The original Metroid and Castlevania were games that I owned and loved playing through as a kid. I enjoyed Ninja Gaiden a lot as a rental, but it was too hard for me to finish and I didn’t own any games in that series. When Metroidvania became a genre around the time of Symphony of the Night (SotN) / after Super Metroid, it became clear that it was my favorite genre.
I thought The Messenger started off pretty fun and then became massively more enjoyable as new abilities were unlocked and levels offered more opportunities to use them in more interesting ways. When it became a Metroidvania, I was pleasantly surprised and pretty stoked when I started exploring. If you want to find every secret, you will love a metroidvania, but if you just want to get straight through to the end, you might enjoy it more with a guide or by playing with a friend who’s paying attention. I didn’t care much about getting all of the power seals until I got the map and bought the upgrade to see the location of each one. As an adult, I don’t like to spend much time wandering in games like I did as a kid, so this convenience brought an extra level of satisfaction to the game that I would have otherwise skipped.
One of the most impressive things about The Messengers gameplay is how much opportunity there is to improve your skill while still feeling very accessible. That’s a priceless quality and I can see a lot of fun mechanics for speed runners such as using the rope dart to quickly grapple through lanterns and enemies or towards walls to save time. There is another deceptively subtle touch which is actually brilliant where you can swing your sword and quickly hit the direction opposite of the way you’re facing to make the blade sweep both sides. You can actually do this at least twice to make the blade hit 3 times, which I’d imagine could be very useful when combined with the Demons Bane technique. There is also the ability to do the underwater dash before jumping out of the water to get some extra horizontal speed and using the wingsuit attack on lanterns while gliding in an air current to get some major vertical speed. Similarly, jumping off of a moving platform can give you some extra velocity, which is fun to play around with. The way these moves can be combined together would qualify them as 'Versatile Verbs" which are described by the Game Maker’s Toolkit. I just got to the shrunken shrine and haven’t finished the game yet but hope that undocumented abilities like these are put to good use somewhere in the game.
I loved all of the well balanced boss fights in the first half of this game and started to miss that gameplay element during the metroidvania section. A few more bosses or mini bosses during the exploratory segment would have been an awesome way to keep things a little more exciting. Ideally, there would be some more challenging optional bosses and then required bosses would be kept at a similar challenge to most of the fights before the game opened up.
The Messenger actually felt a bit closer to a “metroidvania-lite” to me, although the excessive backtracking to get the tea definitely was drag that could have benefited from better unlock-able or hidden shortcuts than what was available. It probably didn’t take more than an extra 15 minutes, but it did mess up the pacing. One thing that keeps Super Metroid and Castlevania SotN interesting when back tracking is that there are still hidden upgrades to discover in the levels. Super Metroid had the health, missile, and bomb upgrades (plus a couple super cool beam upgrades) while SotN had a variety of weapons, shields, gear, a few familiars, abilities, and stat upgrades. Another way to make backtracking more interesting would be to change something when revisiting an area after an event, even something as small as getting the tea leaf in this case. Examples would be changing the enemies, level aesthetic, level geometry, character appearance and abilities, gravity, lighting, music, or ideally, all of them at once or adding one change each time you return (which I don’t recall seeing done in other games.)
One thing to add is that I loved the mid-game twist where you dawn the cloak to become the shopkeeper. Getting scolded by the guy who already acts like he thinks you’re an idiot (but didn’t bother to tell you this part) for not knowing to keep tabs on the new messenger and failing to send Quarble when he dies was a hilariously creative plot device. The timing, animation, and dialogue of that scene as well as the rest of the game is extremely well done. I often find myself wanting to skip the text in most games these days, but the text in The Messenger was a joy to read - even when repeatedly checking out the closet when the shopkeeper was away or listening to his stories, all of which could be profound if given enough thought. I think the developers intentionally wrote the dialogue to be entertaining for people who are tired of reading stale old cliches found in most video game dialogue. I also have to point out that the music is absolutely fantastic and I wouldn’t ask for anything more than the great tracks that were included. I’m enjoying The Messenger immensely so far and I really hope Sabotage Studio makes another game in the same genre - especially if they incorporate a few of my suggestions