The Messenger: A Spoiler-Filled Review

I’m almost all the way through the Nintendo Switch version of, The Messenger and it left such a striking impression on me that I wanted to share my thoughts on it.  This “review” became extra important for me as I (Bob) recently tweeted about how frustrating the game was, which left the impression that I didn’t like it. That’s not the case at all and I feel like it’s a game worth discussing, so I wanted to share my detailed feelings on the game here, while they’re still fresh in my mind.  

Just a warning, there will be TONS of spoilers, so please don’t read this unless you’ve played the game, or don’t mind its secrets being ruined.

Okay, let’s jump into: The Messenger.

As we start out, I’d like to say that I was sick when I played this game.  Unfortunately, that seems to be the only scenario the past few years where I actually get to sit and engulf myself into a game:  When I’m so sick, I can’t actually do anything else. I’m sure that skews my grumpiness about it, so maybe keep that in mind.

The first thing you’ll notice about The Messenger is it looks like Ninja Gaiden.  As the game starts, you go through some dialogue to set the stage and then just begin your journey.  In my opinion, one of the biggest things I miss about classic games is just turning on the console and playing – No training area, no lengthy cut scenes, just power on and play.  The Messenger comes as close to that as possible while building a story, so that’s definitely a bonus.

Next, the game looks and sounds amazing.  The basic controls feel perfect, the graphics look like something the 8-bit NES or Master System consoles wish they could have been and the music is excellent.  I’ve recently played some games with pretty crappy music, so this was refreshing to hear.

Shortly into the game, you meet the shopkeeper:  A character that sells you things and continues the narrative of the story, all while making cheesy dad-jokes, as well as some fun classic game references.  Sometimes I laughed out loud, sometimes I groaned. Overall, I call it a win.

The first time you meet the shopkeeper, it’s right in front of a screen that you can’t go any farther, forcing you to notice the shop and figure out how to enter (just press up).  As you enter, you get a free power-up that lets you continue. Then you play through a typical side-scrolling level and eventually reach a boss that most people will have to die a handful of times to beat, as this game is very NES-style:  Die continuously to learn what to do, then practice your strategy, then win.  

Then after the boss, you get – Nothing.  This bothered me right away, as I just put some effort into beating the boss and got nothing, yet I stumbled into the shopkeeper’s place earlier and got something for free.  I feel that one of the things that makes a game great is it’s reward system; Every time you work hard on something, you should be rewarded with an ability that makes it feel like the effort was worth it. 

This is the case all throughout The Messenger as well – The shopkeeper will randomly give you things, but a boss battle never gives you anything. It felt very disappointing after all the frustration of dying over and over to learn a bosses moves.

Deaths are another thing that I both liked and was annoyed by:  Every time you die, a character named Quarble pops up: Quarble’s job is to save The Messenger an instant before dying and bring him back to a save point.  Then he follows you around and takes any Time Shards (coins) you collect until you pay him back for saving you.  

I actually really like this aspect of the game, as it feels like a fair punishment.  Also, if you die 10 times, he doesn’t take 10 times the coins, it’s always the same amount – Very fair.

What was frustrating is that all your deaths are logged and sometimes he’ll throw that back in your face.  It seems kinda shitty that a game that forces you to die so much, would then mock you for dying.

Another aspect of dying I found interesting was that you keep anything you collected between the last save point and when you die.  This fits the narrative of Quarble saving you right before death – And I absolutely like this feature, but it seems to counter the generally frustrating nature of the game.

Maybe the game should have had two modes?:

An easy mode where bosses require less damage, your deaths aren’t counted, and you keep everything when you die…but something on-screen is different to signify easy mode;  Maybe your life bar color is different or something. This way people can’t pass off easy footage as hard.

Then a hard mode could be added where the bosses take the same damage, deaths are counted and you lose everything from the last save point to when you die.  Quarble could even tease something like “In hard mode, this stuff is too heavy to carry”.

The final boss of the first half of the game, Barma’thazël (or ‘The Demon Messenger’) is ridiculously hard.  I played him for over an hour logging at least 50 deaths (probably much more). This is where two other aspects of the game started to frustrate me:  The Rope Dart (hookshot) and double jump. 

First, the double jump came at the beginning of the game and is activated by first jumping, then hitting an enemy.  Once an enemy (or anything that can be struck) is hit, you can now jump a second time. This never felt fluid to me and I always just ended up smashing both jump and hit buttons at the same time.  This got me through the entire game, up until now:  I just couldn’t seem to easily navigate the part of the boss battle where you need to stay above ground.  

