E3 2018: The Messenger Preview

One of the problems with E3 is you can’t go more than five feet without seeing a game that makes you think “Well, this is clearly the best, if not greatest, game of the show”. It’s a problem (of the first world variety) that happened to me this year as I made my way to and from different appointments during the biggest gaming event of the year. A lot of the big name publishers and developers, like Activision, Ubisoft, Nintendo and Sony, filled out space within the convention center proper, while media-only iterations of these companies took up several meeting rooms on the upper floors, converting drab rooms into plush, comfortable lounges situated out of the way of the din and body heat-enriched climate of the show floor. And then there’s Devolver Digital. The publisher, known for its eclectic and unique catalog of video games and equally bizarre (but awesome) E3 press conferences, was located across the street from the Staples Center and convention hall, setting up shop on a lot just off Figueroa Street, converting the space into a makeshift campsite, complete with Airstream trailers, one third of a log cabin, and a picnic area. This is where my demo of The Messenger would take place. (By the way, I don’t know if all Airstream trailers looked as nice as the one I went into, but damn, talk about plush.)

Developed by Sabotage, a new studio located in Quebec, The Messenger is an action platformer that defies expectations. So, in other words, it’s well suited to Devolver’s interests. In The Messenger you play as a ninja sent on a quest to deliver a mystical scroll after his dojo, and everyone in it, was decimated by the return of a terrifying demon. While the setup sounds traditional to today’s standards, the game is anything but. Presented in the visual aesthetic of 8-bit video games, The Messenger feels made to pluck the strings of nostalgia as you guide the ninja hero (who looks an awful lot like Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden) through a series of different levels that match the look, feel, and certain technical quirks of old Nintendo games.

You’ll move from screen to screen, cutting up bad guys with your ninja sword and magical shurikens to reach the end level boss. Over time, our hero develops new skills and abilities via a tech tree that opens up techniques and perks, such as wall climbing, gaining health from checkpoints, and limiting the damage done by a small, annoying demon - but more on that later. One of the coolest gameplay mechanics is an ability called “cloudstepping.” Designed to emulate the kung-fu movies that make use of a lot of wire work, our hero can perform double jumps after he’s attacked to something in mid-air. When that happens, a small cloud forms underneath his feet that indicates the second jump is active as long as he remains in the air. This lets you experiment and play around with combat and traverse large spike traps and bottomless pits. It felt a little clunky at first, though, but by the end of the demo, I could cloudstep like a pro.

Apart from great, intuitive gameplay, The Messenger also trades in humor and doing really fun gameplay tricks. At one point in the demo, the ninja passes through a shimmering blue line and emerges into a 16-bit version of the game (the music changes to reflect the change in graphics). The developer accompanying me during the demo told me that there’s a point in the story where the ninja travels through time and the 16-bit version (which runs at the same as the 8-bit game allowing it to switch on the fly without loading) represents the future. Beyond the change in graphics and audio, the level design changes, too. Pits, spikes, and enemies that existed in the past may disappear, shift, or transform when you reach the future and vice versa. It’s a mechanic that I’ve only seen once before in the special edition of The Secret of Monkey Island but it’s the first time I’ve seen it used as a working game mechanic since Sonic CD (which forced you to sit through a load screen to generate the new level).

I also found Sabotage’s debut title to be wonderfully funny. Though The Messenger looks like a serious story about a ninja on a desperate journey and yet the situations and conversations he finds himself getting into can be really funny. The game’s dialog is self-aware as characters make references to other video games and, in this demo version, break the fourth wall to talk to the player about having to sit through tutorials and acknowledging how little time there is to properly explain gameplay during timed demos. Much of the humor comes from The Shopkeeper, a robed figure whose hood obscures his face, save for two red pinpoints for eyes. The Shopkeeper lives in a strange, space-like realm that can be accessed through the game’s checkpoints, which resemble mystical looking doorways. There you can spend crystals gathered from killing enemies and slashing up lanterns, bushes, and other environmental doo-dads to purchase new upgrades on the skill tree. He’s also open to chatting about different things. At one point, he gushed over the ninja’s hat that only appears when he accesses the 16-bit future. At the end of this long, drawn out conversation, I left the shop only to be told to go back in. After doing so, there was the Shopkeeper wearing the same hat as the main character. When called out on it, the Shopkeeper plays dumb and gets caught up in an argument loop. Another funny bit that plays against type is the appearance of a small, red demon who appears over your shoulder after you die in the game. For a certain of time, this demon will follow you around, sucking up money and mana that falls from objects and enemies until he gets his fill or gets bored. He also likes to insult you upon death and his comments would be really biting if they weren’t so funny.

My time with The Messenger was painfully brief. In the twenty or so minutes it took me to finish the demo, I almost didn’t want to give the controller back because I wanted to play more. Or, at the very least, play through the demo again. The gameplay feels great, the writing is fun, and the 8-bit/16-bit shifts are really cool as a game mechanic. The music, which again changes in sound quality when you pass through portals, is certainly evocative of the era this game does a great job emulating. Even though the game is scheduled to be released for PC and the Nintendo Switch, the wait already feels unbearable. Out of all the cool games being shown at E3, this is one left a really strong impression. Keep an eye on this one, folks.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.