If retro-revivals are like trying to recreate a favorite food from memory, The Messenger is trying to recreate food from memory and experiment with the recipe at the same time. In most cases that would be reckless, but The Messenger manages to hit upon the right combination of nostalgia, execution, and a few surprises to make the new parts seem like it could have always been there.
If not for the widescreen aspect ratio, it would be easy to confuse The Messenger for its inspiration Ninja Gaiden. The eponymous Messenger looks like he stepped straight into Ryu Hayabusa’s 2D shoes, and mask, and gi, and the indie title makes no bones about it. Within seconds, you’re jumping and slashing enemies with immediate expertise as you start on your journey and it only goes up from there.
An ancient evil has risen from the underworld and a warrior from the west entrusts a ninja trainee with the important mission of delivering a scroll to prophets at the top of the mountain. As the messenger, you make your way to the top of the mountain using all your ninja skills, which include a lot more than just jumping and swinging your sword at enemies.
On your journey, you gain a number of new abilities both through an upgrade tree and as part of your story progress, but both are pretty important to take utilize. The upgrade tree uses collectible currency found in the game for simple things like stat upgrades to critical skills you should immediately get like the ability to attack enemy projectiles. As you progress through the game, you will get the ability to climb on walls, glide, and more. No one is going to shoot this messenger easily.
As a linear Ninja Gaiden-like, The Messenger is surprisingly fun. One of the game’s fundamental mechanics is letting you jump in the air after slashing something with a hitbox, like enemies, their projectiles, or lanterns scattered across the stage. This means levels and puzzles are designed on the ninja ability to hit things and stay in the air indefinitely, which makes for fast-paced and exciting action. As long as you keep your abilities in mind, you’ll never be at a loss for how to tackle a situation.
Despite hewing so closely to its inspirations, it is important to note that The Messenger is never unfair. No birds are going to divebomb at you that so you fall helplessly off a cliff. The wind won’t change at the last second to force you to fall to your death. You will still die, but death’s only consequences are a small loss of programs and a monster following you around to eat the collectible currency you grab until it has its fill.
Perhaps The Messenger’s most interesting quality is its writing. Dialogue with the shopkeeper goes for days and he will occasionally entertain you with stories that range from passive aggressive life lessons to genuinely dark fairy tales. There’s also a few opportunities depending for specific moments where you can drag the dialogue on for 60 - 70 text boxes without repeating. The shopkeeper sometimes annihilates the fourth wall, which I’m rarely a fan of, but the clever writing outweighs the occasional awkward jokes about game design.
The Messenger’s early hours scratch an itch I’ve had for Ninja Gaiden while also not being frustrating, which Ninja Gaiden can sometimes be. The game also hosts more than a few surprises, which will become apparent to players who stick with it and see things through to the end.
The Messenger releases on PC and Switch on August 30.