Next, the Rope Dart mostly drove me crazy.  I think the reason might be that when you activate it mid-jump, you stop moving forward.  This made timing jumps hard, because you’d have to wait until the very last second of forward progress to throw the Rope Dart.  This frustration with the Rope Dart gets worse in later parts of the game too!

Maybe the controller I was using is the issue, but I’ve played through many games with 8Bitdo’s SNES-style switch controller and never had any real complaints.  While yes, the first few firmwares had some bugs, it’s overall been a solid controller that feels great and has a really long-lasting battery:

One thing to note is that many people complained about “the chase” and the requirement to use the rope dart.  This is one of the only times the rope dart was required that I didn’t find too frustrating.  Once again, maybe it’s my controller, or just the games I’m used to, but I found it funny that the biggest complaint other people had about the game didn’t even make my list of frustrations.

I eventually beat Barma’thazël and afterwards I was rewarded with:  NOTHING.

Yes, you get to then progress to the second part of the game, but where’s my “reward” for spending so much time pissed off and frustrated?  Shouldn’t I have at least gotten a new ability or weapon upgrade???

Annoyance with the boss aside, the second part of the game is a unique and really interesting idea:  It’s a typical future/past scenario, but the past stays in 8-bit and the future is in 16-bit!  On top of that, it’s now a “Metroidvania” game, allowing you to travel between the different sections via portals accessed from a central location.  Also, all shop locations now act as an easy way back to the main portal location.

I’m almost finished with the game and the frustration levels are much lower for me in the second half.  Yes, you’ll still need to play certain screens (and die) 15 times in a row to learn how to pass them properly, but at least you have the ability to explore.

Exploration itself starts to get easier with map upgrades, as you’ll have a better idea of where to go.  At this point, your goal is to explore the different areas, visit places you haven’t been to before and find “music notes” to complete the game.  I’ve gotten almost all of them at this point and haven’t cheated once.

Not feeling the need to cheat is something that’s absolutely worth mentioning:  As of now (almost at the end), there’s nothing “confusing” about The Messenger.  The past few games I’ve played had at least one section that didn’t make any sense to me.  I’d eventually “cheat” and look up the solution online and while a few times I thought: “I’m a moron, I should have figured that out”, many times I thought: “I’m so glad I just cheated…there’s no way I’d have figured that out”.

The Messenger hasn’t had any of those moments so far.  Everything I needed to find was in the areas I hadn’t explored yet and all the super frustrating rooms were easy to figure out, just hard to execute.  That speaks volumes for the quality of this game.  Well done.

One “side quest” in the game is to collect all 45 “Power Seals”, which will allow you to open a mysterious chest that supposedly contains an awesome upgrade.  Getting these power seals often requires perfect timing of both the double jump and Rope Dart, making them some of the most frustrating rooms in the entire game.  The fact that you get to keep a Power Seal if you die before making it back to a save point reduces the anger I’ve felt in these sections, but I’m starting to wonder if this mysterious power up is worth it.

And that’s something that I truly feel is missing from the second half:  All good Metroidvania’s have the ability to find hidden powerups that make the constant backtracking and exploration more fun.  It was really disappointing to not run into the robed characters in hidden rooms and find a “high jump”, or sword upgrade, or something.  For me personally, one of the most rewarding things about games like Ori and the Blind Forest, Super Metroid and (of course) Symphony Of The Night was finally being able to quickly pass through sections that were previously “dangerous” and challenging.  While I’ve really been enjoying the second half, I feel it falls short of what it could have been.


So, now I’m starting to feel better and get back to work (hence this long post).  By tomorrow, I’ll be back working my usual 12+ hours and I won’t have hours to spend on The Messenger, just minutes here and there.  That time constraint won’t allow me to play the same screen of a game a zillion times in a row to progress, so I wonder what that means for the completion of this game:  Will I enjoy the exploration enough to deal with the frustrating sections, or will I just move onto another game that allows me to play at a pace I enjoy?

My final thoughts on The Messenger:  I really liked it and I’m very happy I got to experience it, but due to the repetition and level of frustration, I’ll most likely never play it again.  I’m also curious what I’ll remember most about it a year from now:  All the positive things about it, or just how frustrated it left me.

If you’d like to hear directly from Sabotage Studio, the people who created The Messenger, I recommend listening to Jeremy Parish‘s interview on Retronauts.  It’s obvious a tremendous amount of love and attention to detail was put into the making of this game and I’m looking forward to whatever Sabotage releases next (maybe a 16/32-bit sequel?)!:

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