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The Messenger

I’d been shrugging off the hype surrounding The Messenger for quite some time. I thought it was “yet another Ninja Gaiden” pain-inducing simulator which I wasn’t all too fond about enduring. Turns out, I was wrong. And good thing at that, too, because The Messenger is a cracking good adventure.

Ninjas are masters of disguise. All good ninjas know looks can be deceiving and The Messager is no exception. What at first seems like an innocent arcade port to the NES evolves into so much more as you progress through the game. I won’t say more (although reviews and the Steam page already spoil it a bit), but suffice to say this is no ragequit-difficulty platformer.

At first glance, The Messenger gameplay appears much like an authentic 8-bit arcade experience, most notably like Ninja Gaiden, a game famed for its incredibly punishing difficulty. A few hours with the game, however, showed that while the early game has its fair share of platforming, it’s not quite as sadistic about it. The death system is generous – there are no lives or continues, death merely sets you back to the last checkpoint. There is a toll in the form of a helpful demon who will eat a set amount of gems you collect after your grisly death, as a form of compensation for saving your ass. The upside to this is that you never actually lose your existing gems.

Later on, the game does begin to amp up the challenge more significantly, and you are at some point expected to have a pretty solid grip on your abilities to get around. This is sometimes combined with the classic “pass a particularly difficult room or two, die, have to repeat the two rooms, die, repeat ad infinitum” problem. Mostly, though, difficult segments are spaced out between checkpoints so this sort of malarkey is relatively infrequent. It’s only near the final phase of the game that you get some particularly sanity-bending challenges – though these are limited to the optional green collectibles.

Your crouching-dragon style “cloud step” ability is the most critical of your movement tools, and the one which you begin the game with. Any time you hit an enemy or a candle, you can jump again. This is a clever way to subvert the typical double-jump feature of most metroidvanias and it works better than it sounds on paper. Get it right and you can continuously jump, and slash enemies, barely touching the ground. Indeed, the game will expect this from you later on, so it’s best to get used to the ability from the outset.

There are a number of new abilities that you gain as you progress the story, which expand upon your cloud-step. This includes the typical ninja ability to climb walls (as all ninjas do, natch) and later, to glide across particularly long spike pits, among others. Most of these are essential to your progress, but there are also optional upgrades available at shops which infrequently appear at certain checkpoints, adding power like raising your defense or health.

With a stronger focus on plot and the inclusion of an upgrade system, one would anticipate something a lot more like a metroidvania. But it’s not quite a metroidvania in the purest of sense. When you begin The Messenger it retains a stage-based level approach of which the levels are linear in nature. When you start, there is no open exploration or world-map to deal with. At this point, the most fitting comparison would be to the excellent Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, as the two seem to follow very similar philosophies in approaching their adventures.

Having said all that, there’s more. Much more. The Messenger goes beyond the veil once you reach a certain point – introducing new elements into play that significantly expand upon its base. However, at the risk of selling the game short, I’ll refrain from elaborating further – it’s much more exciting to discover it yourself as you progress.

Perhaps then, I’ll simply put it this way: the first part of The Messenger is already a cracking good time. Whether you even progress past the first “phase” of the game or not, there’s a good number of enjoyable hours to be had, that it’s really a worthwhile experience on its own. And if you are curious but wondering whether there is more to the game than meets the eye, rest assured that, yes, indeed there is. (and if you really need to cheat, just check out the post tags for some hints)

The Messenger | buy on steam

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Gun Princess 2

Every now and then I get a flash memory of some old obscure freeware indie game I played way back and decide to re-find it in the dusty corners of the interwebs.

I downloaded Gun Princess 2 and spent quite a bit of time re-exploring it. Then I realised I’ve never actually played Gun Princess 2 at all. Whoops. Lucky then, it turned out to be quite good.

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Aground

Mining the internet for a decent survival/crafter game these days is much like the process of mining in the games themselves: an increasingly tedious grind of repetition that requires ridiculous amounts of resources to cobble together even the simplest of shelters before you die of dehydration, starvation and, possibly, boredom.

