during development and after the game's release, it has become clear to me that their work is that of pure love for the medium, and that love translates with crystal clarity to a fantastic experience. Simply put: it has independent game of the year written all over it--and rightfully so.
"One of the things that keeps bugging me is this concept of happiness. Everyone seems to be looking for it, some pretend to have it, but nobody can really explain what it is...everyone has goals. So you think "oh, when I achieve this I'll be happy" or "when I achieve that I'll feel eternal bliss." Some people are looking for love or acceptance, while others simply hope Devolver will publish their kickass game. From my perspective, sitting here at the end of time and being visited by countless travelers, I came to realize something very important...Goals don't make people happy, they defer happiness into the future, to when the goal will be achieved. This can only fail, because once you reach your goal, you are not the same person you were when you set out to achieve it. And what's more, your mindset is to chase something instead of enjoying what you have.
So there you have it. Happiness is not a goal or a state, it's a system. You optimize your environment and cherry pick the people around you. So that everyday you're just stoked to live your life, and you don't need to defer any joys because you optimized the present moment."
The Messenger was reviewed on PC and Switch. Ombra Gaming was provided with a review code.