A Review of 'The Messenger'

(2018 game by Sabotage Studio)


About

2018 was a good year for gaming. We got all sorts of games which got rave reviews. For example, one of the games which showed up on most top-10 lists was Celeste, which is an incredible game which excels at pretty much everything, and you should all go play it. We also got Spiderman, which is so fun to navigate through that most reviewers mention they don't even mind the side quests because the movement and combat are so innately enjoyable.

The year also brought us The Messenger, which also got a lot of rave reviews and made its way onto a lot of top-10 lists. But I don't think it really belongs there, and here is why.

Story / Writing

This is the best part of The Messenger. The story is well-written, the overall concept of the game is golden, and the entire game is dripping with pretty tasteful humor. It's delightfully self-aware and doesn't take itself too seriously. I could chat with the shopkeeper for hours, without doing anything else, and give the game a good review.

It was also really clever how the game loops back on its own jokes to give a bigger payoff, and how the game changes styles to deliver genuinely unusual surprises.

Whoever did this aspect of the game deserves an award.

Graphics

The Messenger's retro pixel art graphics, and particularly its 8-bit / 16-bit transitions, are a nice touch. Some of the areas look particularly nice, like the future version of Riviere Turquoise, and the giant 8-bit bosses. The time-changing effects were also really good.

However, much of the game's graphics, especially in 8-bit mode, were pretty bland and forgettable. In that way, it was too faithful to old NES games, because it looked like what it was -- a bunch of tiles which depended mostly on different palettes to distinguish each area.

I think the graphic artist did a good job overall, but the graphic assets may not have been used in very effective ways by the level designer.

Sound

When the game first came out and people on Twitch were playing through it, one of the most common remarks I heard from the audience was that they loved the rockin' music, and people wanted to know if it was by the same person as Shovel Knight.

... twitch ...

I can only assume the people who asked that question have never heard any NES-style music except for these two games, and haven't ever spent much time really listening to music. The two are dramatically different styles.

Now, I love retro video game music... a lot. To this day, I listen to quite a bit from the NES era, Atari, Amiga, Commodore, and some FM-chip tunes too. I use these styles heavily in my own music. One of my favorite IRC channels is a shrine to retro gaming music where composers gather, share their songs, and hold composition competitions. I'm really into this stuff. And if I were to make a list of the ten best NES-style songs ever written, at least half of the list would be songs from Shovel Knight. Its sound track was incredible.

But I found The Messenger's music to be grating and uninspired. Its musical structures were overly rigid, mechanical, and boring... which comes in sharp contrast to the remarkably fluid, organic, and engaging tunes of Shovel Knight. Much like The Messenger's level designs, the music relied far too much on repetition and wrapping up each phrase before moving to the next. Most of the notes fell squarely on major beats instead of mixing up the rhythm, almost every phrase played out and resolved a theme completely before moving on, and then simply repeated the theme with another part added... both of which are pretty big sins in composition. Most of the melodies only span a narrow range of notes, without much variation. A couple parts of the game had music I liked, but most of the time I just wanted to turn the music off.

The sound effects were pretty good though.

Gameplay / Controls

One of the best parts of The Messenger was the gameplay. It delivers a nice retro platforming style with quick controls and interesting mechanics which can be used to create a good variety of puzzles and platforming challenges.

Sword slashes are fast and generally do exactly what the player intends, the grappling hook adds a nice extra layer to the movement and helps speed things up, and the double-jump-for-each-hit mechanic really encourages aggressive gameplay instead of being overly careful about everything.

But.

It's absolutely infuriating having the jump action, the double jump action, and the float action all on the same button. Similarly, it's infuriating that the side slash and downward slash are on the same button, with the choice determined by whether the player is in the middle of a float animation or not.

This may seem like a small thing, but it means that only half of the player's primary actions are ever accessible at one time... and if the action you need isn't the action you currently have available, you'll probably be dead in about half a second in a bottomless pit.

It's made worse because the choice of which actions are available are determined largely by whether you have recently hit anything with your sword. So it's frustratingly common to end up with a jump instead of a float, or to slash in the wrong direction. Or to jump up to death into a spike ceiling when you meant to float gently downward, because jump-up and float-down are on the same damn button. And if you need to quickly do two actions in a row which are mapped to the same button, you're probably going to fail or at least end up with a very sore thumb.

Splitting the actions out onto separate buttons, or at least detangling them a little, would go a long way toward improving the game.

