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Game Reviews

‘The Messenger’ – A Rowdy Jolt of Nostalgic Escapism

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The Messenger isn’t shy about wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. From the fantastic chiptune soundtrack to the shinobi protagonist, this retro action-platformer is a loving tribute to classic 2D side-scrolling action games of yesteryear — namely, the 1980’s Ninja Gaiden series. Or at least, that’s how to best describe the first half of the game…

In recent years, we’ve been inundated with plenty of retro throwbacks, but apart from a few gems released here and there, most of these games have done little to stand out in their own unique way. Thankfully, Quebec-based Sabotage Studios, led by industry veterans Thierry Boulanger and Martin Brouard, created something that is more than just a loving tribute to the Temco line of platformers they grew up playing on the NES. You see, The Messenger is a fascinating exercise in genre reinvention, a showcase for two radically different approaches to homage. As it turns out, The Messenger offers two incarnations of the same story, with the second half following the same protagonist sometime in the future. In other words, the second half of The Messenger acts as a sequel, which means The Messenger can be viewed as two games in one. In a day and age when nearly every major game release comes with downloadable content available for purchase on day one, I tip my hat to Sabotage Studios for going out of their way to deliver such a high-quality product at such a fair price. Love it or hate it, you sure get your money’s worth! That said, The Messenger is both impressive and disappointing. From a technical and craft point of view, it is first-rate; unfortunately, the game is bogged down by several issues that prevent it from being entirely fun to play from start to finish.

‘The Messenger’ is a fascinating exercise in genre reinvention, a showcase for a radically different approach to homage.

By now, anyone who has any interest in the game is familiar with the twist. What starts as an 8-bit action platformer switches gears midway by upgrading the visuals and eventually, turning the game upside down, revealing itself to be a Metroidvania experience complete with thick labyrinthine areas, fast travel, and even a treasure hunt that forces players to scavenge various collectibles needed in order to reach the final boss. Just when you expect the credits to start rolling, the stakes are raised, as your ninja must travel between two time-frames — the past and the present, each represented in 8- and 16-bit graphics. For a lack of better words, the “gimmick” isn’t entirely new. In 2015, TicToc Games released the seriously under-rated Adventures of Pip, in which protagonist Pip starts as a one-pixel hero before gradually evolving in 8-bit, 16-bit, and eventually 32-bit form. Unlike Pip, however, The Messenger goes beyond just a visual and audio upgrade. The time travel mechanic that is introduced midway through not only ties into the story, but allows your character to travel back and forth between two very different aesthetics in a seamless fashion, all while entering secret areas you couldn’t access prior. It all sounds great on paper, but put into practice, The Messenger‘s ambitious approach can also be off-putting for many players.

‘The Messenger’ is one of the best releases on the Switch this year and a must for anyone who spent their childhood playing on the NES.

The Messenger Nintendo Switch

For the first eight hours, The Messenger is a competent, albeit familiar, platformer to play through. Along with a basic moveset of jump and attack, The Messenger adds a new gameplay mechanic right from the start called Cloud Stepping (an extra mid-air jump granted each time you hit a target). The mechanic helps elevate the level design, and necessary when progressing your way through each area (although fair warning: it’s also an ability that takes some time to master). Along the way, you acquire several upgrades by collecting time shards (an in-game currency) that can be exchanged in a shop for some new abilities, including a wall jumping technique, a grappling hook, and even a nifty cape that allows you to glide through the air. The controls are simple and responsive, making jumping from platform to platform all the more fun. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said when the game makes that switch from one genre to the next.

While the structure in the second half of The Messenger offers more complex open environments, it also mishandles the transition into a modern Metroidvania by padding the back half with far too much backtracking through previously explored areas. I understand that is the point of that genre, but The Messenger‘s second half is burdened with what feels like an endless number of fetch quests that take too long in finding the upgrades required to unlock more areas on the map. Sure, the enemies and the environments are more varied, but there are few boss fights to be found, and the levels don’t change enough to make the backtracking any less tedious. In the end, The Messenger is guilty of swapping out the tight formula that was working so well at the start for one that is less fun. That said, while the Metroidvania approach doesn’t play into The Messenger‘s strengths, it’s still well worth making your way to the very end, simply because the last two stages, in particular, are among the best the game has to offer.

Messenger Game Review

The Story

The NES version of Ninja Gaiden follows a six-act story of Ryu Hayabusa, a rising warrior in his family’s clan, whose main role in the world is to protect the Dark Dragon Blade from getting into the hands of evil. Ninja Gaiden (known as Shadow Warriors in Europe) amazed gamers with the degree of control it allowed over the main character, and was praised for its musical score and deep control mechanics, despite needing just two buttons. There’s a lot to love about that game, but it was the cinematic cutscenes that were a major innovation for the time. Despite being a rather short 2D action platformer, Ninja Gaiden managed to include a story that was actually good. Unfortunately, my biggest gripe with The Messenger is the writing — not so much the story, but the dialogue. As far as the plot is concerned, The Messenger‘s story cleverly parallels the shift between graphics and genre. What begins as a classic action platformer soon unravels into an expansive time-traveling adventure with a wide variety of characters and several clever plot twists. Unfortunately, The Messenger tries way too hard to be funny, which it is not. The game’s self-aware meta-commentary and general attitude become old quick, and it never stops feeding you the same joke over and over and over…and over. To say it is cringe-worthy is an understatement; what’s worse is that it slows down the game, disrupting the pacing — and thus your enjoyment of the overall experience. Sorry guys, but I am not a fan.

2018 has seen a resurgence of some truly exceptional Metroidvania style games, and The Messenger can stand proudly next to the best of them. Despite some pacing issues and my obvious dislike of the dialogue, The Messenger is one of the best releases on the Switch this year, and a must for anyone who spent their childhood playing on the NES. That said, it will likely best please those who enjoy both Ninja Gaiden and Metroid more than those who prefer one over the other.

  • Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

“[Earthnight is] an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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