Thank the pixel gods that Aground chose not to choose life; it chose something else. It brings out that obsessive pleasure from mining an entire island into a gaping hole in the ocean, without taking so long about getting around to letting you do it at ridiculous speeds with power tools.

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Aggelos (full release)

We took a look at Wonderboy in Monsterworld-a-like Aggelos way back in early 2016. Now the full game is out. My how the time flies… Coincidentally, it flies just like you will fly, double jump and air dash your way through Aggelos.

I’ve spent a few hours meditating in an elemental chamber after playing the game, and now I’m ready to put cosmic thoughts to the mediocrity of the digital page.

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Nogalious

Nogalious is yet another game that promises to bring back the golden era of 8-bit gaming. Hear, hear, I say. Unfortunately, they were referring less to something like The Legend of Zelda and more something akin to Elf. I enjoyed playing around with it, but in its current state, it felt as confusing to play as it is to spell.

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Mortal Manor

Mortal Manor bids itself as a Metroidvania, but also wants to stand out with a different approach to gameplay. Fortunately, this includes a vast sprawling world and tons of weapons to collect. Unfortunately, the approach also includes instadeaths and enemies that are as annoying as %*#&.

Any indie gem has rough edges and I’m not going to sugarcoat it – Mortal Manor‘s edges are about as smooth as rock golem’s butt. For those with the same sort of patience as an eternal being, though, there’s a massive game here, crammed with varied areas and bursting with weapons, relics and secrets to find.

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Chasm (demo)

We cover a lot of demos and alphas and the like here, and while the demos provide decent entertainment, pretty much none of them over the last three years have since seen the light of day as a full release. So here’s a demo for a metroidvania that is due for release in just one month. Oh, but it’s been in development for six years.

Chasm promises the usual metroidvania fare, and while it certainly is polished with all the right founding ingredients in place, the demo, which turns out to be from the dark ages of 2013, left me feeling a little uninspired.

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New Retro Picks: Steam Summer Sale #2

With a few days left, time to slip in another set of picks for the Steam Summer sale.

Last time I pointed out a bunch of games I largely already owned or ended up buying and playing due to the sale, that turned out decent enough. This time, I’m pointing out some games that I haven’t yet played, and probably games that most people have never heard of – so this is a good chance to discover some new obscure games.

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New Retro News: Steam Summer Sale

The Steam Summer Sale is currently on, running until July 5th, so another 10 days or so from this post, which means plenty of time to grab some bargains.

When 25 of my wishlisted items appeared on sale in my inbox, it was both a blessing and a curse for my wallet. I mean, sure, I spent a lot, but at these savings, it’d be losing money not to buy… uh, right? Double-mortgage aside, given the massive number of games on sale I thought this would be a good time to shortlist a few New Retro Games Staff picks.

Thimbleweed Park (40% off, ~12EUR)

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An old-school adventure game throwback by Monkey Island brigand Ron Gilbert himself, Thimbleweed Park kind of gets thrown as Maniac Mansion meets Twin Peaks. Perhaps not totally inaccurate, but… to me, it feels a bit more like Zakk McKracken meets Twin Peaks.

The general impressions of the game were positive, and although while perhaps not hitting the highs of his earlier affairs, Thimbleweed seems to be offering some solid adventure so far. It sports some damn beautiful classic pixel artwork, and the five character + inventory swapping puzzles and bizarre town make it worth the discounted price for sure.

Cosmic Star Heroine (50% off ~8EUR)

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I took a look at Cosmic Star Heroine back in Jan, and while I did enjoy it, I also had somewhat mixed feelings about it. A callback to 16-bit SNES rpgs brimming with modern potential, CSH had an interesting fast-paced battle system and creative cast, each with their own unique skillsets, but it tended to burn through everything so fast that it was hard to really dig in to. I finished it, including every side quest and achievement, in 17 hours, and that was at a relaxed pace. Still, sometimes we don’t want to invest 100+ hours into a game, and for less than a tenner, it’s pretty cheap.