Level Design

The level design is where The Messenger really missed the mark. I'm going to have to sub-divide this into a few categories of flaws:
  • Walking simulator: A lot of the game involves just running along through long and fairly uninteresting straight segments of a level. Slowly. There is no way to speed it up, especially before you get the grappling hook... and even that doesn't help much. The main challenge here is waiting for the screen to scroll by.
  • Repetition: The game reuses its levels way too much. Each part requires playing through at least twice, once in 8-bit and once in 16-bit. Often again to pick up power seals. And again while wandering around trying to figure out what to do next. And again and again and again every time the player dies and gets reset to a checkpoint. After going through the game just once, I feel as if I've already replayed it several times... and frankly, the levels aren't interesting enough to make that an enjoyable experience.
  • Not enough fast travel: When the player gets to the Metroidvania part of the game, there is an awful lot of walking around through old parts of the game again, just to get where you need to be. There are countless places to teleport from the main world to the Tower of Time, but only a few portals from the Tower of Time back to the main world. So the player ends up wasting a great deal of time repeating old parts which aren't interesting enough to be worth repeating. It's a pretty lame way to artificially extend the length of a game.
  • Waiting: Many of the level segments revolve around waiting through slow cycles to complete. Whether it's a ring of spikes floating around a candle, or a periodic projectile the player needs to bounce off, or a moving wall which goes back and forth slowly, the player spends a great deal of time just waiting. Combined with the repetition and walking-simulator aspects of the game, this inspires a great deal of impatience. The majority of my deaths in this game were simply because I was sick of waiting for a slow cycle again and decided to try to get through a segment faster somehow.

    Ever play a Mario Maker level where the player is forced to go through a long narrow hallway with a floor made entirely of flamethrower blocks, arranged in alternating sets so the player can only move forward one square at a time? Whenever I get to one of those, I immediately skip the level because it's a bad design and the only reason it's difficult is because it's tedious. And that style of design was unfortunately common in The Messenger. Especially in the final level of the game, which was truly an exercise in patience with no other significant source of difficulty.
  • RNG: Several areas of the game have creatures which behave in completely random ways, which makes those rooms an exercise in luck and/or patience before the player can actually get down to the business of platforming through the screen. This is a bit obnoxious for a casual player, and more of a nightmare for speedrunners. In this style of game, random is bad. Don't do random.
  • Uninteresting puzzles: The Messenger's time-travel mechanic was brilliant. Being able to swap between time periods mid-leap without missing a beat was a genius idea which provided incredible opportunities for interesting level design and brain-bending puzzles.

    But it wasn't really used in interesting ways. Instead, it was a huge missed opportunity. For the most part it was just "oh, that path is blocked in the past, so I need to play through the level again in the future to go that way". (see "repetition", earlier) And on the occasional screen with an actual time-travel puzzle, the puzzles were so mind-numbingly simple that I literally didn't even think about them. It was almost always a simple matter of "move forward, go through time portal, loop around, move forward again". The only thought involved was a nagging feeling that maybe I missed something and should try to go through again with the time periods reversed. But after checking this a few times, I found that, pretty consistently, it only led me to a dead end with a giant time crystal to harvest. It wasn't a good reward for curiosity, especially since at that point in the game there was no further use for time shards. So the game taught me to stop being curious. Terrible thing to incentivize.
  • Punishment: Every death results in going back to the previous checkpoint. That's not such a bad thing, normally... except that it compounds all the previous issues. It makes the game slower, more repetitive, and less interesting. After a while it felt like a waste of time and I stopped caring. I would have done just about anything to simply not have to slog through the same slow boring screens again before I got to the one at the end which was actually interesting.

    Additionally, all the worst parts rely on bottomless pits or other instant-death mechanisms. The player who makes even a small mistake is given death and a long trek through previous screens to get a chance to try again. Why have a hit-point system when so much of the game ignores it? Screens which require perfect execution should at least have a checkpoint at the beginning of the screen.

    One of the hallmarks of a good level creator is that they put the really hard parts right after checkpoints. Difficulty of each section is inversely proportional to how far failure will set back the player. And The Messenger does the opposite of this.
Overall, the level design made this game a test of patience instead of a test of skill... and that's a shame. It is the reason why, when I finished the game, I felt relieved to be done with it forever. No replays, no New Game Plus, no NG+2. I 100%'d the first run and I plan to never boot the game again.

I would be interested in playing more if the game had a boss rush mode, or a quick way to go directly to each boss again. Most of the bosses were pretty good fights... but not good enough that I'm willing to trudge through the boring levels again to get there.

On the other hand, there's Celeste... which I love to play again and again and again, speedrunning the game in various ways, because the level designs and game mechanics are so tight and coherent and rewarding. It's a joy to dash, hyper-dash, and wall-bounce my way through the game as fast as possible, limited only by my own imagination and ability. Celeste really rewards skill and experimentation, while minimizing the cost of errors, and I could see myself still enjoying it 500 years in the future if I live that long.
Last modified: January 01, 2019 @ 2:21 MST
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