Ninja Gaiden left a bigger mark on the video game industry than you might realize. It introduced cinematics and storytelling into the NES fold when no other games came close; it presented true hardcore action that challenged you at every turn; and its stylish presentation made it one of the best 8-bit games around. And we're pretty sure it was a hell of an inspiration to the team at Sabotage Studios, who have their own ninja magic coming our way with The Messenger for Nintendo Switch and PC.
In the game, you portray a young ninja tasked with the delivery of a mysterious document, taking on enemies big and small while trying to get to your destination. But even when you get there, the journey isn't over. It actually expands from an 8-bit world into the 16-bit realm, which you switch through by passing through random portals. It's an effect that may be overwhelming at first, but you soon get into its groove -- well, as long as the deaths don't throw you off, that is.
Yes, The Messenger is challenging. You'll come across stages in which you're going to die often, either by falling into a pit or realizing that enemies aren't quite as easy to kill as you'd originally expect. But fortunately, The Messenger expands enough to give you a fighting chance, provided you have the skills to keep up.
Building a Better Ninja
Over the course of the game, you'll gain new abilities. You start out with a slashing ability and being able to "cloudstep" by hacking away at lamp posts in midair. But soon you'll be able to glide, use a rope to clear gaps in a hurry (you'll be thankful for this when it comes to dodging closing walls) and other cool techniques. The more you learn, the more versatile you become -- and the more the game opens up.
There's also a hefty skill tree that really opens up as the 8 and 16-bit worlds collide, where you make a number of improvements here and there to your performance, as well as additional abilities. You'll thank your lucky stars for these, especially since most of them are pretty affordable. In fact, the only way you lose cash is when an imp brings you back from the dead, hogging enough credits until he eventually gets bored and floats away.
Along the way, you'll run into some boss encounters that will challenge you to your very core, including a pair of athletic ogres with creative attack techniques, as well as a very elaborate rock creature with a ghost inside, who's not ready to give up so easily after you defeat his mortal form. You'll also see collectibles hidden in the darndest of places, and may have to die a few times in order to get to them. But that's just part of the fun of the game -- the more you collect, the closer you get to collecting a prize at the end.prevnext
Slight Momentum Shift, But Gameplay and Presentation Keep This Ninja Strong
That said, there are points in The Messenger where the momentum is thrown off, in which platforming is kept to a minimum and you're sent on a fetch quest. I think I would've preferred the team at Sabotage Studios to keep going in one direction instead of trying to diversify with a little backtracking. These moments do annoy, but fortunately, the game picks back up enough that you're back into that groove where you need to be.
The Messenger benefits from pinpoint controls, so if you do die, more than likely it's a screw-up on your part. I was pleased with how responsive everything was, and how quickly you had to put everything together to get through some stages, especially when it came to activating switches that turned off (and on) lasers. Again, it may take a few deaths to really get the learning curve down, but once you're there, The Messenger can be a gem.
I also enjoyed the presentation. Sabotage Studios' visual style in Messenger is phenomenal, especially when the game switches between 8 and 16-bit styles without missing a beat. The level design is off the charts, probably the most challenging I've seen since Celeste; and even the tiny animations are really something.prevnext
This Messenger Is a Cut Above the Rest
Also, I should note the sound design. The 8-bit music is awesome enough as it is, but the 16-bit tunes evolve just as well; and some choices in development are well worth noting, like how the music mutes a little bit when you're swimming around underwater. These guys did remarkable stuff here, and I'd love to see them cover different genres in the future with the same level of dedication.
While The Messenger does occasionally misstep with its fetch quests and being a little too hard in some places, there's no denying that it deserves a place in your Nintendo Switch or PC game library. Its precision controls, unforgettable presentation and bevy of challenges will keep you coming back for more; and its sense of humor is surprisingly good, with everyone -- even the credit-stealing imp -- delivering the greatest of burns.
The Messenger almost has what it takes to hang with the legendary Ninja Gaiden. But even though it comes up slightly short, it's a wonderful throwback title that will truly put your ninja skills on display.
Or lack thereof.
WWG's Score: 4.5 out of 5
(Disclaimer: A review code was provided by the publisher.)prev