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The Messenger – The Switch Island Review

These days the indie scene on the Switch is so well established that we know they can be among the platform’s most treasured experiences, but when The Messenger was first revealed, that wasn’t as clear. I remember being worried that Switch owners might give this game a miss. However, with its sexy-as-hell pixel art and a hook to die for, The Messenger was tough to avoid, and even at the crowded party of the Switch’s indie scene, it managed to catch everyone’s eye and do very well. But how does it play?

The Messenger is a love letter to gaming’s 16bit and 8bit history, specifically channeling the Ninja Gaiden series in its prime (NES/SNES). I played Ninja Gaiden on Nintendo Online’s NES collection and can confirm it plays like a slower, crapper version of The Messenger. The ninja movement is there, including the combat and somersaulting jumps, but everything in The Messenger is silky smooth and refined by comparison. I don’t have a history with Ninja Gaiden, but I do appreciate this level of fan service. I would say The Messenger joins the unofficial club of indies that are lovingly aping their forebears and arguably improving upon them (Stardew Valley, Golf Story, Blossom Tales, Wargroove etc).

Perhaps The Messenger’s most well known feature is its use of two distinct graphical styles from two different eras. Having done no research I can confidently say this is the first time two era’s graphical styles have been used like this, and for that alone it deserves kudos. The game’s sumptuous in both styles and as smooth as a kimono. Plus, the way in which the graphical shifts are deployed, effecting the passage of time, is nothing short of genius. I won’t give too much away, except to say you start out playing in the 8bit style. The music changes too for the appropriate era, which is wonderful, and the game’s chip-tune soundtrack is a perfect fit.

The game starts off as a linear action platformer, with fast motion and cloudstepping, and then turns into a Metroidvania (more on this change later), with more fast motion and cloudstepping. (Cloudstepping is jumping off hitting an enemy.) Enemies are quickly dispelled but often require some skilful platforming to deal with. Initially I found this quite clumsy but that feeling quickly dispelled, as you learn the cloudstepping skills in all sorts of different and compelling scenarios, and I became more and more accustomed to the controls. I felt like a ninja god by the game’s latter areas.

Unfortunately, I’m not one for game stories, so I can’t really tell you whether this has a good one. The story was something about a messenger delivering a scroll and he then becomes someone else and has to journey through a different time-line until he meets himself, and then other stuff. And there’s a dragon. But, I do know you can read all about the game’s story on Wikipedia, and one aspect I definitely appreciated was the witty and entertaining conversations, with tongue in cheek and fourth-wall breaking comments.

The action and combat is very enjoyable, but even better is the level design. You’ll play sections of the map multiple times, approaching them in different directions and with different skill-sets. This backtracking was never a trudge, with the agility of the character being a constant source of pleasure throughout the well crafted areas.

The Messenger took me about fifteen hours to beat. There are extra challenges, requiring the finding and collection of green medallions. These challenges are like mini challenge areas, combining puzzles and skill; similar to those found in SteamWorld Dig 2. I found some to be a piece of cake and others excruciatingly tough, and I’ll admit I didn’t collect all of the 45 medallions. The main quest of the game is already quite tough, but the extra challenge is there if you need it, including with a NewGame+ mode once you’ve beaten the main adventure.

The game has been a bit divisive with many preferring one ‘half’ to the other. But I don’t think it’s really that binary. Admittedly, when you’re playing the linear section of the game it does feel like this is how it’s going to continue (for better or worse), but once done, it felt like the linear areas were the training, and, for me, what the game transitions into is its full realisation. This change didn’t please everyone though, with it being described as unnecessary by some reviewers, who felt a loss of focus transitioning from a linear to a Metroidvania adventure. But that wasn’t my experience, and possibly that’s because I do love the exploration and secrets of Metroidvanias. Plus, it helps that in The Messenger, excitingly, the exploration requires the use of the 8bit and 16bit graphics styles. As we’ve seen, tastes will differ, but for me the game’s true magic emerged as it progressed and I went from having a good time to having a sensational, memorable one.

There’s much more I could say (check out our Switch Island Guide To… on the topic), but overall, this really is one of the finest action-platformer Metroidvanias on the Switch, and surely one of the finest of all time. If you’re a fan of the genre and you’re sleeping on this one, cloud-jump on it as soon as you can, you won’t regret it.

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