Darkest Dungeon (70% ~7EUR)

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This is a game I’d been on the fence about for a long time, persisting through numerous sales. The game brings some richly artistic flair to your dungeon crawling, mixed in with Dark Souls level punishing difficulty. As a fan of old-school dungeon crawls like the Gold Box games or even Nethack, this can be a good thing, but I also don’t quite have the patience I did those days. Nevertheless, at 70% off this sale convinced me to take the plunge and I can confirm that I have been enjoying the self-flagellation so far. Even playing on the (later patched in) easier mode, I find myself taking careful steps in combat and each trip feels suitably risky, yet rewarding. Worth the admission price, I think, even if you end up only spending 10 or so of the potentially dozens of hours the game offers.

Dungeon Warfare (66% off, ~3,50EUR)

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Dungeon Warfare is a relatively simple but strangely addicting reverse dungeon crawler/TD-style game. Being some sort of sentient evil entity, you decide to fill your dungeons with an assortment of traps to put a stop to the encroaching horde of money-grubbing do-gooders from the inconvenience of killing you. Where the game really excels, however, is how well these traps work together in unison, whether it be pushing peasants into spike pits or pulling knights into an endless pit. Playing with combinations is fun by itself, but the game actively rewards you for doing so, and it gets addicting fast.

There’s a disappointingly increasing trend for browser games and mobile games to try and go big time by releasing a PC port. However, most of the time the leaving in of a horrible UI, dumbed-down gameplay and, in some cases, confounding “freemium pay-to-win” model in the game smells richly of cash grab. Luckily, this is not the case for Dungeon Warfare. It did indeed start as a free browser game (and is still available), and the Steam version simply adds a bit of extra polish and content. This may seem “low effort”, but the game itself is solid, so while technically you can get enough enjoyment from the free version, for me this really was a case of throwing a few deserved bucks the developer’s way.

Legend of Grimrock 2 (60% off, ~9EUR)

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I bought this game for full price back in the day and still don’t regret it, even though it took me about 3 years to get around to finishing the thing. Grimrock 2 is an expertly-done modern take on the classic Dungeon Master crawl formula, and is also basically an improvement on its prequel in every way possible. If you like this sort of game at all, and don’t mind square dancing with giant turtles while unkillable air elementals push you into the water where a sea monster blocks the ladder while you drown to death, then hey, there’s no real reason not to get this.

Z-Exemplar (50% off, 2,50EUR)

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Taking the spot of one of our games of the year back when we did that sort of thing, Z-Exemplar is a solid, if sometimes unforgiving, classical horizontal-scrolling shoot ’em up harking back, as the name would suggest, to the days of the ZX Spectrum. What helps the game stand out from its inspirations is its solid weapons system, with tons of combinations to choose from, all characteristic from branching vines to lasers to orbs of death, and all upgradable. Better yet, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously and sports a lovely british sense of irreverent humour. There are also over 900 levels to non-linearly explore. They are all very short, taking around about 1 minute to beat, but goddam if that’s not insane. I am still nowhere near finishing the game.

Phew, that’s enough for now. I might try to throw together another list in a few days, because hot dam, if this isn’t a disturbingly enticing sale I don’t know what is.

 

Sigma-Finite Dungeon

The remarkable thing about zero-budget indie RPGs made by guys in their basement is that can compel us to still play them under the shadow of top quality million dollar triple-A ventures. Case in point: I recently acquired The Witcher III, and yet here I am, playing Sigma-Finite Dungeon. That’s not to say the Witcher isn’t great, because it is, but there’s always room to indulge in that sense of old-school satisfaction that pushing yet another pixelated goblin to its death in a spike trap elicits.

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Sigma-Finite Dungeon is an intoxicating mashup of Final Fantasy Tactics party-based battles with roguelike dungeon crawling, with a party to equip, skills to leverage, and monsters to slush. It’s not quite as deep as FFT or Nethack, but its tactical combat provides some solid satisfaction.

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