If I’ve learned anything over the course of the Switch’s life cycle, it’s that retro-style indie darlings are aplenty on the platform. The next challenger in that arena is Devolver Digital’s and Sabotage’s The Messenger. A clear cut from the same cloth as Ninja Gaiden, perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Messenger is its visual fluctuation between 8-bit and 16-bit art styles. What starts out as a safe-but-interesting action platformer narratively transforms and shifts into one of the best Metroidvania games this generation.
The story of The Messenger is a simple yet effective one—a young ninja sees his civilization threatened by a powerful evil and he must deliver a mystical scroll to the top of a mountain if he has any hope of saving his people. What at first seems like a simple-yet-fun 2D action platformer soon evolves into a game that requires precision platforming skills and a deep understanding of the game’s environments, which forces the player to utilize each skill and item in the player’s arsenal. While none of the game’s common enemies are particularly difficult to dispose of, their placement along with the game’s level design is some of the most masterful and inspired design I’ve ever seen in games.
On the whole, each screen is its own self-contained puzzle through which you must traverse, and completing each area grants you access to the next. The game excels in that it never explicitly tells you how to play outside of its brief tutorial, and even then, you’re only handed the basics. As you unlock new upgrades, tools, and abilities, you’ll find yourself needing every single trick you’ve learned to make it through the game’s increasingly complex levels.
That said, The Messenger expertly blends challenge and fairness. Like any action platformer worth its salt, I never once felt cheaply defeated at the hands of one of the game’s many boss encounters or by a flaw in the game’s design. Each death was of my own doing, and each of my 100-plus deaths worked as a learning experience. Too many times did I die only to realize, in hindsight, I should have used the rope dart instead of the wingsuit, for example.
Not only is The Messenger expertly assembled from a level design perspective, but it’s visually stunning as well, and the game’s central shift from an 8- to 16-bit graphical style is at the crux of what makes The Messenger stand out among its peers. We’ve seen remastered AAA titles like The Master Chief Collection include a toggle between original and overhauled graphics, but to actually make a gameplay mechanic out of it is, to my knowledge, unheard of. It’s incredible to see a level transform from 8-bit to 16-bit and vice-versa—graphics and audio alike—so seamlessly.
One aspect of The Messenger that should not be undersold is its difficulty—this game is brutal, even by hardcore platforming standards. Many areas or boss fights will require you to remain airborne with no ground to land on, so the game forces you to pull out all the stops to avoid an untimely demise. I became frustratingly stuck on the game’s mid-level boss for three days during my pre-release playtime, and I only persevered when thinking outside the box—another thing The Messenger will force you to do. Even if you understand and memorize a particular boss’s attack patterns, actually pulling off the moves required is often an exercise in frustration, but the payoff is extremely rewarding.
Juxtaposed to the game’s steep difficulty curve is its self-aware nature. The Messenger consistently pokes fun at itself, be it through zany dialogue with the shopkeeper or the deprecating remarks from Quabble, the character that helps respawn you after death. It’s delightful, and sprinkles of comic relief throughout the frustration of multiple deaths kept me almost wanting to die again just to see what Quabble would say.
Taking the best of cues from the likes of Ninja Gaiden, The Messenger takes that basic formula and refines it to the point of relative perfection. The culmination of tight and precise platforming, fun yet brutal boss battles, and the most unique use of 8- and 16-bit art I’ve seen in games makes The Messenger a must-have title for Switch. Even if you aren’t a particular fan of precision action platformers, the unique graphical twist alone may be enough to lure you in.
Disclaimer: A review code for The Messenger was provided by the game’s publisher.